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The message from Bengal

By Sumit Bhattacharya
May 11, 2006 17:19 IST
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At a polling booth in South Kolkata, during the third of the five-phase state assembly election, a police officer was chatting with voters in the queue. A Central Reserve Police Force jawan, straddling his SLR rifle, asked the police officer to get going. According to the Election Commission's directives, the state police was not to have anything to do with security around the polling booths.

The police officer ignored the CRPF jawan with a smile. The jawan slapped him in full view of the voters; the police officer beat a hasty retreat.

It was this kind of security that made this election an unprecedented affair in West Bengal, that had the CPI-M bristling before the polls, that ensured the assembly election in West Bengal were as free and fair and peaceful as they can get.

The Left Front has swept the election just like it had vowed to. Not only is it set to win more seats than it did in 2001 (199), it has done better than 1996.

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What follows naturally, is a bitter pill for those who believed that the CPI-M has clung onto power in West Bengal only through rigging. It is time to accept the reality of mass support for the Left Front in West Bengal.

"I was not at all worried about the outcome. Had I been worried, I would have come to the office before the start of counting," was CPI-M State Secretary Biman Bose's reaction when asked about the results.

It was typically CPI-M. So are the other reactions from Left leaders like 92-year-old former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu: "It was a reflection of people's faith in our policies and we hope that the Opposition will cooperate with the government in its good work and play a responsible role."

What is following in Kolkata and Bengal is also typically CPI-M, with sloganeering and vermillion.

Bengal: The writing is on the wall

But what is hidden in the numbers is the message that had the Opposition been not so disunited -- though there was a sort of informal cobbled coalition at the grassroots -- this assembly election could have been a very different story.

One pointer to that lies in the margins. Transport and Sports Minister Subhas Chakraborty, one of the CPI-M's electoral heavyweights, won his Belgachia East seat by only 1,744 votes. Of course there were exceptions like Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who won by 58,000 votes from his Jadavpur constituency, but overall the margins are thin.

But what is the secret of the Left Front's success in West Bengal? The answer is that the CPI-M's organisation at the grassroots is unparalleled in the country.

Even in the remotest of villages, you will find a red flag and people who will talk of Tiananmen Square as a counter-revolutionary attempt by America. Talk to them about the lack of development and employment opportunities and they will chorus an answer drilled into them with the discipline of an army: 'The Centre does not give West Bengal funds.'

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Another reason for the mass base of the party is that in mofussil and rural Bengal, the CPI-M is the best career move you can make. The party takes care of its cadres. And it is omnipresent. Be it a property dispute or a school service commission job, you have to approach the CPI-M if you want your way, or the posting of your choice.

In West Bengal's villages, 'party' means only the CPI-M. The district level CPI-M workers have a quip for other parties: 'They are like relatives, they come only on occasions (elections). We are family.'

The TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor is also very, very active in Bengal. The educated middle-class do look at Mamata Banerjee, hitherto the only claimant to the title of Opposition heavyweight, as a sort of rustic rabble-rouser. Her support base is the urban poor, who have borne the brunt of the CPI-M and Budhhadeb Bhattacharya's self-confessed capitalist swing.

So unless the Opposition tackles the CPI-M at the grassroots -– which the Trinamool did try after its 2001 boost, and the resultant bloody battles scarred places like Keshpur in West Midnapore -– Bengal will continue to be a red fortress.

Interestingly, so far as results available at presstime show, Kolkata has not really shown a substantive swing towards the CPI-M. And Kolkata has been the party's Achilles' heel for a while now. Most of Chief Minister Bhattacharya's reform wave has been aimed at the capital.

So, if -- and that is a big if -- Kolkata does not show a substantial embracing of the Left, maybe it would be wrong to call this landslide mandate a victory for Bhattacharya's 'new Communism'. It is just the victory of the CPI-M's old organisational strength.

Also see
Complete coverage: The Five State Fight

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Sumit Bhattacharya