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The Left Rout: Patterns and Prospects

The vote against the Left Front in West Bengal was not a vote for change but a vote meant to inflict a deep punishment on the CPI(M)- dominated coalition. The LF did receive 41% of the vote, can it then build on this vote share for the future? That would require a process of serious introspection and rectification and not the shambolic approach the CPI(M) has engaged in after the 2008 local and 2009 parliamentary elections.

COMMENTARY

The Left Rout: Patterns and Prospects

Suhit Sen

The vote against the Left Front in West Bengal was not a vote for change but a vote meant to inflict a deep punishment on the CPI(M)-dominated coalition. The LF did receive 41% of the vote, can it then build on this vote share for the future? That would require a process of serious introspection and rectification and not the shambolic approach the CPI(M) has engaged in after the 2008 local and 2009 parliamentary elections.

Suhit Sen (suhitsen@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

T
he election results in West Bengal, which comprehensively swept the Left Front (LF) out of power after 34 years, were both expected and unexpected. Almost everyone who follows Bengal politics, except the most blinkered or unrealistically optimistic among the LF supporters, knew that the opposition alliance was coming to power – the speculation before the results came out, in newspaper offices, living rooms and public spaces, was not about who would win, but who would get what ministry. But, despite some unusually accurate exit polls, very few believed that the LF would be thus humbled.

It was only when it became apparent late in the morning that Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was going to lose from the Jadavpur constituency and that Housing Minister Gautam Deb, leading the LF charge in the last phase of campaigning, who had been widely expected to win against playwright Bratya Basu, a political lightweight, too was going to lose that the enormity of the situation began to sink in. In the 2006 elections, the LF had won 234 seats in the assembly, while the Congress and Trinamool Congress combined – they had contested separately – had won only 57. The results in 2011 were virtually a mirror image – the Congress-Trinamool combine won 227, while the LF won just 62, almost a fourth of the seats it had won in 2006. Almost unthinkably, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) on its own got fewer seats than a Congress Party that is defunct in large swathes of the state.

Punitive Vote

Before I get to some of the salient points about the Bengal elections of 2011, it would be useful to make one point. The day after the election results were declared, one commentator writing in a Kolkata-based newspaper expressed the view that the scale of the opposition victory indicated that this vote had not been a purely anti-LF,

June 11, 2011

anti-incumbency vote; it had actually been a positive vote for “change” to bring Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool boss, into Writers’ Buildings. To my mind, however, this reading is completely wrong – and that is something the LF will ignore at its own peril. The stunning scale of the

LF’s defeat added to the high voter turnout was, in fact, to my mind, an indication that the opposite was the case. The Bengal vote was overwhelmingly a vote against the LF – it was a viciously punitive one that told the LF that in no circumstances was any vestige of power to be allowed to attach to it for the next five years. Commentators who had wondered in the run-up to the elections whether another one would follow in a year or two can now assure themselves that a mid-term election in West Bengal is an extremely remote possibility.

The punitive nature of the vote can be gauged from the fact that almost the entire council of ministers was wiped out. None of the heavyweights except two will be playing any part in the deliberations of this assembly. The roll call sounds surreal. Of 36 senior ministers, only eight survived and only two of them had any heft in government circles. One of them, Surjyakanta Mishra, has become the leader of the opposition, the other, Abdur Rezzaq Mollah, had been taking potshots at party colleagues with acerbic, trenchant and very public criticism. Apart from the former chief minister and Deb, Industries Minister Nirupam Sen lost in what was the CPI(M)’s stronghold par excellence, Barddhaman district, by over 35,000 votes, Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta lost by over 26,000 votes, Kanti Ganguly lost to politically lightweight film actor Debashree Roy by over 5,000 votes, despite having a good performance record and a reputation of being popular. And almost unthinkably, Urban Development Minister Asok Bhattacharya lost the Siliguri seat, which he had nursed so assiduously, by 5,000 votes. All over Bengal, lightweight candidates, often firsttime contestants, defeated high-profile, heavyweight LF leaders.

Issues with the LF Government

There is another point that must be kept in mind. It is often assumed that the LF lost these elections a few years ago when the

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COMMENTARY

Singur agitation was repressed and when the Nandigram massacre was perpetrated by the LF government. While this is to a large extent true, it must be remembered that the LF’s alienation from the people, in the last instance, was across the board

  • north and south Bengal; rural and urban; peasants and information technology professionals. This had been presaged by the losses in the 2008 panchayat elections, the 2009 general elections and the statewide municipal elections that followed. Some statistics will bear out this trend, though the very fact that the LF won just 62 seats, down from 234, is eloquent. In the seven districts of North Bengal, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda, in the 2006 assembly election the LF had 37 of 49 seats, in 2011 it won 16 of 54 seats. (There was an increase in the number of seats after delimitation.) In the heavily urban belt of Kolkata, North 24 Parganas and South Parganas it got just eight out of 75 seats. It also drew a complete blank in three districts – Kolkata, Howrah and East Midnapore, while in its stronghold in the Jangalmahals, which had voted for it even in the 2009 general elections, the LF’s tally went down from 39 to 14, while the opposition tally went up from four to 26. (The region lost three seats after delimitation.) In what was still considered a CPI(M) bastion that would not be breached
  • Barddhaman – the LF’s tally fell from 18 to eight, the opposition’s rose from seven to 18.
  • There is, then, the issue of the Muslim vote, which had always been solidly behind the LF since 1977, like the tribal vote in the Jangalmahals, but which deserted the front and contributed decisively to its defeat. As in 2009, in 2011, the Muslims voted with opposition forces. Out of 125 constituencies in which Muslims have a sizeable vote, in 2009, it had trailed in 97 assembly segments; in 2011, it lost over 90 seats. In 2006, it had won 102 of these constituencies. The reasons for these were multifarious. Certainly, Nandigram contributed in a major way, as did the Rizwanur Rehman episode, though on a mass scale, the findings of the Justice Sachar Committee report probably played a secondary role.

