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BEHIND A FAMOUS VICTORY

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001 T+T-

The Left Front in West Bengal returns to power for a record sixth time, riding the crest of an impressive pro-incumbency wave, and gets down to the task of setting development priorities and building on the achievements of the past 24 years when it was in power.

AS the results of the elections to the five Assemblies began to be telecast on May 13, a trend quickly became evident. The election campaign in West Bengal had been watched and debated keenly and the outcome showed that its electorate had bucked the national trend. Riding the crest of an impressive pro-incumbency wave, the Left Front was voted back with a two-thirds majority: it won 199 out of 294 Assembly seats, with a vote-share of 49 per cent.

Disaggregate the figures, and the quality and scope of that victory become evident. The Left Front won a great majority of rural and semi-urban seats, 15 out of 16 seats reserved for candidates of the Scheduled Tribes, and 47 out 58 seats reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Castes. It won a majority of seats in 14 out of 18 districts in the State. Nineteen out of 28 women legislators are from the Left Front. The overall vote share of the Front remained essentially the same as in the 1996 Assembly election.

This is the first time in Indian electoral history that a party or coalition of parties has won six consecutive elections to a Legislative Assembly. Although the Congress party was voted back to power in successive elections in some States in the pre-1977 period, the opposition to the Congress was then organisationally weak, and there was the solid support that the party received from a Congress government at the Centre. In West Bengal, by contrast, the odds appeared to be stacked against the Left Front returning to power for the sixth time. There was a hostile government at the Centre, which just months before the elections had threatened to dismiss the State government on allegations of a breakdown of law and order. At the State level, the Front had to contend with an Opposition that began campaigns of violence in different parts of the State. Large sections of the Press campaigned against the Front. And last but not least, the Front had also to deal with the complacency that 24 years of power had instilled in sections of its own rank and file.

"This was the toughest election we have faced," said Anil Biswas, Secretary of the State Committee of the CPI(M). "It is for the first time that we have had such a right-wing government at the Centre. After 24 years there is an anti-incumbency factor that sets in automatically; after all, you cannot satisfy everybody."

The Left Front went into these elections without the towering personality of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu as its Chief Ministerial candidate. His successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee moved into the spotlight with ease. Bhattacharjee carried the Front's public campaign with a high degree of visibility and charm, winning the confidence of new sections of the electorate in the concluding months of the campaign. Jyoti Basu's active campaign presence, support and experience, however, remained crucial, and gave the campaign cohesiveness and direction. "The election verdict," said Ashok Mitra, economist and former Left Front Finance Minister, "was the last salute from the people of Bengal to Jyoti Basu's electoral career."

The Left Front's campaign, particularly in the last three months, was aided by the opportunism of the Opposition. Alliances were made and unmade with great speed amongst the principal Opposition parties, the Trinamul Congress, the Congress(I), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Lesser deals were struck by the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance with chauvinist and secessionist parties like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Kamtapuri People's Party. Despite her resignation from the Union Cabinet, Mamata Banerjee could not but be spattered with some Tehelka mud. As a consequence, the Opposition alienated large sections of its base, its urban vote base in particular. Support for Mamata Banerjee, a rising force in Bengal politics a few years ago, appeared quickly to erode in the last few months.

"Bengalis," said Ashok Mitra with a smile, "are fascinated by goddesses of deliverance." In a conversation with Frontline on the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon, he said that her "support grew amongst that section of the population that was looking for deliverance from Left Front rule: sections from the newspapers, the bureaucracy, police, slum dwellers, and the underworld." Things changed in the last three months, though: "In her election campaign she used the language of the underworld, of the gutter. The middle classes that had earlier applauded her from the side-lines soon turned against her." By contrast, Bhattacharjee refused to be drawn into personal slanging matches with any leader of the Opposition. Mamata Banerjee's programmme-less campaign created insecurities that deepened as the elections neared. "Businessmen, industrialists and small traders who wanted a stable administration knew there would be chaos with this lady," Ashok Mitra said. "They wanted to function within the modalities of a system." The Left Front campaign reacted quickly to the nervousness that was building up over Mamata's "whimsical" (the Ajit Panja adjective that has stuck) political style. The Front urged the electorate to choose against anarchy and for stability, and the erosion of support for Banerjee allowed the Left Front to penetrate new political spaces.

