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Left Front's Electoral Victory in West Bengal

Based on a field study of two constituencies in West Bengal, one rural and one urban, this article explores the social dynamics that have shaped the successive electoral victories of the Left Front in West Bengal. In the rural constituency, a particular alignment of class forces is still driving the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people, who constitute more than 40 per cent of the population and are principally agricultural labourers, to support the LF. In the urban constituency, where the LF has been alienated from the working class quite some years ago, its victory in the assembly elections was more dependent on the division of votes between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.


Left Front’s Electoral Victoryin West Bengal

An Ethnographer’s Account

Based on a field study of two constituencies in West Bengal, one rural and one urban, this article explores the social dynamics that have shaped the successive electoral victories of the Left Front in West Bengal. In the rural constituency, a particular alignment of class forces is still driving the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people, who constitute more than 40 per cent of the population and are principally agricultural labourers, to support the LF. In the urban constituency, where the LF has been alienated from the working class quite some years ago, its victory in the assembly elections was more dependent on the division of votes between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.


n an article on the astounding seventh consecutive election victory of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (LF) in West Bengal, a reputed commentator on contemporary West Bengal has raised an important question.1 Is it true that the people of West Bengal have voted for the LF with the hope for industrialisation and change? Have they actually rendered their support in favour of investments of Indian and foreign capitalists, the growth of the IT sector, multiplexes, flyovers and shopping malls? As the latest election results show, the ruling LF has received more support in rural Bengal than in urban areas where the above-mentioned changes are taking place. The LF’s share in polled votes has marginally reduced from 43.67 per cent in 2001 to 43.63 per cent in 2006 in Kolkata city, while its share of votes is more than 50 per cent in the predominantly rural districts of South Dinajpur, Hooghly, Bardhaman, Birbhum, Bankura, Purulia, East and West Medinipur. On another count, out of the 49 urban constituencies situated in Greater Kolkata, which includes parts of Howrah, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas,

the LF has won in 32 seats in this election. Had the main opposition parties – the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress Party – been united to avoid a division in the anti-LF votes as they had done in the 2001 election, the LF’s share of seats in these constituencies could have been just 17, which is even less than the 24 seats they had won in 2001. Obviously, the election results do not indicate much of a swing in urban votes in favour the LF’s much-trumpeted industrialisation slogan.

Many, indeed, argue that the LF has contested this election basing principally on the slogan of development or, to put it more concretely, industrialisation. A widespread campaign was launched by the incumbent coalition before this election to project its success in industrialisation, next to its performance in agriculture. There was a rush at the ministerial level to invite foreign and Indian industrialists to West Bengal. Consequently, the debate over acquisition of agricultural lands for the purpose of setting up industry was just gathering storm when the election was declared. But there is hardly any indication that the rural masses have been significantly influenced by this slogan of industrialisation, the propaganda for which was mainly centred in the city areas. Rather the village people were apprehensive of losing their agricultural land wherever land acquisition moves were made. For example, the LF has faced defeat in Bhangar of South 24 Parganas district for the first time since 1977, where attempts were made to acquire agricultural land for industry before this election. (Notably, in the last three assembly elections, the CPI(M) won this constituency with a margin of more than 20,000 votes.)2 Immediately after the new ministry was sworn in, the visit of a Tata Motors’ team to the agricultural fields of Singur in Hooghly district was marred by the farmers’ agitation over land acquisition to set up a car factory there.

