Comrades Hit Where it Hurts in Bengal Panchayat Polls

In addition to the Left's across-the-board setbacks in the West Bengal panchayat elections, the significance of the outcome is that the comrades have been hit where it hurts the most. As a result, any claim that it still controls the majority of the local bodies - 518 of the zilla parishads, for instance, against the opposition's 230 - will not dispel the gloom in the Communist camp.

The reason for the dismay is that the Left has suffered serious setbacks in Nandigram and Singur, the two previously unknown areas which have acquired nationwide notoriety because of the resistance put up by peasants against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government's industrialisation policy.

The Left's nervousness is understandable since it had won a comprehensive victory in the assembly elections two years ago. Now, it can no longer be sure of repeating the feat in the general elections. Evidently, all its tall claims of having stalled the centre's "anti-people" neo-liberal policies and valiantly battling US "imperialism" haven't made any impact.

Not surprisingly, Left Front chairman Biman Bose, who is also secretary of the state unit of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), has wondered whether the "arrogance, ego and deviations" of the comrades were responsible. Clearly, the earlier dismissive references by the commissars to the motley combination against them from the extreme Left to the extreme Right - Maoists to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - haven't cut any ice.

How the opposition has gained can be seen from the rise in its numbers of seats from 90 in the zila parishads in 2003 to 230 this time, in the panchayat samitis from 45 to 140 and in the gram panchayats from 917 to 1,463.

In contrast, the Left's share has slumped from 622 in the zilla parishads five years ago to 518 this time, from 284 in the panchayat samitis in 2003 to 189 now, and from 2,303 to 1,633 in the gram panchayats.

The Left's defeat was fairly comprehensive in East Midnapur district, where Nandigram is located, as its tally of zilla parishad seats slumped from 50 five years ago to 17 this time. In contrast, the Trinamool Congress, which spearheaded the drive against the setting up of a chemical hub in Nandigram, won 35 seats against two in 2003.

Given this outcome, it is easy to understand why the CPI-M was so eager to establish its hold on the area by sending in its armed cadres to oust the followers of opposition parties, who had "occupied" the area after driving out the Marxist supporters. The CPI-M's action had caused outrage across the country, as the police had been made inactive in a political-administrative ploy reminiscent of the Gujarat riots of 2002.

But evidently, the tit-for-tat "reoccupation" didn't help the CPI-M, which will now have to deal with a rejuvenated opposition comprising the Trinamool Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind along with the Maoists who mostly operate underground.

In Hooghly district, where Singur is located, Mamata Banerjee's party has forged ahead, suggesting that she has been able to consolidate her success in the area during the assembly elections of 2006.

What portents this success of hers holds for the plan of the Tatas to set up their small car factory in Singur is unclear because the Trinamool Congress leader is known to be highly impulsive.

Having succeeded in first scuttling the chemical hub project in Nandigram and then winning the panchayat elections there and scoring huge successes elsewhere, she may opt to torpedo one of the state government's most ambitious projects since she has always maintained that the Tatas can build their factory in some other district, such as an arid area like Purulia.

The Trinamool Congress is also not unaware that its success is not only a setback for the CPI-M, but also a personal blow to the chief minister, who has set great store by his desire to revive the state's moribund economy. Towards this end, he has even openly endorsed the concept of capitalism - a stand that is nothing short of a heresy for a communist.

It goes without saying that it isn't only the opposition which will be delighted by the latest outcome, but also the Left Front's partners like the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc, which have been uneasy from the start about the state government's wooing of the private sector.

Now, they can say that such "anti-people" policies have undermined the Left's position at the grassroots level, where it claimed to have struck deep roots via its land reforms programmes and the empowerment of local bodies. The RSP and the Forward Bloc will also be secretly pleased that the blow to Big Brother will make the Marxists less abrasive than before. Evidence of the CPI-M's "arrogance" and "ego" was available from the clashes between its followers and those of the RSP and the Forward Bloc in the run-up to the polls.

Apart from the Left's reverses in Nandigram and Singur, the fact that it lost ground in South 24 Parganas district, one of the three districts where the Salim group of Indonesia has plans to acquire 40,000 acres of farm land to set up Special Economic Zones, means that the industrial policy has come under a cloud.

Following the outcome, the CPI-M will be wary not only of an emboldened opposition and its own disgruntled allies but also of the fact that the Muslim voters may be turning against it. One reason for this is that a high percentage of the peasants hit by acquisition of land for industries are Muslims.

Against the background of these reverses, the Left's, and particularly the CPI-M's, overall prospects in the general elections look grim.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at 


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