A spectacular show

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

A solid social base comprising the poor and the backward communities and a formidable organisational machine stand the Left Front in good stead for the sixth consecutive time.

THE spectacular victory of the Left Front in West Bengal is also a bundle of puzzles for more than one reason. The most obvious puzzle is of course the mismatch between the expectations of at least some people just before the elections and the outcome. Opinion polls and the exit poll had prepared many for a cliff-hanger. The estimate of the Left Front itself was that it would win 165 seats. Then why was the outcome so different?

Those who do not give much credence to last-minute guessing games have a different kind of puzzle to resolve. The past decade saw the first flush of excitement and creativity of the Left Front subside. The results of the elections in 1996, 1998 and 1999 roughly reflected this trend. What did happen in the last two years to reverse it? And then there is the puzzle of a mismatch between the political opinion and the political behaviour of the West Bengal electorate.

The CSDS survey, which predicted a huge victory for the Left Front, reveals signs of popular unhappiness with the Left Front regime on many scores. These findings match the ground-level observations of many analysts who are sympathisers of the Left. Why did the resentments and anxieties of the people not find expression in their voting decisions? What effect did the 8 percentage-point drop in the turnout have on the outcome?

First, a look at how spectacular this victory is. The final score card reads 199 seats for the Left Front in a House of 294. This is the sixth successive victory for the Front in the Assembly elections held after the Emergency. In all these elections it won a two-thirds majority. It would be hard to find a parallel to this kind of electoral success in any democracy in the world, let alone in India. The Congress did dominate the elections in Karnataka and Maharashtra for several decades. But, first of all, the credit for at least the initial victories of the Congress goes to the legacy of the national movement it inherited, rather than its policies and programmes. Secondly, it was not the same Congress that dominated politics in these States; for all practical purposes the Congress under Indira Gandhi was a new party. Thirdly, the Congress did not enjoy a two-thirds majority for such a long, uninterrupted period like the Left Front and did not retain a vote-share close to 50 per cent during this entire period. The Left Front presents a rare case of a political formation with organisational, programmatic and leadership continuity winning successive democratic elections for close to three decades. It must be the only case where such a level of success is achieved by creating a class bloc of the poor and the backward communities. The Left Front's victory this time also disproves the theories about the "anti-incumbency" factor being a reflex action of voters.

The Left Front's tally this time is considerably lower than its tally in 1987 when it peaked, winning 251 seats. But compared to the results of the Assembly elections in 1996, it lost only four seats. Notwithstanding all the media hype, the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance could add only four seats to the tally of 82 of the undivided Congress(I) in the previous election. The Left Front secured 49 per cent of the total votes polled. It lost only 0.3 percentage points since the 1996 elections and actually gained 2.2 percentage points over the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Interestingly, the Left Front has maintained a margin of exactly 9.8 percentage points over its nearest rival in these three elections. For the first time in 24 years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) failed to get a majority on its own. But it still has 143 seats and a history of working closely with its allies for over two decades.

On the other hand, with 26 seats and a mere 8 per cent of the vote, the Congress(I) put up this time its worst ever performance in Assembly elections in West Bengal. The Trinamul Congress raised its vote-share to 31 per cent, but its tally (60 seats) is less than the number of Assembly segments in which it had a lead in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 and 1999. The Bharatiya Janata Party failed once again to open its account in the Assembly; it secured 5.2 per cent of the votes, the lowest in the past decade. The Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) turned out to be a non-starter with just 0.6 per cent of the vote, and its leader Saifuddin Choudhry lost his deposit in the Nandanpur constituency.

One of the reasons for the Left Front's winning streak is its ability to retain the constituencies it wins. In the recent past, the retention rate of ruling parties has been poor all over the country. Even when they come back to power they lose about half of the seats they held and win a new set of seats. The Congress(I) in Madhya Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar are cases in point. The Left Front is an exception to this trend. It has shown a capacity to build durable social alliances at the local level. There were 145 seats which the Left had never lost in the five Assembly elections prior to the latest round. This time it lost 24 of them. The Left Front held on to 166 of the 203 seats it won last time - a retention rate of 82 per cent. The Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance could retain only 65 per cent of the seats the undivided Congress(I) held in 1996. The Left Front retained its strongholds among the seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Of the 76 reserved seats in the State (59 for the S.Cs and 17 for the S.Ts), the Left Front won 64 this time - a loss of just two seats compared to the last elections. In the seats reserved for the S.Ts, it maintained its track record of winning 16 of the 17 seats.