How does one then begin to understand and interpret the recent electoral victory of the LF in West Bengal, which is based on the support it still draws from the rural masses? According to the election results, the LF’s support is stronger in the south Bengal districts of Hooghly, Bardhaman, Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia, Purba Medinipur and Paschim Medinipur where it got an average 54.6 per cent of the polled votes. While in the state as a whole, the LF has secured 235 of the total 294 seats, i e, almost 80 per cent of the seats, in north Bengal, it has bagged 37 out of 49 seats

(75.5 per cent), the corresponding figure in south Bengal being 166 out of 196 seats

(84.7 per cent). Moreover, if we consider the above-mentioned south Bengal districts separately, we find that the LF has grabbed 100 out of 113 seats in these districts, the rate of success being 88.5 per cent. In this context, several explanations are being put forth to explain the LF’s electoral victory, for example, the one by Yogendra Yadav that suggests that “This election showed the first sign of a major shift in the support of the Left – from the “old left” support base (the rural poor and the urban working class) to the “new left” support base (comprising the rural well-to-do and the urban middle and upper classes).3 We examine this proposition through a comparative study of two south Bengal constituencies, one rural and the other urban.

Dalits, Tribes and the Left

The prominent presence of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the population is one of the demographic

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006 features of the above-mentioned districts. While the proportions of SC and ST people in the state’s population were 23.62 per cent and 5.59 per cent respectively, these proportions in the above-mentioned districts were 30.66 per cent and 9.32 per cent respectively according to the 1991Census. That is to say, the combined share of SC and ST in these districts was 40 per cent, much above the state average.4 It should also be noted that majority of these communities are landless and agricultural labourers. We would like to explore whether there is a relationship between this demographic feature and the remarkable electoral success of the LF in these districts.

It is relevant to recall that a series of clashes took place in these districts between the CPI(M) and the opposition TMC-BJP combine during 1998 and 2001, causing a lot of bloodshed, which ultimately resulted in the rooting out of the entire opposition from large parts of these districts. This was partly corroborated during the 2003 panchayat election, in which hundreds of village panchayat seats were won uncontested by the CPI(M) in vast areas of these districts. The opposition parties then raised an uproar alleging that the CPI(M) had unleashed a reign of terror in these areas. In view of those allegations, the Election Commission took unprecedented measures in this election to ensure “free and fair election” in the state. For the first time, the West Bengal assembly elections were conducted in five phases and under the strict vigilance of paramilitary forces. All the opposition parties expressed their satisfaction over the fairness of polling that exceeded 80 per cent this time.

The overwhelming majority gained by the LF in the state in spite of all these measures has thrown up a few questions about the perpetuity of its rule in West Bengal. How could such an excessive voters’ turnout go in favour of the LF that was ruling the state for 29 long years? Was there no iota of truth in the allegations of terror and rigging? On what basis could the LF retain its base in rural Bengal for such a long time? It seems there are no easy answers to these questions that briefly motivates us to take up this study. Methodologically, we aim to develop an ethnographic understanding of electoral behaviour, departing from standard ‘psephological’ analysis. The answers need to be searched by a closer study of the ground realities that will enable us to explore the complex socio-political scenario of rural Bengal. In fact, the ground realities of the rural areas cannot be fathomed from the election results only. Statistics cannot reflect the depth and variegation of grassroot politics, particularly in West Bengal, where politics has become a part of life in rural Bengal. So, there remains no alternative to a micro-study of the rural situation to understand the nearpermanent incumbency of the LF in West Bengal. Of course, such a study cannot reflect the whole of West Bengal. But this may provide a starting point to gaining a deeper insight of rural Bengal.

In this article, we attempt a comparative study of electoral politics in two constituencies, one rural and the other urban, both situated in the stronghold of the LF in south Bengal. While the LF has retained its electoral supremacy in the rural constituency throughout, in the urban constituency its bastion has been recaptured several times by the opposition since 1977. Our main focus is on the rural constituency; the urban constituency is also examined to get an overview of the urban-rural dichotomy in electoral politics.

Study of Two Villages

A rural constituency in Hooghly district was selected for our study and two villages falling within this constituency were taken up for an in-depth analysis.5 This particular constituency is reserved for the scheduled castes and has been won by the Forward Bloc, a junior partner in the LF, uninterrupted since 1977. This time the party has won by a margin of more than 45,000votes,securing around 55 per cent of the total votes polled. More than 50 per cent of the population of the area comprises of SC and ST. These are two neighbouring villages, one having mostly poor and landless people from SC, ST and Muslim communities, while the other is mainly inhabited by upper and middle caste people who own most of the land of the two villages.

