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Another jolt

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST


Trinamool Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory, in Kolkata on June 2.-PARTH SANYAL/REUTERS

Trinamool Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory, in Kolkata on June 2.-PARTH SANYAL/REUTERS

THE ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in West Bengal suffered one of its worst electoral defeats in recent times in the just-concluded municipal elections. Its arch rival, the Trinamool Congress, won 27 of the 81 civic bodies where elections were held, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and the neighbouring Bidhannagar municipality. The Trinamool Congress, riding high on its consecutive successes in the panchayat polls of 2008 and the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, contested the elections alone after its alliance with the Congress fell through. The Left could win only 18 municipalities as against 49 in the 2005 elections, while the Congress won seven as against 12 in 2005. Twenty-five municipalities had hung councils, while it was a tie in four. However, a post-poll understanding between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress has ensured that none of them goes to the Left.

The Trinamool Congress won the prized KMC from the Left by securing 95 of the 141 wards, 50 more than what it won in 2005. The Left could win only 33 wards 42 fewer than what it won in the last round, while the Congress won 10 as against 20 in 2005 when it contested under the banner of the United Democratic Alliance. The BJP won in three wards. Senior Trinamool Congress leader Sovan Chatterjee is the party's choice for the new Mayor of Kolkata.

The Left also lost the Bidhannagar municipality, which it had held for the last three consecutive terms, 9-16 to the Trinamool.

The Trinamool Congress leadership had dubbed the municipal elections a semi-final, and the final would be the Assembly elections in West Bengal scheduled for next year. Calling the victory historic, Trinamool Congress supremo and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee reiterated her demand for immediate Assembly elections. The Left Front has lost the mandate of the people. It is a victory of ma, mati, manush (mother, earth and people), she said referring to her political slogan.

West Bengal CPI(M) State secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, however, dismissed Mamata's demand, saying, The civic polls, in which only 85.33 lakh people from 16 districts [out of 18] voted, comprise just 17 per cent of the State's total electorate of 5.24 crore. There is no question of calling early elections.

Strongholds breached

For the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M), the civic elections have been the continuation of a declining trend in its political fortunes. In the panchayat elections the Left Front's strength at the gram panchayat level was reduced to below 50 per cent for the first time in 30 years and in the Lok Sabha elections it could win only 15 of the 42 seats in the State as against 35 in the previous round. The CPI(M) itself could win only nine out of the 32 seats it contested. (The Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance, along with the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), secured 25 seats.)

The municipal elections saw a further breach in CPI(M) strongholds, particularly in North 24 Parganas, Bardhaman, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur and Purulia districts. In a few instances, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress tied up unofficially to beat the Left, as in Memari municipality in Bardhaman district, the stronghold of CPI(M) heavyweight Benoy Konar. In 2005, the Left won 19 of the 21 municipalities in North 24 Parganas, but this time it could win just two. In an attempt to fight off anti-incumbency, the Left fielded 92 new candidates, of whom more than 40 per cent were below the age of 40. However, even youth could not impress the electorate.

Minority vote

The elections also showed the Left's failure to win back the minority vote, which until the 2008 panchayat elections was firmly with the Left. The State government's land acquisition drive for industrial purposes may have been a cause for insecurity among the rural Muslim population dependent on agriculture, which Mamata's anti-land acquisition campaign took full advantage of.

The trend of the Muslim vote shifting away from the Left, as observed in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, seemed to have continued in the municipal elections as well. Even Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's announcement in February of 10 per cent reservation for Muslims in government jobs failed to enthuse the electorate in Muslim-dominated areas to vote for the Left, except in a few places such as Kidderpore in Kolkata.

Trinamool Congress leader Farhad (Bobby) Hakim, who was also one of the Mayoral candidates, told Frontline: Most of the Muslims in the State live below the poverty line. For so long they believed that the CPI(M) gave them social security when all the while they were being marginalised. After what happened in Nandigram and Singur [land acquisition for industries], the Sachar Committee report [revealing that the lot of Muslims in the State leaves much to be desired] and the Rizwanur murder case [in which the death of a Muslim youth, Rizwanur Rahman, caused a major public outcry and resulted in the transfer of several top police officers in Kolkata], the CPI(M) has completely lost the support of the minorities.

Biman Bose, while admitting that it was a bad result for the Left, said that in some of the wards, the party's downward slide, as seen in the Lok Sabha elections, could be reversed marginally. However, it is widely believed that the Left's overall results would have been worse had the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance not foundered at the last minute. In fact, last year's elections in 16 municipalities served as an indicator of the changing political wind. The Left could win in only three municipalities and was unseated in seven.

