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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

West Bengal: Bye-Election Lessons

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Barun Das Gupta

The result of the ten bye-elections to the West Bengal Assembly held on November 7 has made several things clear. First, that the CPI-M’s political influence over the traditionally Left-minded people of the State is fading fast, its fear-some organisational strengh notwith-standing. Second, that Mamata Banerjee has emerged as the undisputed leader of the people’s struggle against the three-decade-old misrule of the CPI-M in the name of the Left Front. The battle is being and will continue to be fought under her leadership. The Congress can only play second fiddle to her. Third, that a very large segment of the traditional Left voters has deserted the CPI-M and gone over to the Trinamul Congress.

This last became quite clear in the poll results, especially in constituencies like Belglachhia (East) and Bongaon. And the CPI-M has only to thank itself for this. In the run-up to the bye-elections, the party stepped up its vituperative slander campaign against Mamata that went far beyond the domain of politics and became purely personal, often bordering on crude vulgarity.

Here are two samples. Former CPI-M MP Anil Bose, who has recently made himself notorious by his intemperate verbal attacks on Mamata (apart from his taking a leading role in organising physical attacks on the Trinamul workers and supporters by the party’s armed goons), said in public meetings that he could have “caught Mamata by her hair and dragged her all the way from Singur to her Kalighat (Kolkata) home” and that “her head is becoming smaller but her abdomen is getting bigger”. When a rickshaw-puller of Belgachhia East heard this on a TV, his instant reaction was: “If they can drag didi by the hair, then they can jolly well come to my house, strip my wife and drag her away.”

The CPI-M leaders thought that such vulgar personal attacks on Mamata would “tone up” the sagging morale of their rank and file. In the event, they failed to enthuse the workers but did alienate a large number of Left sympathisers who were just not prepared to stomach such obscenity and let it go unchallenged. The voters also did not swallow the ceaseless and high-voltage propaganda of the CPI-M that Mamata was in cahoots with the Maoists.

While the CPI-M managed to lose all the five seats it contested, the Trinamul Congress won all the seven it fought. In every seat it won, it impressively increased its margin of vicory. Five were held by it and two it wrested from the
CPI-M (Belgachhia East in Kolkata and Rajgunj in Jalpaiguri district in North Bengal). Both were very important victories.

In Belgachhia (East), which was held by the CPI-M’s popular Minister Subhas Chakraborty from 1977 onwards till his death this August, the CPI-M fielded his widow, Ramala, hoping
to exploit the “sympathy wave”. (The late Chakraborty’s funeral procession was joined by thousands of people at a time when his party’s popularity was touching the nadir and the party bosses took it as an indication of the people’s support for the party.) The Trinamul set up Sujit Bose, a one-time lieutenant of Chakraborty. In the event, Sujit defeated Ramala by a huge margin of 28,360 votes. And this, despite the poll turnout being as low as 49 per cent. The defeat caused panic in Alimuddin Street.

The second important Trinamul victory was at Rajgunge, a traditional CPI-M stronghold. Its candidate Khageswar Roy trounced the Marxist party’s Dhanapati Roy by a margin of 14,894 votes. In the 2006 Assembly polls the CPI-M’s Mahendra Roy defeated the Trinamul candidate by a margin of about 50,000 votes. The seat fell vacant on Mahendra Roy’s election to the Lok Sabha in May this year. This time the Trinamul not only made up for this deficit of fifty thousand but secured a lead of nearly fifteen thousand. This is indicative of the huge slump in the Left vote-bank in Bengal. With the Rajgunge victory, the Trinamul Congress opened its account in North Bengal which was until recently believed to be a Congress preserve.

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By contrast, the Congress lost the Goalpokhar seat to the Forward Bloc. But the Bloc’s fluke victory is widely believed to be due more to the strong reservations of Congressmen about Deepa Das Munsi rather than to a suddenly rising popularity graph of the Forward Bloc or the Left Front.

Deepa Das Munsi won the Goalpokhar seat in the 2006 Assembly elections, but this year she contested and won the Raigunj Lok Sabha seat. Thus the Goalpokhar seat fell vacant. But she managed to alienate many in her party by her alleged arrogance, her strong opposition to any electoral alliance of the Congress with the Trinamul Congress, and her antipathy for the Trinamul supremo. Despite this, the Trinamul and the Congress entered into an alliance to fight the Siliguri Municipal Corporation election in September. Of the 47 seats in the civic body, the Congress and the Trinamul won fifteen each, while the Left Front won seventeen.

But on her insistence, the Congress demanded both the posts of Mayor and Chairman. Naturally, this was not acceptable to the Trinamul. Then the Congress unilaterally went ahead and sought, in writing, the CPI-M’s support to form the Board. The CPI-M was quick to grab this opportunity of driving a wedge between its principal opponents. The Congress formed the Board with CPI-M support, keeping the Trinamul totally out. This did not go well with a large section of Congressmen, both locally and at the PCC level. Debaprasad Roy, a PCC Vice-President, resigned from his office in protest. The Trinamul cried foul and Mamata called it a “betrayal”.

Most Congressmen realise that without a close understanding and stable alliance with the Trinamul, it will not be possible to defeat and dislodge the CPI-M-led Left Front in the 2011 Assembly elections. And Deepa is seen as objectively helping the CPI-M by her obstructive tactics. Her oversize ego and her intolerance of Mamata, they feel, may seriously jeopardise electoral unity with the Trinamul. This anger and bitterness got reflected in the defeat of the Congress at Goalpokhar. Deepa herself has gone on record saying “sabotage” was responsible for the shock defeat.

But the big question is whether the CPI-M will take the necessary lessons and mend its ways and try to regain the confidence of the people. Hardly likely. The party’s leaders still maintain they are in the right and it is the people who are making a big mistake by supporting the Opposition. In fact, the rot in the CPI-M can no longer be stemmed. The party seems hell-bent on going down the path of defeat, disgrace and self-destruction. In olden days, in such a situation, when the party was fast getting isolated from the people (as during the BTR period of 1948-51), the undivided CPI would call a fresh party Congress, remove the discredited leaders, correct the wrong policies, chart a new course and elect a new leadership. But the CPI-M today is just incapable of ridding itself of “leaders” like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Biman Bose, Prakash Karat or Sitaram Yechury.

A great responsibility now devolves on Mamata Banerjee. Henceforth, she will have to think not only of 2011, but far beyond that when the State will be her charge. She will have to begin thinking, right from now, about the development strategy she will follow, the type of industrialisation programme she will adopt, the men she will have as her advisers in various fields and, above everything else, about the means she will have to improvise to insulate her party, then the ruling party, against the corruption and misuse of power which has been the undoing of the CPI-M and the Left Front.

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