In the past, both these habitations constituted one single village that had a kayastha zamindar. The upper castes, kayasthas and brahmins, were then dominating the rural society. Even after the abolition of the zamindari system, they continued to dominate the subalterns with the support of the Congress Party then in power. The left movement began to spread in this area since 1967-69 when the Congress Party was first removed from power by successive United Front ministries. The left’s social base was initially among the local tribal people, though led by an upper caste person of the village. The issues then were the demand for higher wages and the seizure of land above the ceiling. Even after the advent of LF rule in 1977, several militant struggles took place in the area on the above issues. The kayastha zamindar families began to sell out their lands since the late 1960s to evade those being vested or recorded as barga land. Some mahishya families of the middle caste purchased those lands. As a result, the class composition of these villages began to change. Some of these middle class mahishya families became economically prosperous, combining farming with business and other economic activities. They were traditionally Congress Party supporters and hence had to confront the agricultural labourers led by the CPI(M) several times in the initial period of LF rule. Ironically, as these families became rich farmers, they gradually began to compromise with the CPI(M), manifested in the more recent phase through their affinity with the party leaders, economic favours and heavy contributions to party funds. The party also gradually began to shed its earlier hostility towards this section and started looking after their interests as well, though these people were still in favour of the return of Congress/TMC rule.

The subaltern people belonging to the SC and ST categories of these villages view this political compromise between the party leaders and the landowning community with a sense of frustration. As they poignantly remarked, “The party has changed a lot. Persons against whom we struggled earlier have taken over the party now”. It is stated that the upper caste leader who locally led the CPI(M) during the period of militant struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s left the party a few years after the installation of LF rule. Since then a few middle class persons with pro-Congress family backgrounds slowly emerged as the local leaders of the party and subsequently allied with the landed people.

The pradhan (chief) of the local panchayat belongs to the bagdi (SC) community and resides in the village mainly inhabited by agricultural labourers. Among the SCs, the bagdis and dules are more numerous. They along with the tribal people form the main local support base of CPI(M). During the pre-1977 period of militant struggles, the tribal people were more active in the party than others. The entire tribal community used to take part in struggles, many of which were led by tribal women.

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

But over time their role in the party has reversed with the change in party’s strategy from struggle to reform. With reservation for the seat of pradhan of the panchayat, the main instrument of rural political power in West Bengal, the SCs have been taking more interest in politics in recent times and constitute the main force to suppress any opposition to the party.

These villages witnessed a resurgence of opposition activities with some middle class and rich people campaigning in favour of the TMC-BJP combine in the 1998 panchayat and 2001 assembly elections. Immediately after the elections were over, CPI(M) supporters beat them up and consequently many had to flee from the villages. Since then nobody dares to openly campaign in favour of opposition parties. The CPI(M) won the village panchayat seats uncontested in the 2003 election. During the latest assembly election also no opposition campaign took place in these two villages.

Interestingly, though the assembly seat here was occupied by Forward Bloc candidates in all the elections since 1977, the party has not been allowed by the CPI(M) to build up its own organisational base at the grassroot level. A block level leader of the Forward Bloc regretfully said in an interview that they were beaten up several times by the CPI(M) cadres in the area. The CPI(M) was reluctant to share power at the village level since the real power lies with the panchayat, he remarked. Hence, even when they are offering the assembly seat to the Forward Bloc, they are not ready to share panchayat seats with it. The LF does not function at the village level where CPI(M) is out to eliminate any opposition by hook or by crook. Asked about the extent of democracy in the area where even supporters of a Front partner are routinely beaten up, he replied, “There is no democracy here. The struggle for democracy is an urgent requirement. But we are unable to conduct it.”