The CPI(M)'s State leadership agrees that there have been serious organisational lapses in the party. While on the one hand we are losing direct touch with the people, on the other a section of the cadre got disillusioned with the repeated setbacks in elections and became inactive, further alienating the masses from us. It was more a vote against the CPI(M) than a vote for the Trinamool. We have perhaps made the mistake of taking the support of the people for granted, a senior party leader who did not want to be identified told Frontline.

Uneasy alliance

The outcome also made it clear to the Congress and the Trinamool Congress that an alliance of the two parties was a necessity to defeat the Left Front in the Assembly elections next year. The civic elections served as a test for both parties to assess their relative strengths in the changing political dynamics of the State. While the Trinamool Congress used it to see whether it could take on the might of the Left on its own, the Congress wanted to prove to the Trinamool Congress its own indispensability in the task of ending the 35-year-old Left Front rule.

Both parties succeeded in their own ways. The Trinamool Congress reasserted its strength, riding high on anti-incumbency, and the Congress underlined its importance as an ally in a hung situation, as was the case in quite a few municipalities. Though there have been reconciliatory overtures from both parties after the election results were declared, it is unlikely that the bad blood between the two can be washed away in the anti-incumbency wave. The Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance has from the start been an uneasy one. Talk of jot' (alliance) and mahajot' (grand alliance) between the two parties have come up repeatedly only to die down in the face of irreconcilable political differences and old rancour.

What is generally meant by an alliance between two political parties is absent in the relationship between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress in West Bengal. What we have is a seat adjustment, and that too not a rigid one, Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharjee told Frontline.

It was over seat-sharing that the two parties fell out some weeks before the municipal elections. While the Congress wanted 51 seats in the KMC, the Trinamool Congress would not concede more than 25. All the bonhomie of the past one year came crashing down as Mamata directed her ire at the State Congress leadership, accusing it of being agents of the CPI(M) and betrayers.

The Congress, whom Mamata has repeatedly referred to as the B team of the CPI(M), felt justified in severing the alliance. During the Lok Sabha elections we supported her as our main objective was to defeat the CPI(M). We agreed to all her conditions regarding seat-sharing. But this was a local election and our boys said they would rather fight it alone since the Trinamool was adamant in its stand, said Pradip Bhattacharjee. At one stage a section of the rank and file of the Congress reacted violently, vandalising the pradesh Congress office in protest against the last-ditch efforts being made by national-level leaders to keep the alliance afloat.

On May 4, two days after Mamata Banerjee announced the break-up of the alliance, pradesh Congress working president Subrata Mukherjee, who in 2000 became the Mayor of Kolkata under the Trinamool Congress banner, returned to the Trinamool Congress. He had joined the Congress in 2005 after falling out with Mamata. With the Congress breaking up the alliance and trying to make things advantageous for the Left, I felt there was no place for me in the party any longer. We want an alliance with the Congress for the 2011 Assembly polls; it will make things much easier. But if the Congress does not, then we have proved that we can beat the Left Front by ourselves, Mukherjee told Frontline.

Pradip Bhattacharjee, however, feels that the Trinamool Congress will find it difficult to take on the might of the Left without Congress support. There is no denying that the Trinamool Congress is the main opposition force, but the Congress' role in its success cannot be denied either. In the earlier elections we ensured that Mamata Banerjee was not dissatisfied with the seat-sharing arrangements, so now she must ensure that we are not dissatisfied. We want the seats in the arrangement with honour, he said, adding that a new chapter in Bengal politics had begun and the Congress was hopeful.

In spite of the Congress' insistence that it is indispensable in a viable opposition alliance against the Left, many analysts feel that in deciding to go it alone in the municipal elections, its credibility as an anti-Left force has taken a battering, as is evident in its election results. Though we have our own committed voters, a sizable chunk of the anti-CPI(M) voters who would otherwise have gone with us may have voted for the Trinamool Congress after the alliance fell through, a source in the Congress said.

In the present situation, it will be to the Trinamool Congress' advantage to have an electoral tie-up with the Congress, which will have little bargaining power and will have to be content with being a junior partner in the State a situation that is a continuing source of resentment among Congress workers.

The results of the municipal elections, though it covered only a small percentage of the electorate, has one important aspect: it indicates how urban and semi-urban voters have voted. This is where the Left Front has cause for grave concern. For, just as the panchayat elections showed that a significant section of the rural population had moved to the Trinamool Congress, the civic elections showed the disenchantment of urban voters with the Left. This is more worrying for the Left because there was no bogey of land acquisition or any unprincipled alliance among the opposition parties to occasion such disenchantment.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 02, 2010.)



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