WEST BENGAL: Left Front set to take West Bengal

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

In West Bengal, it is a race between a cohesive Left Front and a fragile and fractious Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) combine.

IF anything is conspicuous in the election campaign of the ruling Left Front in West Bengal, it is the absence of tall promises. Concentrating on developmental issues and politically viable programmes, the Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had a headstart on its rivals in electioneering. It appears to be all set to win the Assembly elections for the sixth time, having already won five consecutive elections to the Assembly and to the local bodies. The Front is expected to sweep the polls, particularly in rural areas that account for about 200 of the 294 Assembly seats. It won a two-thirds majority in the 1996 elections. Even if it loses a few seats here and there, as predicted by some psephologists, the "loose alliance" between the Congress(I) and the Trinamul Congress is not really a match to the Left Front, the coherence of which is evident from the absence of tussles among its major constituents such as the CPI(M), the CPI, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP).

The well-oiled organisational machine of the CPI(M) was in full swing even before the elections were notified. The Left Front started its campaign in early March. In contrast, the Trinamul Congress and the Congress(I) reached an understanding on seat-sharing barely two weeks before May 10, the day of polling.

The fragility of the alliance became evident soon with members of both parties expressing their unhappiness over the seat-sharing arrangement and, in many places, the alliance itself. In many constituencies rebels filed nominations against the official candidates. The rebels in the Trinamul Congress were led by Ajit Kumar Panja, its former chairman and former Union Minister, who is opposed to party leader Mamata Banerjee's decision to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre and ally with the Congress(I) in West Bengal. Congress(I) rebels rallied round veteran leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury.

Ajit Panja campaigned against "the lack of democracy in the Trinamul Congress". He described the "common minimum agenda of governance" of the Congress (I)-Trinamul combine as "nothing but a bluff". (In an attempt to win over young voters, the combine had promised employment to those who had registered their names with employment exchanges in the past 10 years.) Subrata Mukherjee, Mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and working chairman of the Trinamul Congress, admitted that Panja's outburst against Mamata Banerjee would prove to be a morale booster for the CPI(M).

The spoiler for the Congress(I) was Ghani Khan Chowdhury, who has won the Malda parliamentary constituency for five consecutive times. He denied the very existence of the alliance. He has fielded candidates, including his brother and sister, covering all the 11 Assembly seats in Malda district, leaving none for the Trinamul, defying party president Sonia Gandhi.

Hardly a day passes without Mamata Banerjee or State Congress(I) president Pranab Mukherjee facing disgruntled partymen in different parts of the State. There was growing realisation in both the parties that the purpose of the alliance was defeated by the resentment of party workers who considered it to be an alliance of the leaders. The grassroots workers of the Congress(I), who felt that the Trinamul Congress had humiliated them in the past three years, were in no mood to join hands with their ally. Similar were the sentiments of Trinamul Congress workers who were until recently engaged by Mamata Banerjee to destroy the Congress (I)'s base in West Bengal. The resentment was compounded by the disgruntlement in both parties over the instances of denial of the ticket. Angry partymen from various constituencies descended on their respective party offices to show their displeasure. In some constituencies the local units of both parties have struck deals with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), a group led by Saifuddin Chowdhury who broke away from the CPI(M).

Seven of the 15 sitting MLAs of the Congress(I) have formed the Save Bengal Front after they were denied the party ticket. In alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar, the Front has fielded 60-odd candidates to "avenge the Congress(I)'s betrayal".

The Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance faced problems from another quarter: the BJP and its allies in the NDA. It appeared that the sole objective of the BJP was to prevent Mamata Banerjee from coming to power. The NDA has fielded candidates in all the seats and its presence is expected to split the anti-Left vote. BJP leaders say that the resentment among the rank and file of the Trinamul Congress and the "popular disenchantment" with Mamata Banerjee might help the BJP increase its share of votes marginally and also win a few seats.

For the first time in 49 years, Jyoti Basu is not a candidate in the Assembly elections. But the veteran Marxist leader is the chief campaigner for the Left Front. By the end of April he had addressed election rallies in most of the districts. His speeches were simple and optimistic: "The people are with us. It has been proved time and again. Ours is a pro-people government and there is no reason for the voters to discard it."

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is the other major campaigner for the Left Front. He said that although the Left Front had not done all that it intended to do for the people, they were aware of its achievements. "Mamata Banerjee and her pro-change slogan are no threat to the CPI(M). The Left Front will storm back to power for a sixth consecutive term."

The Left Front won 203 seats in 1996, and its rural vote appears to be intact. Most of the gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads are controlled by the Left Front. That perhaps explains why the Front's leaders remain unperturbed by its poor performance in the last elections to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.

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