Some persons were beaten up for campaigning in favour of RSP as well, another constituent of the LF. In this case, the main tribal leader of these two villages, namely, Khoka Murmu,6 who had struggled a lot since 1967 to establish the CPI(M) in this area, was beaten up after he quit the party in the early 1980s and joined the RSP. Khoka Murmu had led many struggles in the Congress period and was beaten up several times by the landowners. He had to go underground for a certain period after the Congress government issued an arrest warrant against him. He was the first village panchayat member elected on a CPI(M) ticket in 1978, but later joined RSP in early 1980s, immediately becoming a target of CPI(M) harassment. In 1993, he contested against the CPI(M) on an RSP ticket in the village panchayat election and was defeated by a slender margin of five votes. Anticipating erosion of its support base among the tribal and SC population, the CPI(M) beat up Khoka and others and created such a panicky situation that nobody dared to campaign for RSP anymore.

Interestingly, the 60-plus Khoka Murmu was seen in this assembly election to be working hard for the success of the LF candidate. He is still facing severe poverty with no guarantee of food for the next day. His wife worked as a day labourer and sold country liquor while Khoka worked almost full time for the impending election. He is with the CPI(M) once again with the responsibility of organising the tribal community and a section of SCs. He remarked, “We have no other way but to join the party. We cannot live without the support of a party. And we cannot join the Congress or TMC-BJP, as these are the parties of the landowners.” So essentially this was the dilemma faced by the local tribal population. They cannot think a life without an organised party, but there is no party of their choice. The higher caste person who inspired Khoka to join the CPI(M) in the 1960s, later left the party and joined RSP. Khoka also followed him along with his community people. But when that same leader campaigned in favour of the TMC-BJP candidate during the 1998 panchayat election, Khoka did not follow him.

These tribal and lower caste people in the area still strongly feel that parties like Congress and TMC-BJP cannot serve their interest, though among the younger generation such a view is not so strong. During elections of 1998 and 2001, when campaigns were conducted in favour of TMC-BJP, mainly by the middle class and rich of the mahishya community, a few SC youth also joined them, but none from the tribal community. Probably, because of a sense of community still strong in them, the tribal people of this area generally move in a body. Earlier they had left the CPI(M) and joined RSP in unison. During the 2006 assembly election, in spite of many grievances against the party, the whole community sided with the CPI(M). In the absence of any alternative they are siding with the CPI(M), though in a rather indifferent and inactive manner.

Almost the same ambivalent attitude could be found among the lower caste people of these villages. They are not quite satisfied with the activities of the CPI(M), but in the absence of a real alternative, they still support the party. The panchayat Pradhan, Khagen Malik is a member of the CPI(M) and the leader of the lower caste people in these two villages. He is a bargadar and takes up his party duties after toiling in the fields. In his candid and thoughtful words, “We are in the party but we are not the leaders. It is said to be a party of the poor, but in reality people of the upper social strata who are more educated and can provide more time for party work run it. I have to manage my party and panchayat duties only after maintaining my family.” He was not an illiterate like Khoka Murmu, having studied up to class VII.

Among the party leaders of these two villages, one higher caste person, whose father was the president of Union Board during the Congress regime, runs a ration shop. Lower caste people have grievances against him for not distributing the allotted ration properly, a portion of which is allegedly sold in the market at higher prices. People allege that he is active in the CPI(M) only to cover up his malpractices. The other party leaders have also become prosperous. The subaltern people do not have much respect for them. Moreover, these leaders have developed an intimate relationship with the wealthiest farmer of these two villages, namely, Khetra Pal, whom the agricultural labourers had to confront repeatedly in the past. And in course of such confrontations, he used his gun to suppress the agitating labourers even during the period of LF rule. The Pal family was also known for its affinity towards TMC, the main opposition party in West Bengal.

