Thinking about the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal Assembly elections, May 2011 May 23, 2011Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , trackback
On Friday, 12 May, the 34-year old local Kremlin in West Bengal, ruled by a Left Front, led by a Stalinist Communist Party, was pulled down by a straight-talking, straight-forward, simple woman from a lower middle class family of Kalighat, Kolkata. This woman is most unusual to Indian politics: she neither brings a family name to politics (as does Sonia Gandhi), nor did she have a political mentor (as did the dalit leader Mayavati). She is Mamata Banerjee, the leader of Trina Mool Congress (TMC). Soon, she will give up her job as the Railways Minister in the Central Government and walk into the Writers’ Buildings, the hub of government power in West Bengal, where she was pulled by the hair and thrown out in 1993 by the police for protesting in front of the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu’s, office. Although this was not the only time she was physically beaten by the hired goondas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) (Mamata’s head was fractured in 1991 by a CPI(M) thug), she will have a broad smile on her face when taking the chief ministerial seat, I am sure. This is because she has, at last, succeeded in her often single-handed, decades-long struggle to overthrow a Left Front that came to power in 1977 in a landslide victory. Politically, it is an important event. But it is more significant because, in the process of overthrowing the Communists, she has redefined contemporary Bengali ethnic identity, loosening the grip of the urban-based, dhoti-clad, intellectual middle class bhadralok ideologues on the state politics.
As noted, Mamata is exceptional among the female political leaders in India in that she has had no political mentor, no well-known political father, husband or brother, family connections or cash-rich parents. Unlike almost all other female political leaders, she neither dons super-expensive coarse clothes from Fabindia or Handloom House, nor does she wear a trademark red dot to proclaim herself as a protectorate of some male. Mamata has come up the political ranks, much like Julia Gillard, through student politics and became the General-Secretary of the All-India Youth Congress. In 1984, she was elected to the Parliament beating a veteran leader from the communist stronghold seat of Jadavpur in South Kolkata. The firebrand woman also speaks plainly, not the sophisticated tongue that one expects from a Bhadramahila, a typical genteel woman that a Bengali woman is generally expected to be, and is popularly known by the affectionate name ‘Didi’ – the elder sister – to all her followers in West Bengal.
In a conventional Bengali way, this way of addressing her brings Mamata closer to those who work for her. Thus, it is no wonder that her ‘Unique Selling Point’ was ‘Ma-Mati-Manush’ (Mother-Earth-People), her colour is green (as against the Communist red), and her numerous impromptu and organised speeches have all been about connecting with ordinary people with ordinary dreams. In fact, TMC stands for ‘Grassroots’ Congress and was established by her In 1997 when resigned from Congress, and established the party in retaliation to the lack of will of the then Congress party leaders in West Bengal to put up a real fight and for behaving like ‘water melons’ (green outside, but red inside), or as stooges of the CPI(M). During the last few years, as West Bengal’s politics focussed more on land, Mamata seized the political opportunity by putting up a strong opposition to the establishment of Special Economic Zones and forcible land acquisition for industrialization. She also took the opportunity of the poor recognition by the Left Front leaders of the pitiful state of lower castes and the Muslims in the West Bengal; issues that came to the fore from reports such as Pratichi (sponsored by the Nobel Prize winner economist, Professor Amartya Sen) and Sachaar Committee (set up by the Central Government). Muslims, for example, comprise 25 per cent of West Bengal’s population; they are, however, almost invisible in the public life of the state and are more heavily represented among the poor than in other states of India. Despite listing as many as a hundred ‘Other Backward Castes’ or OBC groups, the Left front had shied of exhausting the full quota of 27 per cent reservations. Thus, the Left Front continued play the violin of ‘class’, alienating the lower castes, Muslims and rural women voters moved away in anger from the Left ideology.
Land (and rights over land) indeed is at the heart of politics in riverine West Bengal. From the large, undivided Bengal (which in the days of the Bengal Presidency extended from Chittagong to upper Gangetic Plains), today’s West Bengal state has been carved out by repeatedly cutting it smaller and smaller. ‘Separatist’ movements are currently underway in several parts of the state. The small state has the highest density of population in India and one of the highest in the world. Historically, land came to be associated with great social power and prestige in Bengal. The importance of land in this state is rooted in a number of historical and geographical factors: the Permanent Settlement of 1793 (which created a gentry of absentee landlords), riverbank erosion, flooding and waterlogging in this ‘moribund’ part of Bengal delta, the decline in older industries such as jute and tea, the strategic location of the state, and the primacy of metropolitan Calcutta. Control over land – whether before or after the independence – thus became the key to social status and identity in rural areas. During the Partition of India, the state suffered immensely from refugee influx and poor resettlement of the streams of immigrants that continue unabated till today. The significance of giving land rights to peasants was well understood by the Communist Party in West Bengal. Throughout its history, it had tried to entrench its support-base in rural areas through peasant movements – from tebhaga andolan to bargadaar registration and the establishment of a functioning panchayat raj. At the same time, the Communist movement also spread its tentacles amongst the workers in the factories and the collieries. The educated middle classes of West Bengal joined new movements such as the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association and All Bengal (school) Teachers Association.
