So why did the Left Front win?

Print edition : May 26, 2001

IN the evening on May 13, after the Left Front's victory was confirmed, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya emerged from his home to drive to the Returning Officer's office to collect his victor's certificate. Crowds of journalists stood by; one pushed a microphone in front of him and asked if he would now work to reverse 24 years of Left Front policy. Bhattacharya, never a slouch at turning television journalism's superficiality to good personal account, appeared puzzled and asked back: "Why should I reverse the policies that brought the Left Front back to power?"

Table 1

And that, of course, is the major reason for the Left Front's sixth successive victory: its record of achievement.

In the 1970s, West Bengal was trapped in what has been called an "agrarian impasse": its agriculture was stagnant and snared in archaic systems of agrarian relations. West Bengal came out of that impasse because of the land reform policy of the Left Front. Land reform programmes of significance have been implemented in two States in India, West Bengal and Kerala. Both were spearheaded by mass organisations of the Left, and confirmed and given legal sanction by Left governments. The major achievements of land reform in West Bengal represent a historic change in the countryside:

* More than 1.4 million sharecroppers were registered with the public authority, earning them security of tenure and a series of new rights in the land and credit markets.

*Ceiling surplus land was distributed to 2.5 million households.

* Title deeds to house-site lands were given to 500,000 households.

* Title deeds to agricultural land were issued in the names of 400,000 women.

In total, more than half of all rural households were the direct beneficiaries of land reform after 1977.

The Left Front government has also been the powerhouse of democratic local government in India. It was the first to establish an effective panchayat system; indeed, the Bengal experience was the stimulus for the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution. The majority of panchayat members in Bengal are from land-poor and landless families.

Land reform and decentralisation cleared the way for substantial achievement in respect of other features of rural development.

Table 2

*There was a sharp increase in rural electrification and irrigation.

*West Bengal experienced the highest rates of growth of agricultural production and productivity in India in the 1980s and 1990s (Table 1).

*Rural wage rates rose substantially.

These resulted in a steep and continuous decline in the proportion of the population below the official poverty line in West Bengal between 1977 and 1997 (Table 2). The decline in income-poverty reflects the fact that, contrary to the national trend, calorie intakes in West Bengal have risen since the early 1970s. In rural India, average calorie intake fell from 2,266 Kcals in 1972-73 to 2,221 in 1983 and to 2,153 in 1993-94. In urban India, the average intake was lower than in rural India. West Bengal and Kerala were exceptions to the overall trend of decline in calorie intake: these were the only two States in which the calorie intake per person increased between 1972-73 and 1993-94 in rural and urban areas. West Bengal's performance is noteworthy in two respects. First, calorie intake per person improved in rural and urban areas between 1983 and 1993-94 and over the longer period 1972-1993. Secondly, calorie intake per person in West Bengal, which was below the national average in 1972-73, moved to a position above the national average in 1993-94.

West Bengal is an all-India exemplar in respect of other features of government as well. There has not been a single communal riot in West Bengal in 24 years, nor any campaign of organised violence against the people of the oppressed castes and tribes. No member of a Left Front government has been charge-sheeted for corruption. No State government in recent years has mobilised the administration and the working people to bring relief to the rural population during a natural calamity as did the Left Front after the floods of 1978 and 2000.

The election campaign was an important opportunity for the electorate to evaluate the Left Front vis-a-vis its major electoral opponent, the hastily formed, faction-ridden coalition between the Trinamul Congress and the Congress(I). Take the chief ministerial candidates of the two opposing groups. On our left, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a person who comes from the people's movement and who, over decades in government and politics, has built close personal links with the mass organisations of his party, with people who represent the world of art, literature and culture and with representatives of industry in the State. On our right, Mamata Banerjee, who came from the Congress(I), joined the BJP-led NDA and turned once again to the Congress(I) weeks before the election. A person whose rise was backed by the die-hard anti-Communist elements in Bengal society. In rural West Bengal, the forces supporting Mamata Banerjee represent the potential for agrarian counter-reform. On our left, a person whose record in ministerial office has been repeatedly endorsed by the electorate. On our right, a person whose ministerial record at the Centre was not exactly a campaign boast of the Trinamul Congress. On our left, a person who met people, spoke to them, absorbed their criticisms of Left Front rule, and who took a decision not to refer to by name or criticise personally the leader of the opposing front in any of his campaign speeches. On our right, a person who is still to realise that her near-hysterical campaign of slander against the Left Front (and the Election Commission, by the way) convinced large sections of the electorate that she definitely was not chief ministerial material. On our left, a person who was the candidate of a party with a close-knit and disciplined organisation in every village and town in the State. On our right, in organisational terms, a torsoless head.

The vote in West Bengal is not a vote for no change. It is a vote for change, but change that is founded on the strengths of a progressive legacy.

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