Left Front leaders concede freely that the nature of the Opposition aided the Front's path to victory. The primary reason for its victory, however, was its extraordinary record of achievement, particularly in the countryside (see separate story). The number of persons below the official poverty line in rural West Bengal as a proportion of the rural population fell from 56.3 per cent in 1977-78 to 26.9 per cent in 1997. The basis for such a change is clear: the Left Front's policy of land reform and the establishment of a three-tier system of panchayats - its own variant, so to speak, of a policy of "walking on two legs". In 1984, during the anti-Sikh atrocities, and in 1992-93 in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Left Front government successfully protected its minorities: indeed, there have been no communal riots in this State nor any instance of organised violence against the people of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

LEFT Front leaders emphasise, on public platforms and in the media, that although the vote was, in one sense, a vote for continuity, it was also a vote for social and economic change in West Bengal. "The only alternative to a Left Front is a better Left Front" Surjya Kanta Mishra, Minister for Health and Family Welfare and Panchayats and Rural Development told Frontline. This concern for change and improvement informs a vision-in-the-making for West Bengal, one that builds on the achievements of the past 24 years. The picture that emerges is one in which the Left Front will attempt to consolidate and build on its gains, particularly in agriculture and rural development, and will seek to push ahead in respect of school education, health, infrastructure development and industrialisation, with an overall concern for employment-generation.

Nirupam Sen, Minister for Development and Planning, and Commerce and Industry, outlined some elements of this vision in an interview with Frontline. Sen is from among the younger generation of CPI(M) leaders who were part of the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He is from Barddhaman district, the heartland of the Communist movement, and was actively involved in building the party organisation and trade union movement in Barddhaman, and later at the State level. This is his first term as a Cabinet Minister.

Sen underlined the importance of planned development in the Left Front's agenda for the next five years. A major area of concentration for the Left Front in this term of office, as mentioned, is industrialisation. "The limitations under which the State government has to function are known," he said. "In a neo-liberal set-up, when the entire country is going through a deindustrialisation process, it is extremely difficult to industrialise a State, particularly in the context of the closure and dismantling of the public sector in the country as a whole." In spite of that, he said, "we have to take up the challenge of industrialising our State".

According to Sen, the priorities for industrialisation are, first, in the traditional employment-intensive industries such as leather and jute. Here the need is to expand the range of their products to meet new patterns of domestic and international demand. The second priority is to develop the small and medium agro-based industrial sector, in order to generate employment in the rural sector. "The products in this sector can be made competitive by using recent technological advancements and modernised marketing." The Information Technology sector is another area of potential growth. West Bengal has a potential workforce with the skills necessary for growth in this sector, Sen said and the State has already made some progress in this respect over the last two years. Sen hopes also to be able to introduce schemes for self-employment, in which over 1,000 functioning women's self-help groups will play a role, particularly in rural areas and poor urban slums. In heavy industry, the government hopes to build on its current assets. It has attempted to encourage downstream investment after the establishment of Haldia Petrochemicals. A chemical factory owned by Mitsubishi has already been established.

Central government policies have created a crisis situation for a very large number of industrial workers. The Eastern Coal Fields plans to close 56 coal mines; as a result, half a million miners face unemployment. Workers in eight public sector units closed down by the Central government are jobless. "The Government pays Rs.500 a month to the workers of closed industries," said Sen. "We have also earmarked Rs.100 crores for the revival of sick industries. The government will render all essential help for an industrialist who comes forward with a concrete proposal to revive an industry." Sen hopes to quicken the process of investment by getting the single-window system to work more effectively. "We have arranged to set up a land bank for potential investors. The State government should play the role of a facilitator, particularly for private investment at this stage of development."

The present Left Front government visualises a greater role for cooperation in the State, and a policy that places new emphasis on cooperatives as an instrument of economic growth.

THE success of the ambitious plans of the Left Front will be determined by how it uses its present assets and confronts the constraints that are placed on it. Its first asset is the overwhelming mandate of the people. The Left Front believes that it must also build on the foundation of agrarian development in the last two decades, the increasing purchasing power of the people, the human resources of the State (particularly in the knowledge-based sectors), a workforce that backs the programme of the Left and a reasonably satisfactory power situation.

The constraints, however, are also substantial. The removal of trade restrictions to conform to the requirements of the World Trade Organisation has had an immediate impact on the State's economy, and poses particular problems for the rice economy of West Bengal and for agricultural growth in general. The Central government's policies of economic liberalisation, and the subversion of public investment and policies of demand-led development will continue to put pressure on the State's attempts at building its economy. The Left Front has to function with a non-constructive Opposition, and a Press that greeted its return to power with scepticism, if not hostility. And finally there are the burdens of history that the Left Front must bear: the industrial rundown of the State in the 1970s is an example. The problem of uneven urbanisation in the State (that is, the extreme concentration of the urban population in Kolkata and surrounding areas) is another historical legacy with which the Left Front has to deal. The Left Front has come to power for the sixth time at a critical juncture in the political life of the nation, and it is within these and other constraints that it must build "a better Left Front."