    All in all, there was a significant swing in the vote from 2006 through 2009 to 2011. In 2006, the LF had won over 50% of the vote, something it had managed to do just once before; in 2009 when it got 43.30% it must have thought it had bottomed out, but it hadn’t; in 2011, it got barely 41% of the vote. In contrast, in this period, the Trinamool-plus vote rose from 42%-odd, through 46%-odd to almost 48.5% of the vote. If there is anything positive the LF can take out of this vote, it is that, as CPI(M) leaders Prakash Karat and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee have lost no time in pointing out, the LF may have been wiped out in terms of seats won, but they still have won over 40% of the vote. This raises several questions. The important one for the future is whether the LF can build on this to refurbish itself and make a serious bid for power five years hence. But I shall address that issue at the end of this essay. Before that other questions have to be addressed.

    Social Bases of Respective Parties

    As we all know, the Westminster-style electoral system is unfair not just on losing parties, but also on those who vote for those parties, whose votes are virtually wiped out of the operating system. That has benefited the LF with monster majorities in the past, this time it has benefited their antagonists with another monster majority. The question, however, is who voted for the LF and, therefore, who voted for the Congress-Trinamool alliance. Are there specific social constituencies that can be identified? Or is the pattern more random, in the sense that people across classes voted for, say, the LF simply because they were a hard core of supporters or because they just would not vote for Banerjee and her party?

    We cannot provide hard answers to these questions because there is no empirical basis for us to do so. The answers must necessarily be tentative and impressionistic. Let us go back to Singur, for instance. What was it that happened during the antiacquisition agitation there, when some people willingly gave their land in lieu of compensation and the prospect of business opportunities, whilst others held out against the Tata project? It has been suggested that those who held substantial amounts of land were the “willing landlosers”, while small/marginal farmers, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers, or those who stood little or nothing to gain by way of either compensation or new economic opportunities were those who constituted the “unwilling landlosers” and the heart of the agitation. Intuitively, this explanation seems to make a whole lot of sense. But before we extrapolate, let us take a brief look elsewhere as well.

    The Singur agitation was a success from the point of view both of the agitating agriculturists and the party that spearheaded the movement. But this was not the case in Rajarhat, on the north-eastern edge of Kolkata, in the district of North 24 Parganas, where 3,075 hectares of land was notified for acquisition in the mid-1990s, though, as yet, only a small portion has actually been taken possession of by the government, for various reasons. The scale of potential acquisition in Rajarhat block was, incidentally, around eight times that in Singur. There was an agitation in Rajarhat as well. But it was not supported by any party, not least because local Trinamool leaders, including a couple of MLAs, were bought off by the ruling party with sweetheart deals. But, even more importantly,

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    COMMENTARY

    Rajarhat, being close to Kolkata, was not preponderantly an economy based on agriculture and fisheries. The occupational distribution was more diverse and the distribution within the agricultural sector was fairly evenly weighted between owner cultivators and agricultural labourers, including, presumably, though the available records do not specify this, sharecroppers. This could have had an impact on the movement as it developed, though with the new township project there now virtually a fait accompli. As in Singur and Nandigram, the CPI(M) has lost in the locality, with a senior leader, Rabin Mandal, losing the Rajarhat-Gopalpur seat convincingly.

    So what does this tell us, for instance? First, that the “return of the jotedar” thesis must have something to commend it. In other words, even after Singur and Nandigram happened, the CPI(M) may have retained its base among those classes in the agrarian economy which had originally benefited the most from land reforms and which later benefited even more from the stultification and the cessation or slowing down of the reform programme, emerging, in fact, with significant landholdings and other economic interests, agro-based or otherwise, in the rural sector because of their party connections. At the same time, however, it lost its constituency among the sharecroppers and small or marginal farmers who had made some gains under LF rule but found these small gains threatened by the aggressive industrial push allied to a ruthless land acquisition policy. This kind of a reading does seem eminently plausible.

    It is, however, much more difficult to replicate this exercise for urban, non- agricultural settings. It is almost certain that the predominant sections of the urban middle classes voted against the LF, as they have, in fact, been doing even in the heyday of LF rule. But it does seem that a significant section of the poor in the unorganised sector shifted loyalties in 2011. In fact, it is also quite clear that in many unionised sectors, especially transport, the Trinamool labour wing has made significant inroads. It is probable, since the LF did get 41% of the vote, that labour in the big manufacturing industry voted for the front, especially given that whatever the state of disarray of the CPI(M), the Centre of Industrial Trade Unions still retains formidable coherence.

    The Future?

    This is as much as can be ventured at this stage. We now return to the question of the future, flagged earlier in the essay. Can the LF build on the 41% vote share it has retained or will they remain out of power for a decade, if not more? This is not an easy question to answer given the many imponderables that exist. Much, obviously, will depend on what course of action the CPI(M) leadership follows because on that will depend at least to some extent how much more it will haemorrhage in terms of cadres or active supporters in the next few months. If the process of introspection and rectification continues to be as shambolic and superficial as it has been ever since the panchayat elections in 2008 and more especially so since the 2009 general elections the CPI(M) could be in trouble, which could well mean, as many observers are predicting, that there may have to be bloodletting in LF ranks, leading to some kind of a reconfiguration of LF forces before they come to power again.

    June 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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