A region-wise comparison of this verdict with the 1996 results tells a story of continuity, while a comparison with the 1999 verdict shows some interesting changes. The six districts of North Bengal again stood solidly behind the Left Front. It gained five seats in the region and made a clean sweep of Cooch Behar and Dakshin Dinajpur districts. The split in the pro-Kamtapuri vote owing to the presence of the Kamtapuri People's Party in the fray helped the Front in Cooch Behar, and the presence of Congress(I) rebels in Malda helped it add to its tally. Perhaps the Left Front's biggest success this time was the retention of its bastion in the rural southwestern region. In a repeat performance, the Left Front won 99 of the 125 seats in this region. The Trinamul Congress' famous 'Panskura line' did not work. Even in Midnapore district, where Mamata Banerjee expected to break into the Left Front's rural base, the Left Front won 27 of the 37 seats. Burdwan, Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum districts remained as loyal to the Left as ever. The Left Front lost only four seats in the southeastern region adjoining Bangladesh, but the districts here saw major changes. The Left Front improved its performance in Nadia, thanks to the infighting in the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance, and in Murshidabad, owing to the good performance by the BJP. It lost five seats in North 24 Parganas, where the CPI(M) faced some internal troubles. But, compared to the number of Assembly segments it led in the last Lok Sabha elections, it gained seven seats in the district. In South 24 Parganas, where too the CPI(M) faced some internal problems and clashes had broken out between the workers of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the CPI(M), the Left Front lost seven seats. This represents its biggest single loss in any district.

Much has been made in the media about the Left Front's gains in Greater Kolkata. It needs to be remembered that the Front had never really 'lost' Kolkata. Even when the Congress(I) made gains in the Greater Kolkata region, the Left Front retained a majority of the 49 seats here. It was only in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 that the Left Front's leads in the Assembly segments dropped to nine. This time it won 22 seats in the region, which means a substantial recovery from the last Lok Sabha elections. But it lost five seats compared to the last Assembly elections. In this region, the BJP's vote-share dropped by nearly 3 percentage points when compared to the number of votes it got in 1996 when it had no allies. At any rate, the results from Kolkata do not point to any major shift in the industrial belt of West Bengal. The Left Front has been steadily losing its base in the 75 constituencies that fall in the industrial belt. It won 65 seats in the Assembly elections of 1991 and 45 in 1996; the number of Assembly segments where it had a lead in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections was 35. In this round, the Left Front won 40 seats here, five more than the number of Assembly segments where it led in 1999 but five less than its tally in 1996. The Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance won 32 seats.

THE outcome this time is almost a repeat of the results of the 1996 Assembly elections. What accounts for this extraordinary continuity? Have not factors such as the split in the Congress(I) and the formation of the Trinamul Congress, the latter's alliance with the BJP first and with the Congress(I) later made no difference to the political situation? Part of the answer lies in the disunity of the anti-Left vote. The Left Front retained 87 per cent of the traditional Left supporters in the State, while the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance could win over only 74 per cent of the traditional anti-Left voters. A significant proportion of anti-Left voters preferred the BJP and other parties. This gap of 13 percentage points makes a big difference because the traditional Left supporters are numerically stronger than the anti-Left voters. Although voters without any political loyalties lean towards the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I), their support is not sufficient for the alliance to win. The transfer of votes from 1999 shows the dynamics of Opposition disunity. While the Trinamul Congress could persuade 79 per cent of all those who voted for the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha elections to vote for the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) combine this time (only 8 per cent of them supported the BJP), the Congress(I) could transfer only 58 per cent of its votes to the new alliance, losing 25 per cent to "others" and 15 to the Left Front. Clearly, the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance did not work on the ground.

The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) vis-a-vis the Left Front was 80 per cent this time. In other words, about 20 per cent of the anti-Left votes was 'wasted'. This can explain the defeat of anti-Left parties in many constituencies, especially in districts such as Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Malda, Murshidabad and Kolkata North-West where the IOU was particularly low. In 76 seats, the BJP's vote-share is greater than the victory margin of the Left Front. Of these, 50 seats are in the southeast and Kolkata regions and 30 in Nadia and the two Parganas districts. Statistically it could be said that a grand alliance of the Trinamul Congress, the Congress(I) and the BJP could have won a majority. But such a calculation is based on the assumptions that a grand alliance is politically possible, that it would lead to a perfect transfer of votes and that it would not alienate more voters than it might attract. All these are questionable assumptions. Also, there is nothing new about opposition disunity: the IOU remained almost the same in the Assembly elections of 1996 and the Lok Sabha elections of 1999. At any rate, if a political formation has 49 per cent of the popular vote, no amount of Opposition unity can shake it, especially in a first-past-the-post system of election.

