West Bengal, where the Communist Party-led Left Front alliance has held sway for the past 30 years, faces a crucial election this spring—and it’s a poll whose consequences could reverberate across the nation’s politics.
The ruling left-wing coalition in the state is facing an unprecedented challenge from local party the Trinamool Congress. Spearheading this challenge is its mercurial, populist leader, Mamata Banerjee, who also serves as railways minister in the national government.
Things certainly don’t look good for the Left Front regime. In recent years, in both municipal and village council elections, the left has lost its majority to the Trinamool-Indian National Congress nexus, and it may now be about to lose its stranglehold over the politics of the state altogether.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So what’s behind the loss of its political base, and what could this mean for politics at the national level?
Several factors have contributed to a growing sense of disillusionment amongst the state’s electorate. First, the Left Front has to contend with an anti-incumbency sentiment fuelled by the fact that a sizeable portion of new voters with no memory of the tumultuous days of the Maoist, Naxalite violence that gripped the state—and the crude authoritarian response of the Congress government in the 1970s—have simply lost faith in the Left Front.
In addition, the public has also become disillusioned with the Communist-led alliance’s ability to make progress on education, health care and employment in the state. This question of employment is related to a second problem the ruling regime faces, namely the de-industrialization of the state. This has been spurred on by the free rein given to unions early on, combined with the discriminatory policies of the central government. As a result of these factors, industry has fled the state, employment growth has petered out and a radicalized work force has exacted a significant price in productivity.
It’s true that when faced with the ensuing economic decline, the Left Front eventually tried to change course in the 1990s, tamping down strident unionism in an effort to woo investment. However, it was in no position to effectively contain the unions that it had spawned and abetted.
Even where it has tried to act, the alliance has faced problems. To its credit, the Left Front pioneered land reforms in India—reforms that gave sharecroppers and peasants a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, the Left Front failed to build on the success of the initial reforms. (One example was its failure to create rural cooperatives to market produce, meaning there was little increase in incomes, which resulted in smallholders again being pushed into the arms of the old moneylenders and middlemen.)
But the Left Front’s failures were not just those of omission. Not content with control over the levers of state, the alliance sought to dominate both political and civic society in rural Bengal. Such dominance made meaningful political opposition practically impossible, with Left Front cadres sometimes physically stifling dissent, and in some cases even driving rural challengers from their homes.