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.
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.
As a result of all this, rural voters are now increasingly throwing in their lot with the Trinamool Congress (a shift that has prompted violent inter-party clashes across the state). The Left Front’s problems are being compounded by the fact that many of those who had grown used to feeding at the patronage trough—especially younger voters—are bolting from the party now that the revenues used to dole out favours are drying up.
Sadly for the Left Front, recent policy changes the party has introduced have only further dimmed its prospects for the upcoming poll. About three years ago, current Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya started trying to attract industrial investment through a policy of rural land acquisition. However, his local acolytes proceeded to do so in an uncomfortably high-handed fashion which, not surprisingly, spurred local discontent. Banerjee, sensing an opportunity, swiftly mobilized those who were unhappy with the proposals and succeeded in driving away a multi-billion dollar investment plan from the town of Singur, where one of India’s most powerful industrial conglomerates, Tata, had planned to open a car plant to manufacture the Nano.
And, intent on firming up her political base in her home state, Banerjee is in no mood to concede any ground now. Indeed, her party has sought to fuel the discontent, while itself failing to spell out viable alternative policy options. Still, unless the Left Front can produce something that’s increasingly looking like it would be an electoral miracle, and restore the faith of the rural electorate, defeat this spring is almost certain.
So what are the implications of a Left Front defeat? At a state level, disillusioned voters might be hoping in vain if they expect any relief through turfing out the alliance. Banerjee has demonstrated her skills as an agitator and a propagandist, but as railway minister she hasn’t shown any great aptitude for overhauling the tired infrastructure of India’s vast railway network. Nor has she undertaken any imaginative or innovative steps toward improving the quality of service. It’s far from clear, then, that she’ll be able to find novel means for attracting investment to West Bengal, overhaul its slack administrative machinery and address the yawning gaps in the state’s physical infrastructure.
The implications for India’s national politics, on the other hand, could be significant.
A loss of a key stronghold for the Communists would dramatically reduce their already dwindling significance in India’s national politics, although it could correspondingly make them even more strident as they resist being completely marginalized. Such a turn would, of course, make India’s fractious national politics even more divided and render policy formulation even more difficult than it already is.
That said, with no single party holding a clear-cut majority at the national level, the parliamentary process has become increasingly unwieldy, and has frequently ended in deadlock. It’s possible, therefore, that an electoral rout for the Communists could lead to some genuine ideological soul searching, and maybe a less doctrinaire approach to both state and national politics.
Such fundamental change will require the leadership to convince rank and file members of the critical need to adapt to changed political circumstances. If the Communists and their allies can do this, then they could still have a viable future in opposition, both nationally and in West Bengal. Either way, the upcoming elections in the state could prove to be a pivotal moment for the entire country.
Shibashis Chatterjee is an associate professor of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Calcutta and a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington. Sumit Ganguly is professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University.