Left Front on a strong wicket

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The Left Front prepares to re-assert its supremacy in the West Bengal Assembly even as the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) combine hopes to spring a surprise.

AT 87, Jyoti Basu, the veteran Marxist, is still the key figure in the ruling Left Front's campaign for the May 10 elections to the 294-member West Bengal Assembly. Before he stepped down in October 2000 as Chief Minister after an uninterrupted stint since 1977, he promised that he would continue to serve the party. Although for the first time in 49 years he is not a candidate, Jyoti Basu is on a whirlwind tour of all the State to ensure a record sixth term for the Front in office. Not showing any sign of age, he has been continuously on the move from district to district, launching scathing attacks on the Trinamul-Congress(I) alliance. "There is no alternative to the Left Front in West Bengal and that is why the Front's victory is inevitable," has been Basu's assertion.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at a Left Front rally in Kolkata.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's campaign is more restrained and has a personal touch. He addresses gatherings at local clubs and committees, holds group meetings, leads processions and canvasses door to door. Bhattacharya is contesting from Jadavpur in south Calcutta. His main rivals are: Bengali film actress Madhabi Mukherjee of the Trinamul Congress and Samir Putatunda, who along with Saifuddin Chowdhuri broke away from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and formed the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS). Putatunda was the secretary of the CPI(M)'s South 24-Parganas district committee for a considerable period of time. Madhabi, a professional favourite of director Satyajit Ray, has starred in a number of his films, the most famous being Charulata.

With no tussles over the sharing of seats among its constituents - the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party - the Left Front started its campaign in early March ahead of its rivals. On the other hand, the Opposition parties were not out of the woods even in the third week of April.

Before the Trinamul Congress withdrew from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the wake of the Tehelka expose its leader Mamata Banerjee had released a list of party candidates after leaving 39 seats for the BJP. But the political scenario underwent a dramatic change with Mamata Banerjee resigning from the Union Cabinet and breaking her party's ties with the BJP to forge an alliance with the Congress(I). By the time she hammered out a seat-sharing deal with the Congress(I) after prolonged negotiations, her party workers had already painted the walls of Kolkata with names of Trinamul contestants that were in the list released earlier. This created confusion, and as a result neither the Trinamul Congress nor the Congress(I) could start the campaign in time.

It took three weeks for the two parties to arrive at an understanding with regard to the seats. There was a lot of discontent at the local level in the Congress(I). Veteran Congressman A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury refused to let the Trinamul Congress contest from any of the Assembly segments of the Malda parliamentary constituency which he represents. Personal interventions from Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who was enthusiastic about an electoral tie-up with the Trinamul Congress, became necessary to make Ghani Khan give up his rigid stand. Kamal Nath, who is in charge of Congress(I)'s affairs in West Bengal, met Ghani Khan Chowdhury three times to try and bring about a reconciliation. Finally it was decided that the Congress(I) would contest from most of the Assembly constituencies in Malda.

Under the new agreement, the Trinamul Congress will contest 225 seats, leaving 58 seats to the Congress(I). The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) have been allotted eight and three seats respectively. The Congress(I) has 42 MLAs in the present Assembly.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at a rally at Kirnahar.-REUTERS

Despite the efforts of the leaders of the Trinamul Congress and its ally, there is strong resentment among the ranks, particularly those whose candidature had to be sacrificed for the sake of the new arrangement. Seven of the 15 Congress(I) legislators who have been denied nomination quit the party to form the Save Congress Committee. They have joined Sharad Pawar's National Congress Party (NCP) to contest the elections on the NCP ticket.

There was rebellion in the Trinamul Congress camp too. A sizable chunk of Trinamul Congress cadres joined the BJP, angered by Mamata's decision to sever ties with the NDA. The most notable protester was party chairman and former Union Minister Ajit Panja, who described Mamata as a dictator. At a press conference in Kolkata, Panja burst into tears while narrating the humiliating manner in which Mamata had treated him. He alleged that she had made it a point not to consult him on the developments in the party. "We resigned from the NDA Ministry because it was our unanimous decision. We also resolved to continue our support to the NDA government from the outside," he said, adding that it was Mamata who made the "unilateral" decision to discontinue support to the Vajpayee government. Panja also opposed the way Mamata Banerjee allied herself with the Congress(I).

Informed sources said that Panja had for a while tried to split the Trinamul Congress, rope in at least two of the nine party MPs (in order to avoid attracting the anti-defection law) and rejoin the NDA government. But he was unsuccessful in the attempt. It is believed that Mamata knew of Panja's plans and hence did not take him into confidence.

The BJP, which has one seat in the Assembly, has fielded 239 candidates and will contest on its own. State BJP leader and Union Minister of State for Communications Tapan Sikdar said that Mamata Banerjee's betrayal and her "blatant deviation from value-based politics" would be the BJP's campaign plank.

The Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) has struck an electoral understanding with three other naxalite groups, opposed to the Left Front and the Congress(I)-Trinamul combine, for 108 seats.

Veteran CPI(M) leader and former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, campaigning in Kolkata.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

RELEASING four pamphlets in a series, CPI(M) State secretary Anil Biswas highlighted the government's spectacular achievements, particularly in the field of agriculture, and the turnaround registered in the industrial sector. The Left Front, which won 203 seats in 1996, will be looking to win its sixth consecutive term in power. Biswas said the Left Front was voted for stability and secularism and for value-based coalition politics.

The Left Front is taking extra efforts to reach out to the people in order to prevent negative voting, the trend noticed in the last civic body elections, which helped the Trinamul Congress take control of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC). Even if the Congress(I)-Trinamul Congress combine benefits from negative voting, victory is virtually assured for the Left Front. Its victory margin and its majority in the Assembly (it enjoys a two-thirds majority now) may be affected, but there is no chance of it losing its supremacy in the State.

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