The Left Front's victory in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections is a sign of its increasing acceptability among the urban middle class, which has traditionally voted against it.SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY in Kolkata
TOWARDS the end of the counting process, when it became clear that the Left Front had gained a comfortable majority in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), a local television news channel asked the Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas what he felt after the "capture" of Kolkata. Biswas replied: "It is the people of Kolkata who have captured us." The CPI(M) leader's statement and the poll results pointed to one important political development - there has been a clear shift in the mindset of the urban voters in West Bengal. Having won 49 of the 79 municipalities in the rest of the State in May, the Left Front has put the icing on the cake by recapturing the prized KMC from the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC).
In the adjoining municipality of Bidhan Nagar in Salt Lake, the Left Front romped home, winning 18 of the 23 wards. The NTC-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance secured only five, six fewer than what the Trinamul Congress had won in the last elections. However, there was some consolation for NTC president Mamata Banerjee in the Uttarpara-Kotrung municipality, where her party won a comfortable majority by winning 17 of the 24 wards. The Left Front won six, of which the CPI(M) won five and the CPI one. The Congress got one ward.
Of the total 141 wards in the KMC that went to the polls on June 19, the Left Front won 75, 14 more than it did in 2000. The NTC-BJP combine won 45, 16 fewer than it did in 2000. While the Congress and outgoing Kolkata Mayor Subrata Mukherjee's Unnayan Manch got 20, one seat went to an independent. The Congress and the Unnayan Manch contested under the banner of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). In the Left Front, the CPI(M) alone won 58 wards, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) six, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Forward Bloc four each, and the Bidrohi Bangla Congress, the Marxist Forward Bloc and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) one each.
The Left Front wrested 12 wards from the NTC and three from the Congress. It retained all but one seat - Ward No. 43 - it won in 2000. In this ward, UDA candidate Sweta Indoria defeated the CPI(M)'s Shayesta Banu by 198 votes. All three candidates for the Mayor's post won from their own wards. CPI(M) candidate Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharjee, who is likely to take the place of Subroto Mukherjee, won by a comfortable margin of 1,638 votes against his nearest rival Partha Chatterjee of the NTC. While Subroto Mukherjee defeated NTC leader Shovondeb Chattopadhyay by 875 votes, former Union Minister Ajit Panja defeated the Samajwadi Party's Nawal Joshi by 259 votes.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: "The Left Front's victory in Kolkata has further increased our responsibilities. We will have to live up to the trust and expectation that the people have placed on us. The [Kolkata Municipal] Corporation and the State government will have to work together, and work well." His predecessor and veteran CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu congratulated the people of Kolkata. "A responsible and intelligent person is bound to vote for the Left Front. We are indebted to the people," he said.
In many ways the KMC elections were a litmus test for Mamata Banerjee's declining political career. She managed to survive and prove that at least in Kolkata the NTC continues to be the main Opposition party. With her party a shambles and her political career at an all-time low, it would appear that Mamata Banerjee was fighting for political survival. By winning 45 seats, she just about managed to do that. She proved that she still had a support base, especially among urban voters. But, it is a far cry from the days when she could say that she had the confidence of the Kolkata electorate.
The real loser in the KMC elections appears to be Subrata Mukherjee. His effort at creating a mahajot (grand alliance) against the Left Front with the blessings of veteran Congress leaders A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chaudhury and Pranab Mukherjee has come a cropper. He had tried, in vain, until the very end to rope in Mamata Banerjee as the leader of the mahajot. His Unnayan Manch could win only five seats, including his own. The Congress, Subrata Mukherjee's ally, just about matched its previous tally by winning 15 wards.
The bickering and apportionment of blame that has followed the defeat of the NTC indicates that the idea of a mahajot has been buried, at least for the foreseeable future, that is, until the Assembly elections next year. In fact, Jyoti Basu has already forecast that the Left Front will win a two-thirds majority in the Assembly elections.
It may not be proper to ascribe the success of the Left Front merely to a fragmented opposition. As is well known, Kolkata has traditionally voted against the party in power. The Left Front has not only got a significant electoral support from the urban voters in and around Kolkata, but more important, it has been able to attract a sizable number of voters from the upper and upper-middle classes, and the non-Bengali business community. This is apparent from its performance in northeast Kolkata and in the posh localities of Bidhan Nagar municipality. Interestingly, just over a year ago the CPI(M) candidate in the Lok Sabha elections trailed in a major part of the Salt Lake area in the Dumdum constituency, though the party won the seat.
The urban voter's shift of political allegiance has its reasons. The Left Front's policies of inviting investment to West Bengal and promoting industrialisation and the clean image of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee have contributed to bolster the confidence of the urban middle class. Immediately before the polls, the formal revival of the Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) by its merger with Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) added a new feather to Bhattacharjee's cap. The bold initiative, even in the face of reservations about restructuring ailing public sector undertakings, long-term plans to ease the traffic in Kolkata with Japanese assistance, and encouraging agro-based industries and horticulture exports from the State have contributed to raising the expectations of the emerging young entrepreneurs in West Bengal. Many of them, though originally from other parts of the country, have thrown in their lot with the State government after noting its cosmopolitan and industry-friendly attitude. It may not be known to many outside West Bengal that the Bengali middle class has traditionally and predominantly consisted of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and salaried people; there has never been a large trading community or caste group in Bengali society. Hence any rapid and radical industrial transformation of urban Bengal has to draw upon expertise and capital from outside the State and the country.
The Left Front government, however, has always maintained a proper balance between the need for industrialisation and the interests of the working classes. It is noteworthy that prospective Mayor Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharjee has given priority to the improvement of slums in the KMC area. This is a welcome change from the emphasis on new flyovers and garden layouts, which appeared to have preoccupied the outgoing KMC leadership. Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharjee underlined the need to impose water tax in Kolkata. This was a bone of contention between the KMC and the State government, which was insisting on it. Now, with the same party in power in the State and the local body, it will be easier to take these necessary, but not so popular, decisions.
The May-June local body elections were a dress-rehearsal for the May 2006 Assembly elections. Barring a few untoward incidents, the polls were conducted in a peaceful atmosphere. The final outcome shows that the Left Front is in an even stronger position than it was during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, having consolidated and extended its sphere of influence even among urban voters and the upper classes. The NTC still remains a one-person party; it is frittering away its energy and support base through internecine quarrels. Mamata Banerjee still plans to make a new alliance to defeat the CPI(M) and capture the "big lalbari" - Writers Buildings - though she has lost the "small lalbari" - the KMC (both the buildings are imposing red structures of the colonial era). But the NTC's ally, the BJP, has no substantial presence in the State, the Congress is in a bad shape, her own party colleagues have deserted her, and the mahajot was dead before its was born. Keeping these factors in view, one wonders what options are left to her to forge an effective adversary to the Left Front.