ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Calcutta Diary

Whether the complaints and accusations against the Left Front have any objective basis or not, they have left their mark on the psyche of West Bengal's urban electorate. The non-fulfilment of popular expectations, the swelling number of unemployed registered with the employment exchanges, the shift of sentiment in the refugee belts, suspicion about the proliferation of corruption amongst Left leaders and cadres much in the manner it did amongst Congressmen in the earlier decades, the disillusionment with socialist ideology following the debacle in eastern Europe, and the glamour of life and living in western countries as broadcast by the satellite television channels have gradually led to a steady fall in Left Front support in the urban and semi-urban pockets in the state. Much of what is happening at this moment, the Calcutta Corporation election outcome included, is a reflection of these developments.

Twenty-three years is a pretty long time, and the Left Front government in West Bengal could not have expected that, from now on, there will not be plenty of boulders on the way. Errors of both omission and commission on its part have inevitably piled up. To be candid, the worst charge that can be levelled against the Front – and the CPI(M) – is that, at the end of these 23 years, they have succeeded in creating the demon of a formidable opposition led by a street-smart demagogue of a woman with not one trace of scruples. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, she is the talk of the town. The newspapers, by and large rabidly anti-Left, have discovered in her a goddess-like figure. In their view, she can do no wrong, and her lapses are carefully hidden from the glare of the public eye. So is the case with television. She is an instinctive indulger in terminological inexactitudes, but, so what, the media do not mind, nor does a very considerable section of the urban community. After nearly two and a half decades of the Left Front regime, several of its weaknesses have shown up. The Front’s achievements in the rural belt are of a considerable order, a fact which is confirmed by the overwhelming support it continues to receive from the countryside. In the last assembly elections held in 1996, the Front actually lost a majority of the urban constituencies; this was however more than made up by the solid support it received in the rural constituencies. To be honest, the Left Front, which is basically the CPI(M) – the rest of the partners of the coalition play merely a decorative role – has not been able to provide a particularly competent and efficient administration in the state. In the villages, the implementation of the Operation Barga programme, accompanied by the establishment of a three-tier panchayati set-up based on adult suffrage and a very sharp rise in the allocations for rural development in the state budget, has yielded remarkable dividends. It is an altogether different story in the urban areas. Largely on account of the union government’s deliberate policy of starving the eastern zone of funds which could cater to speedy industrialisation with resulting increase in employment, economic growth never picked up in the urban sector. The need here is for chunky investment which banks and other financial institutions are in a position to provide. But they are under the union government’s control. Because of the not-so-unnatural apprehensions about communist intentions on the part of private industrialists, a large exodus of capital took place from West Bengal even as the influence of the CPI(M) burgeoned in urban pockets and trade union centres during the first three decades following independence. That trend has persisted. The upshot has been inability of the Left Front government to create a strong base for infrastructural and industrial growth in non-rural West Bengal. It is also often forgotten that as much as three-quarters of the financial burden consequent upon the steady flow of migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan in the post-partition period had to be borne by the state government unlike in the case of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The cumulative effect was predictable: while the concentration of population has intensified in the urban areas, growth and employment have stagnated.

A lot of expectation had been built up that the CPI(M) would be able to reverse the situation on its assumption of office in 1977. The Left Front government started in fine fashion. Because of its very significant initiatives in the rural sector, the goodwill for it sustained for some while, which compensated for its failings on the industrial front. As the years rolled by, a new generation came into the picture though. They had no memory of the frightening Emergency days, nor were they at all aware of the long, arduous and selfless struggles the CPI(M) had engaged in to advance the interests of the proletariat and the middle classes. The greatest beneficiaries of its activities have been workers, teachers, students, refugees, mercantile and public sector employees, etc. All this proved to be of limited advantage to the party as time passed. The external circumstances also underwent a qualitative change. The collapse of the Soviet Union rendered many of the urban population disillusioned with the notion of a collectivist society. There was a time when communists boasted that one-third of the global population lived under the socialist sky. That claim was exposed as hollow once the people’s democratic republics in east Europe came down like a house of cards. The disenchantment with socialist precepts and practice spread in this country too. West Bengal could not be kept immune from that influence.

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