Emboldened by their proximity to the party leaders, Khetra Pal had taken steps against the labourers even in the recent past. During the last harvesting of Aman paddy, he brought labourers from outside to work on their field. The local labourers objected as they themselves did not get sufficient work in the area and had to go outside in search of work. Khetra Pal, owner of 23 acres of land, said in an interview, “The local labourers do not work properly. They would work from 8 am to 1 pm only. Moreover, they make lots of demands and do not appear at work whenever required. Hence, I arranged outside labourers for harvesting. They tried to resist but did not succeed.” The Pal family had

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006 brought labourers from South 24 Parganas to work at lower wages and reaped additional profit by employing them for longer hours. The local SC-ST labourers could not prevent the same, as the party did not back them.

The tribal and lower caste people of these two villages have aired several grievances against the CPI(M) Party over such issues. The current wage rate in these two villages is Rs 28 plus 2 kgs of paddy along with the provision of some food, costing altogether around Rs 50. The wage is much below the minimum wage declared by the government of West Bengal for agricultural labourers, which is Rs 67.50. These labourers can hardly get work for six months in a year in this area. Their income flow is very uncertain during the rest of the year when they are forced to take loans at high interest rates. Though starvation has now been confined to fewer families and for fewer days, almost all these families are still suffering from a great deal of poverty. In contrast, a handful of farmers have become much wealthier during the last 30 years and developed contradictions with the poor and landless of these villages. In such conflicts, the subaltern people had initially derived strength from the support they got from the party. But they allege that the party is no longer supporting their cause as such in recent times. Khoka Murmu regrets, “The party has been transformed into the Congress Party.” But still they cannot think of a life without the party. They have deep apprehensions that if parties like Congress and TMC come back to power, they would be deprived of whatever rights they have gained through struggles and that the rich landed people would regain complete domination over them. They cannot forget the period of Congress rule when they had to work from dawn to dusk at extremely low wages and were subjected to severe social discrimination. Though the younger generation has not seen those days, they were also aware of the extreme misery, hunger and deprivation of the past. Hence, the people of these communities cannot still accept the emergence of Congress or TMC-BJP as an alternative to the LF. They even beat up those who want to revive the activities of these parties at the village level. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the CPI(M) has been maintaining its absolute domination over the rural scene for decades, depending primarily on the militancy of these very people.

The politics of distribution of benefits has also helped to strengthen the party’s base. It is common knowledge that one can get the best benefits of the schemes implemented through the panchayat if one is allied with the CPI(M). At the same time, a lot of discontent is also generated through such politics of dole distribution. As a bagdi person became the panchayat pradhan, other subgroups of SC communities alleged that the bagdis were cornering the benefits more than others. But it seems that the vocal persons of other communities are also taken care of. One aggrieved tribal leader and a close associate of Khoka Murmu have received old age allowance of Rs 500 per month much before reaching the age of 60 while the roof of Khoka’s house got a shining renovation with new asbestos provided under the Indira Awas Yojana scheme.

The party has been presently organising self-help groups (SHGs), involving principally SC-ST women. According to the secretary of zonal committee of CPI(M), around 180-190 SHGs have been formed in this panchayat area, covering 13 villages. Each SHG consists of 7 to 10 women members who get low-interest loans from the banks that help them in their distress as well as to open up new income earning avenues. All these are central government projects, but the party here is utilising them skilfully to enhance its politicalorganisational interests. A section of these women are mobilised in party rallies.

Briefly, in the rural area under study, the CPI(M) has been able to retain its hold by relying mainly on the support of tribal and lower caste people. But this support does neither indicate their full confidence in the party, nor any enthusiasm generated by the party’s slogan of development or industrialisation. Instead, there are underlying currents of discontent, disillusionment and an urge for an alternative. In fact, the absence of any alternative that can safeguard the interests of these poor and landless people ensures the repeated electoral victory of LF in West Bengal.