It, therefore, took most of the city-based intellectuals by surprise when the CPI(M) dominated Left Front used brutal police force to acquire land from small peasant farmers to assist capitalist groups and corporations for industrial development. The use of force reminded them of the vicious ways the radical Naxalbari movement was suppressed in early 1970s, and the anger came out in a number of spontaneous agitations in the last few years. These urban intellectuals put up a scathing critique of the ruling government for its poor track record of land grabbing in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh. But the frustration against the Left front did not remain concentrated only among the urban middle-classes. During the last decades of its existence, slow erosion of the new political power base in rural areas was unavoidable. This power base – the Left had thought – had been entrenched through land reforms, creating a ‘new middle-class’ in the villages. It is these rural voters, that everyone seemed to think have come to dominate the politics of rural West Bengal, who had turned away from the Left, washing away its three-and-a-half decades of rule. Ideological leaders who sat in Delhi and dictated state policies had no inkling of the tide that had risen against them. It is no wonder that the Left Front is now at a loss to explain the defeat.
Part of the explanation of its debacle can be sought in the schizophrenic identity that the Left Front developed over the years – bhadraloks ruling the Front, educated middle-class babus who were also radical ideologues, but who thought paternalistically about the rural areas purely as a voter base. As students in Calcutta University, we were taught about the vast ‘rural urban disparities’ in service delivery, amenities and other ‘indicators’ of economic development in West Bengal. These gaps have not reduced even after all these years. It still takes over six hours to reach Puruliya from Calcutta, a physical distance of only about 150 kilometres as the birds fly. A poor understanding of rural minds and aspirations neutralised the support base that the Leftists had built up in the rural areas. There is also a psychological and cultural distance between the primate city of Calcutta and the rest of West Bengal; Calcutta did and still does belong to a different time and way of life than the rural areas of the state. Anyone who has ever been exposed to popular Bengali cinema would instantly recognise the dichotomy I am referring to: while the villagers watched jatras on mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law struggles or films with names such as ‘Please don’t wipe away my sindoor’ (the red symbol of a married woman)’, the sophisticated Chief Minister set up a cultural hub in Nandan to indulge in cerebral films and hobnob with culture-vultures. As a result, the Left Front not only failed to bridge the rural-urban gap but enhanced the cultural disparity by entrenching a bhadralok rule from Kolkata and by detaching itself from the growing aspiration of rural ‘masses’. The tamasha intensified just before the elections over the public denigration of Mamata as a prostitute and offending comments by CPI(M) leaders on the lack of sindoor on her forehead.
It will be a mistake to see this triumph as purely a ‘negative vote’ against the CPI(M), against the misrule and the gaping distance of its leaders from the ordinary people. Neither are politicians of West Bengal more corrupt than in the rest of India, nor does the CPIM policies – whether in acquiring land from the poor farmers or in wooing foreign industrialists – very much different from the neoliberal policies being followed by the rest of India. What set the Left Front apart was its continuous effort to exert control over peoples’ minds, to dictate ways of behaviour, to tell them what was right and what was not, moral from immoral, and to decide what is ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’ and what is not. In its three-and-a-half-decades of rule the CPI(M) has come to exert a ‘vice-like grip’ on all segments of the society. During my years of living and working as a single mother in semi-rural West Bengal, I collected enough personal experience of extreme social and political harassment by the CPI(M). I experienced firsthand how a system based on favouritism and party allegiance took over meritocracy in the state’s reputed institutions of higher education. On a personal level, I could possibly also share stories of harassment, shaming, smearing and slandering, and silencing of many others, women and men, who at one time might have been genuine believers in either nationalist or Communist ideology. In the sordid culture that the CPI(M) nurtured, personal agency was put under suspicion; sarcastic and snide remarks made by those in power turned ordinary individual’s reputation to dust, turned her into persona non grata and broke her morale. I witnessed how an elitist middle-class scrapped English from primary education for the public and sent their children to expensive English-medium schools and then to foreign universities. They did so while the overall literacy rates declined in the state; higher education stagnated as more and more students left the state for education in other states. As the very associations that brought people together against exploitation turned into arenas of malice and strongholds of vested power, dedicated members and supporters left the party from bitter disillusionment and disappointment. These are not new, similar stories have been told by many others; and the modus operandi of silencing has been immortalised in the Bengali proverb: ‘Congress hate mare, CPM bhate mare’ (the Congress took life, but the CPM destroys one’s livelihood).
However tsunami-sized it might have been, the wave of ‘paribartan’ (change) could not have toppled the bastion unless the Left Front had become internally hollow. As in the USSR, the demise of the Left Front marks an ignominious end to an egalitarian ideology and glorious radical struggle that ushered significant social, political and economic changes for the benefit of the poor. However, the future remains uncertain; a complete hegemony of the CPI(M) prevented the flourishing in the state of an alternative leftist movement. It will take a long time for alternatives to emerge as the former ‘dissidents’ come together to appear as a political force. It is unlikely, in my view, that the CPI(M) will ever return to power, at least in its present structure and organisation. Two things have already started: violent political skirmishes among groups and party members working at the grassroots where neighbourhood Kremlins and fortresses have been built with donation money and stocked with arms, and the exodus of high-level politically appointed executives who failed to deliver. What the party now needs to do is to rebuild, restructure and reinvent itself in view of contemporary reality rather than hanging on to the history of radical politics. It needs to take a long and hard look at itself; something that several ‘dissidents’ had suggested earlier, only to be ousted from party membership. Such a complete overhaul from the bottom-up will need the departure not only of the defeated Chief Minister, but a whole lot of other major and minor leaders.