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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 50, December 3, 2011

Left is Left Out

Friday 9 December 2011, by Samit Kar


May 13, 2011 happened to be an important day in the annals of the political history of West Bengal. The outcome of the State poll, which was published that day, made way for the exit of a 34-year-long rule of the Left Front. In the 2006 poll the Left Front got 235 seats of the total 294 in the State Assembly. This time the figure plummeted to an abysmal low of 61 in favour of the Left making way to the formation of a new State Government under the Trinamul Congress (TMC). Ever since the publication of the election results, the Left is engaged in a series of meetings in order to do soul-searching for this astonishing outcome. But most of the reasons which are reportedly being identified are not the moot reasons for debacle. Therefore, a rework on this vexed issue may be imperative.

Three major reasons were identified by various parties of the Left Front including the CPI-M. These are: arrogance of a section of the leaders and workers, loss of day-to-day contact with the common people, and the Singur and Nandigram issues relating to the acquisition of land for industrialisation. These issues are indeed of vital importance for the eclipse of the Left Front in West Bengal after such a long period. But the arrogance of a section of leaders and the Left workers’ gradual loss of contact with the common people and a faulty decision of the government harming the interests of a section of the people are not the major reasons of defeat as such allegations did prevail within a few years after the Left Front assumed office on June 21, 1977. On the contrary, the bankruptcy of the State Government, which was prominently highlighted by the media and the Opposition party, and the inability of the Left Government to provide the needed relief to the people at large were the basic reasons which made the arrogance of a section of leaders and workers unbearable for the common people.

THERE is a common saying: ‘One who has the ability does have the right to teach a lesson.’ When the Left Government was able to provide some relief to the people through the decentralised foray of governance like the Panchayats and the Municipalities, the people of West Bengal used to remain subdued in order to fulfil their survival necessities. They used to remain silent and subservient in spite of discernable arrogance among a section of the leaders and workers. The people used to feel that there is no valid point in entering into a quarrel with the crocodile when we need to stay in the water. But when the patrons became paupers, the people seemed to have lost their rationale and seeing this offensive mood at the grassroots the Left leaders have now started to feel after so many decades that some of their colleagues had become arrogant. This charge of arrogance seems to be echoing in various corridors of the Left which is quite curious to note.

Secondly, the self-assertion of the Left leaders that they have unknowingly distanced themselves from the common people is also not a valid point of argument from their viewpoint. After the expiry of two terms of office in 1987, the Opposition Congress party even with the active involvement of the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, along with Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the then President of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC), in the poll campaign could muster only 40 seats. Prior to the day of the poll outcome, Rajiv Gandhi and Das Munshi at a joint press conference did claim that the Congress would form the government with a thumping majority getting no less than 140 seats. Only three years before this State election the party was able to get 16 seats in the parliamentary election out of a total 42 seats in West Bengal. Just six months after that Lok Sabha poll, the civic poll was held in Kolkata in May of 1985 and the Left Front was able to just scrape through the total of 141 seats. This made a section of the Left leaders to be a little wary about the outcome of the State poll which did take place on March 23, 1987.

But the result was unthinkable for every member of the Left parties—the LF won a thumping victory. And from this point of time the patron-client relationship started to snowball between the leaders and the workers on one hand and the hapless common people on the other. The next two decades between 1987 and 2007 constituted a period when the Left Front had almost a cakewalk in polls, barring a few jolts.

From 1987 the Left leaders, irrespective of their political affiliations in the multi-party Left Front, became established patrons in various localities of West Bengal. The common people, the clients, used to visit these patrons for their needs in their day-to-day life. Such frequenting was necessary for the people’s survival. For example, a Gram Panchayat (GP) has its sway over a number of people who number around 25000. But the GP, the living link between the people and the rural administration, was ill-equipped with hardly four-five inefficient personnel. As a result, the Pradhan of a GP engaged his partymen to perform the task which was supposed to be rendered by the government. This made all the reform programmes thoroughly politicised and the common people were at the mercy of the respective political party holding the GP. Therefore, the contact between the Left party and the people was a one-way traffic. When the Panchayats were relatively cash-rich, the common people used to frequent them in dire necessity. But when the Panchayats became cash-strapped, the people found little reason to visit the leaders and workers. This was a major reason for the gradual weakening of contact between the leaders and the people. Therefore, this was not an event which happened all of a sudden. The bankruptcy of the State Government leading to a Rs 2 lakh crore deficit made various organs of the government less meaningful to the people and they deserted the places they once used to visit so often.

Thirdly, the land acquisition policy of the government of West Bengal relating to Singur and Nandigram is not at all an important issue as far as the recent poll debacle of the Left is concerned. Such mistakes with regard to policy prescription and policy implementation on behalf of the Left did happen many a time in the past leading to loss of human lives and property. The examples were plenty and some are mentionable; they included Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans, Katra Masjid in Murshidabad and Malopana in Malda district. But the land acquisition policy was not a brainchild of the Left and a compulsion was imposed on them due to the new economic policies the Government of India adopted in the 2001 Union Budget. This was particularly evident in the implementation of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) model for industrial rejuvenation. The people of West Bengal became vociferously opposed to the SEZs implemented by the Left. This agitation took a fierce turn due to the huge population density in West Bengal, the highest in India. However, SEZ is a model accepted by the Union Govern-ment. How can a State of a federal polity move out from the national policy? The policy is now being debated and a new Bill may be introduced in the future. But as on date SEZ is not illegal. It is also important to see the future prospect of industrialisation when 400 acres of land would be actually returned to the farmers of Singur. The resentment against the land policy of the Left became glaring as the Left already stands discredited unable to allay poverty and severe unemployment especially in the last one decade.

Against all these heavy odds, the people of West Bengal by not voting for the Left en masse had to tried to build an alternative forum of beneficiaries. They felt that in spite of a tremen-dous resource crunch, there is a fixity of the patron-client relationship over the decades. Whatever little was getting percolated was going to a select few owing allegiance to the Left or some powerful Left leaders. The majority of the deceived claimants remained outside the purview of the pre-determined beneficiary cordon. This simply became intolerable to the people of West Bengal who took a determined step to break these shackles of fixity in getting their due share of the cake. This is what may be called the destruction of the Left leading to the overthrow of the long Left rule.

Last, but not the least, there is one point which made the voters to go all out for anti-incumbency. Over three decades of Left rule, a more or less stable patron-client relationship had developed leading to fixity of a beneficiary cordon. The new voters felt that they need to develop an alternate beneficiary club with an alternate set of patrons. Otherwise they would be unable to fit in to get their due share. This made the new voters sound the death-knell of the Left to make the Left to lose relevance. Moreover, is it very unnatural for the people to vote en masse against a political combine at the helm for such a long time? Therefore, the Left should consider the mandate as a spontaneous outcome of the voter’s mind instead of attaching too much importance to the great debacle.

The author is an Associate Professor of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata.

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