What explains such a high level of vote-share that the Left Front has? Normally one would attribute it to a very high level of popular approval for the government's performance and its leaders. Surprisingly, that is not what the survey reveals. The standard question on the level of satisfaction with the existing government elicited a lukewarm response: there was neither strong resentment nor enthusiastic approval. In fact the ratings for the Left Front government are no better than those for the deposed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu. It could well be that the voters use different yardsticks in the two States, or that the Left has got West Bengal voters used to higher standards (??). But the fact remains that such a level of rating normally does not translate into a two-thirds majority. The Left Front's overall record in the matter of bringing dignity to the poor received strong endorsement, even among its die-hard opponents. Also, Mamata Banerjee's allegation that the level of violence increased under the Left Front regime did not stick. A lot of voters remember what happened during the Congress(I) regime led by Siddhartha Shankar Ray and would any day prefer the Left Front over that.

But, again, the Left Front government does not come very clean on the issue of corruption. The opinion is divided even among its loyal supporters. Its opponents and unattached voters are of course very emphatic in calling it corrupt. There seems to be a good deal of latent resentment against the Left Front, notwithstanding its spectacular electoral victories. But there is no viable alternative that can channel this resentment and offer the voters some hope for better governance. In such a situation, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's slogan that the Left was the best alternative to the ills of the Left holds a special attraction.

An understanding of the popular perception of the major personalities does not offer much of a clue about the nature of the verdict. The media tried to present the elections as a contest between Buddhadeb and Mamata Banerjee and analysed the verdict accordingly. But the survey's findings do not support such analyses. As one who ruled for 23 years and stepped down on his own, Jyoti Basu still enjoys the highest ratings. Buddhadeb's ratings are not bad, but so are those of Mamata Banerjee. In fact some direct questions on Mamata show that the results do not represent a verdict against her. She is considered the only person capable of taking on the Left Front. She is also considered clean, even by a third of Left Front supporters. On balance, the voters do not agree with the assessment that she is good at agitations and theatrics but may not be good for governance. It may be premature to write her off. Also, there does not seem to be much evidence to say that Buddhadeb swung this election in favour of the Left Front. The voters know him as Jyoti Basu's successor, but are yet to make a clear assessment about him. In fact Jyoti Basu's retirement and replacement by Buddhadeb resulted in a net loss of about one percentage point to the Left. That, of course, is no reflection on Buddhadeb, but an indicator of the stature of Jyoti Basu. It also confirms that it was not any personality that won the election for the Left Front. It was the organisation all the way.

Mamata Banerjee has alleged that the Left Front won by rigging the elections. Unlike the CPI(M) which challenged the veracity of the election results in 1972, she has not substantiated her charge. And it appears that she would not be able to sustain it. And this is not the first time one hears about alleged malpractices benefiting the Left Front. Assuming that malpractices do take place, it is not clear why they should have been more successful this time. And it is impossible to believe that the overall character of the mandate would have been different all these years but for "scientific rigging". If Mamata Banerjee really had the kind of popular support that would have given her a clear mandate, it would have been revealed by the post-poll survey (which captured all the complaints against the ruling Front). And the people would have rebelled if they had perceived that their mandate was manipulated. By refusing to accept the people's verdict and dragging the name of the Chief Election Commissioner into a controversy, Mamata Banerjee may have only alienated some of her supporters. It might be much better to learn from the verdict than to deny it.

The lesson for Mamata Banerjee is: the Left Front cannot be defeated without the backing of a solid organisation and a viable programme. Land reforms and panchayati raj have changed the face of rural Bengal and made a large section of society pro-Left. The Left Front consolidated the gains of this transformation with the help of its awesome organisational machine. And it is this machine that effectively translates political support into votes. Its effectiveness can be seen in the social composition of the Left Front's vote base. The Left Front has a classic pyramid-like class base: very broad at the base and narrow at the top. The class base remains similar in rural and urban areas. At the base is rural Bengal, where the Left has taken a huge lead. It has always enjoyed a more-than-average lead among women voters. Significantly, the Left Front's lower-class base has a caste colour too. It enjoys a phenomenal lead among the Scheduled Castes and among Muslims, although its leadership still comes predominantly from the Hindu bhadralok. Despite her decision to snap her ties with the BJP, Mamata Banerjee failed to improve her standing among Muslims; in fact, she failed to get most of the Muslim votes that went to the Congress(I) last time.

The social bloc comprising the poor and the backward communities that the Left Front has assiduously forged in the last two decades stayed with it this time. And that is the character of social blocs that are formed on the basis of politics. They tend to survive much longer than the policies and politicians who created them. It takes an extraordinary event or a charismatic personality or an unusual movement to reconfigure these blocs. None of these was present in the Assembly elections of 2001.

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