Finally, we have met the members of a youth club situated in the village mostly inhabited by agricultural labourers. The youth club has a membership of 55 young and not so young people, mostly agricultural labourers from SC and ST communities. The remarkable thing is a rule of the club by which any active member of a political party is debarred from membership. It shows the eagerness of these young persons to create a space for themselves outside the tight-knit network of organised politics, as if, to enjoy a breath of the fresh air. They clearly opined that there was hardly any freedom of expression and right to form organisations of their own in the village. They have had to overcome a lot of obstacles to establish this non-political organisation with the sole purpose of conducting welfare activities for the local villagers. But they are well aware that this organisation is no match to the much bigger organisation that is responsible for curbing their democratic rights.

Their effort to build up an organisation outside the ambit of organised politics reflects the aspiration of the subaltern people for democracy. They are increasingly realising the need for democracy to enhance their struggle for a better livelihood. Earlier they could attain a space within the periphery of organised politics to struggle for their rights. After the party came to power and began to ally with the rich landed people, in course of time the space for the subaltern people got squeezed accordingly and the gap between the party and the rural poor began to widen. Whether the gap would result in a complete breach between the two and usher in a new era of politics is a matter still hidden in the womb of the future.

Study of an Urban Centre

We took up an urban centre in the district of North 24 Parganas for a comparative study of the dynamics of electoral politics between the rural and urban centres. The urban centre is a part of the industrial centre north of Kolkata city. It has a glorious past of a booming textile industry along with engineering and pharmaceutical industries that once provided livelihoods to thousands of people. But with the demise of most of the industries, many of which were closed down during the rule of the LF, the character of the area began to change. While a greater section of the working class population lost their jobs and shifted to other professions or faced destitution, middle class and upper middle class families seeking accommodation on the outskirts of Kolkata city crowded the area. Housing complexes were constructed on the lands of the closed mills.

Since 1947, a large number of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan settled in this area by occupying lands and establishing several refugee colonies. The then undivided Communist Party supported their struggle for rehabilitation and in the process gained its first strongholds in this area. In the 1960s, the party’s support base was extended among the workers. This time the

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

CPI(M) took the lead in supporting and organising militant workers’ struggles and the food movement in the late 1960s. In the 1967 assembly election, the CPI(M) candidate of this constituency defeated his Congress rival by a record margin. This area was recognised as a leftist stronghold in West Bengal.

In the post-1977 era, while the area was fast losing its working class character, there was a simultaneous decrease in the influence of the LF over the people of the area. Since the 1977 assembly election, though the LF won this constituency in four consecutive elections, it had to face defeats to the Congress and TMC respectively in the successive elections of 1996 and 2001. In the current assembly election, CPI(M) regained the seat by a margin of 3,800 votes. Clearly the victory was possible due to a division of votes between the TMC and the Congress, as the latter secured 10,000 votes to come in the third position. While the LF has secured around 50 per cent of the votes polled in the whole state, in this centre its share is 38 per cent, much below the state average. Our main enquiry in this area has been about how the opposition parties could regain their strength in an erstwhile leftist bastion.

It is not that the LF’s support has weakened due to the loss of the area’s working class character. Rather, CPI(M)’s support decreased among the working class in the post-1977 period more rapidly than among others. Leftist activists were attacked in this area severely during 1972-77, some were killed and many forced to leave their homes. Workers’ rights were then trampled upon as known agents of the mill owners took control of the trade unions, ousting the workers’ representatives. So after the advent of LF rule, the workers were quick to organise themselves to fight for their lost rights and resist the fresh attacks of the capitalists. They expected the left trade unions to provide leadership to their struggles. But the LF was a changed entity this time; its leaders were more eager to make peace with the capitalists even at the cost of workers’ interests in order to remain in power.

