West Bengal stands at a turning point as it faces a highly polarised Assembly election.
BANSAPARA and Khujutipara, situated just a few kilometres apart in Birbhum district of West Bengal, are identical in layout and in the habits and customs of their inhabitants. Yet few places are as acrimoniously at odds with each other over politics as these two villages, which fall within the Nanoor Assembly constituency. Khujutipara is loyal to the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), while Bansapara swears by Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress.
If Khujutipara is certain that the anti-incumbency wave is getting weaker with every passing day that and the CPI(M)-led Left Front will ultimately win an eighth consecutive term, Bansapara scoffs at such claims, pointing to the large turnout at TMC election rallies. This sharply contrasting positions of the two villages reflect the larger political mood in the State, where Assembly elections are scheduled to begin on April 18.
The six-phase elections, which will end on May 10, are likely to see voting of an unprecedentedly polarised nature. For the Left Front, this is a crucial election as it provides it the last opportunity to prove that the Left continues to enjoy the mandate of the people, especially in the wake of a series of defeats in the panchayat (2008), Lok Sabha (2009) and municipal (2010) elections.
For the TMC too, this is a do-or-die election, as it knows that it may perhaps never come as close to victory as now if it cannot defeat the Left this time. On the one hand, the refrain heard across the State is, Let us give the other side a chance. We have seen the Left for so long; on the other, there is a strong united voice against the escalating political violence and in favour of the Left's position on peace and progress.
Villages are divided within themselves as localities turn into mini power centres of political parties. Earlier there was a strong wave for the TMC, but now people are not so sure of the change because they do not want a change for the worse, said Gokul Chandra Ghosh of Nanoor village, Birbhum. However, according to his neighbour Siddhartha Mandal, People want a change. It is as simple as that.
This change, simply for the sake of change, is a factor that cannot be ignored in this election. It is a sentiment that seems to have caught on widely. In Nadia district's Krishnanagar Uttar constituency, CPI(M) MLA Subinoy Ghosh's personal appeal is such that he also secures a number of the non-Left votes. His opponent from the TMC is Abani Joardar, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service based in Kolkata. While practically everybody in the region knows Ghosh, a large section of the people did not even know who the TMC candidate was.
Nasiruddin Alam, who has no idea who the TMC candidate is or where he comes from, said, Subinoy is a good man, but I will vote for the TMC candidate. Though such sentiments may not necessarily cause upsets in electoral battles, they point to the growing anti-incumbency factor.
The last three elections witnessed an erosion in the Left vote base. We have never faced an election against the backdrop of such setbacks in the past. In the last few months there has been a turnaround, but it remains to be seen whether it is enough to carry us through, a Left Front source told Frontline.
The recent elections have seen the Left losing heavily in south Bengal. Political observers say the outcome of the Assembly elections will depend on how deep the opposition has been able to foray into the traditional Left bastions of the south Bengal districts of Bardhaman, Birbhum, Bankura, Pashchim Medinipur and Purulia. In the 2006 Assembly elections, of the 11 seats in Birbhum, the Left won nine, while the Congress and the TMC got one each. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, both the parliamentary seats went to the Left.
However, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC won one seat, securing leads in six of its Assembly segments. The following year, the Congress-TMC alliance formed the board at the Bolpur municipality. Out of the 19 seats in Bolpur municipality, the Left managed to win only two.
Bardhaman is one region which seems to have withstood the ravages of the anti-incumbency sentiment. In the 2009 elections, the Left retained all three Lok Sabha seats, though there was a reduction in the victory margins and the percentage of votes polled by it. We had made certain mistakes and had perhaps become a little complacent, but we worked hard in the last two years and managed to win back the confidence of those poor people who had turned their backs on us, CPI(M) district secretary of Bardhaman Amal Haldar told Frontline.
However, the 2010 municipal elections saw major breaches in the bastion, with the opposition winning in Memari and Guskora municipalities where the Left had never seen defeat in more than 30 years. Mahadeb Ghore of Digha Dangal village in Bardhaman's Ausgram Assembly constituency feels that though it will be difficult to defeat the Left in Bardhaman, the opposition has undoubtedly been gaining in strength. Since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the opposition has been steadily gaining ground, though not enough to defeat the Left, he said. An interesting sight, perhaps unprecedented in the Ausgram constituency, was CPI(M) and TMC flags fluttering side by side in the paddy fields.TOUGH BATTLE
However, the Left faces a tough battle in most districts of south Bengal, particularly North and South 24 Paraganas, Kolkata and Hooghly. According to Moinuddin Sheikh of Koipukur village at Amdanga of North 24 Paraganas, there is little sign of a Left turnaround in his village. Now there is a wave for the TMC, and no one will be able to arrest it, he said. However, not all the constituencies in these districts have been swayed completely by the wave. Jadavpur in South 24 Paraganas, which is Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's constituency, appears to be unaffected by the anti-incumbency factor. Even if I support Trinamool everywhere else, I want Buddhababu to be my MLA, a resident of Jadavpur said. The Trinamool candidate here is Manish Gupta, a former Chief Secretary of the State. While the first three phases of the elections, on April 18, 23 and 27 in the northern, middle and southern parts of the State respectively, will be in regions that are more or less peaceful, the last three phases, on May 3, 7 and 10, will be held in politically volatile and sensitive areas. On May 3, Purbo Medinipur district, where a prolonged turf war was fought in Nandigram between the TMC and the CPI(M), will be going to polls, and on May 10, the 14 Maoist-affected forest seats of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia will have their elections. The Maoists have called for a boycott of the elections.
As the first phase of the elections approached, the rocky alliance between the TMC and the Congress smoothened out to some extent, with the Congress high command putting pressure on the rebellious leaders to follow the rules of the alliance.
Top State Congress leaders like Adhir Chowdhury from Murshidabad and Deepa Das Munshi from Uttar Dinajpur and a section of the leadership from Malda, who, disgruntled with the humiliating terms of the alliance that only allowed the State Congress to contest in 65 out of the 294 seats, were openly backing independents against TMC candidates. Though most of them fell in line, a few like Adhir continued to defy the central leadership. The candidates set up by Adhir in four constituencies in Murshidabad against the TMC may ultimately help the Left there by taking away some anti-Left votes.
Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, one of the main architects of the TMC-Congress alliance, dismissed the chances of independents being a factor in the elections. The independents will all lose their security deposits. They will not be a factor this time, as people will vote only for the Congress-Trinamool alliance, he said.
Essentially, it will be an election for those who want the Left to continue in power and those who want a change at any cost.