A veteran worker informed us that the workers of a local textile mill had undertaken a struggle and strike in 1977 to resolve pending demands. The leaders of the CITU and the AITUC – the TU wings of CPI(M) and CPI – led the struggle at the initial stage, and then withdrew without consulting the workers and without resolving any of the demands. At this point, a section of workers revolted against the established TU leadership and formed an independent TU to continue the struggle. They resisted an attempt of the management to retrench almost half of the workers, but the LF’s TU leaders opposed their struggle and supported the steps of the management to suppress the agitating workers. The CPI(M) MLA was also the local CITU leader who was associated with such anti-working class measures. In another textile mill, CPI(M) activists beat up striking workers. CPI(M) leaders helped another textile mill owner to wind up his factory and sell the factory land for a housing project.

An electro-steel factory worker, commenting before the election, said that the CPI(M) candidate had to be defeated at any cost; otherwise the party would jeopardise the interests of the workers. He is one of the high skilled contract workers struggling against the deprivation meted out to them. Most of the workers of this highly modernised factory are contract workers employed illegally by outside contractors with the tacit support of the party. They have to work continuously for 12 to 36 hours without overtime. The party in power has threatened this section of the workers struggling for justice and hence the negative reaction of the workers towards the party.

In the only reputed waterproof factory of the area, where regular union elections are held, a TMC union has been winning for the last 10 years, defeating the CITU. An employee of the factory informed us that this year, before the union election, CITU issued an appeal to all employees of the factory to vote in its favour and got 300 out of 600 employees of the factory to sign it. But after the election it became evident that only 235 employees had voted for CITU candidates, which meant that not all of those who had signed the appeal had voted for the CITU.

The Congress Party’s support is traditionally strong among the local people of the area, whereas CPI(M) was initially entrenched among the refugee population. But at present, anti-LF parties have become strong in the colony areas as well. The long LF rule has generated a kind of apathy to politics, particularly among the younger generation. A group of sociology students of the area expressed the view that politics was not the arena for good people. In the college, they are forced by the Student Federation of India (SFI) activists to join the latter’s rallies. They expressed surprise how a sober student in the locality could turn into a bully after joining the SFI in the college. This pattern of functioning of the SFI has created in them an aversion to politics. But in the course of their interaction with organised politics, they are also learning to question the existing power structure.

The CPI(M) in this area has also been weakened due to acute internal rivalry. A section of party leaders and activists broke away from the party in 1987 and formed a local citizens’ committee that initially opposed the party in elections. It is alleged that one of the dissidents was murdered to suppress their activities. Anyhow, they could not place any alternative programme before the local people and lost much of their steam in the course of time. The dissident group supported CPI(M) in the assembly election much to the displeasure of their own supporters.

Behind the internal rivalry in the local party is the factionalism within the party’s district committee. As a result, the present MLA was not nominated in the last three assembly elections. The rival faction alleged that the present MLA’s faction had sabotaged the prospect of the party candidates in the last two elections, resulting in the victory of the opposition candidate. It was also alleged that the present MLA had been hobnobbing with the opposition leaders in suppressing workers’ legitimate demands and patronising the illegal activities of the promoters. Hence, even many CPI(M) supporters had expressed doubt about the victory of the CPI(M) candidate in this election that he finally won, but with a mere 30 per cent of the total votes cast.


If we compare the dynamics of electoral politics as evident from our study of two diverse constituencies, first, we find two different strategies of politics pursued by the same party – one for rural and the other for urban areas. In the rural area, the CPI(M) is still playing a role of mediation between the landless and the landed people and at the same time, a role of deliverance of the fruits of ‘governmentality’7 meant for the lowest strata of the people. The ritual yearly strike of agricultural labourers convened by the party and the subsequent negotiations to increase the wage by a few rupees can be cited as a specimen of such mediation for which the subalterns have still to depend on the party. Such tactics have been termed in scholarly writings as the “politics of middleness”, as “a consensusevoking unifying politics of mediation

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006 between several sectional interests” (Bhattacharya 1999).8 Here, the party is increasingly aligning with the landed class and, at the same time, still trying to maintain a subaltern-friendly image. But this dual tactic seems to be generating more strains than consensus between various sectional interests, as reflected in our study.

Second, the distribution of benefits through the panchayat is done so skilfully that it can mitigate the discontent generated among people to some extent and, at the same time, make the downtrodden dependent on the party to get those benefits. For both the above purposes, the subaltern people and the party enter into day-to-day interactions with each other, which is so deep that these people cannot imagine a life without the party.

This particular feature is relatively absent inthe urban area where the party has hardly any role to play as a mediator between the working class and the capitalists or as a deliverer of doles to the downtrodden. Of course, the party has a more important role in the lives of unorganised workers, but that role is not comparable to the one in the rural area. Overall, the same party maintains different strategies in its interactions with the subalterns in rural and urban areas and that determines to a large extent its success or failure in electoral politics.

Third, we find another difference in the strategies pursued by the party in rural and urban areas. Whereas in the rural area it pursues a politics of exclusion by which it prevents the rise of any opposition to its supremacy at the grassroot level, it maintains a façade of plurality in urban political life. In the rural area, the party does not allow political freedom even to its junior partners in the LF to operate, while in the urban area it maintains friendly relationship with the main opposition party and allows the freedom of opposing its policies to political parties, civil society organisations and the media. But in urban area, this political freedom is not unrestricted for all. We have seen how political rights are curbed in factories and colleges.

To cope up with the different strategies prevalent in the domain of organised politics in West Bengal, subaltern politics is also taking different shapes in rural and urban areas. Whereas in the rural area the subalterns are maintaining a critical and complex relationship with the ruling party, the workers in the urban centre seem to be looking forward to a life beyond LF rule. The rural subalterns are both criticising the lapses in organised politics and, at the same time, striving to defend their rights and get the best benefits of “governmentality”, counting on their interactions with organised politics. On the contrary, the industrial workers had begun to act outside the periphery of organised politics from the very initial days of LF rule and tried to utilise the political space available in the urban polity to enhance their economic interests to the extent possible. In brief, the “old Left support base” has been more or less retained in the rural area so far as electoral politics is concerned, whereas it had decayed long back in the urban working class centre.

But for the subalterns of both the rural as well as the urban area, the aspiration for an alternative seems to be ever increasing. Subalterns of both the areas have many things to say, but they lack a platform of their own to vent their grievances. Even at the trade union level, they do not have really representative organisations (very rarely elections are held in the unions). In this situation, their contradictions with organised politics are being resolved principally within the domain of organised politics. And the fate of electoral politics is determined by the rural sector due to its numerical predominance. The independent moves of the organised workers are mainly limited to their own economic interests and yet to emerge as an independent voice in the arena of politics. So the question arises whether the emergence of an autonomous domain of subaltern politics is possible any more in present times. Can subalterns speak for themselves?




[Manabi Majumdar has immensely contributed in the preparation of this article by providing her valuable suggestions. The usual disclaimers apply.]

1 Abhirup Sarkar in Ananda Bazar Patrika, May 26, 2006.

2 From the website of the Election Commission of India at

3 The Hindu, May 16, 2006.

4 See the Annual Report, Backward Classes Welfare Department, 2000-2001, Government of West Bengal.

5 This is part of a larger ethnographic study.

6 All the names of people quoted have been changed.

7 The term “governmentality” was used by Michel Foucault to define the techniques of modern government that “have as its purpose not the act of government itself, but the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc…”, quoted from The Foucault Effect, edited by Buchell Graham, Gordon Colin and Miller, London, 1991. This “major characteristic of the contemporary regime of power” in India was seen by Partha Chatterjee as “governmentalisation of the state” whereby the “regime secures legitimacy not by the participation of citizens in matters of state but by claiming to provide for the well-beingofthepopulation”. See Partha Chatterjee inPolitics of the Governed, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004, p 34.

8 Ben Rugaly, Barbara Harris-White and Sugata Bose (eds), Sonar Bangla? Agricultural Growth and the Agrarian Change in West Bengal and Bangla Desh, Sage, New Delhi, 1999, p 292.

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Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

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