A record in West Bengal

Print edition : May 26, 2001

The Left Front sweeps the Assembly elections for a sixth consecutive term, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the alliance led by Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.

THE Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has stormed back to power in West Bengal with a massive mandate from the people for the sixth consecutive time. Although its strength in the 294-member Assembly came down marginally, from 203 seats to 199, it still has a two-thirds majority. The CPI(M) won 143 seats, five short of an absolute majority. The victory, a record for any elected Left government in the world, was the result of effective and purposive governance by a cohesive coalition that provided political stability and adhered to the principle of secularism.

Chief Minister Budhadeb Bhattacharya outside Writers Building in Kolkata on May 19.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Among the allies of the CPI(M), the Forward Bloc won 25, the Revolutionary Socialist Party 17, the Communist Party of India 7, the West Bengal Socialist Party 4, the Democratic Socialist Party 2 and the Forward Bloc (Marxist) 1. The Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) combine won 86 seats, the Trinamul Congress 60 and the Congress(I) 26. The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) won three seats and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) two. Four seats went to Congress(I) rebels who left the party in protest against its alliance with the Trinamul Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which contested about 200 seats, drew a blank. Similar was the case of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), formed by some who broke away from the CPI(M) and which contested about 60 seats.

The Left Front's sweep was not only geographical but also social. It did well in rural areas and made gains in urban and industrial centres, indicating that it received support from various sections - farmers, industrial workers and the middle class. "This is unprecedented. Our responsibility is manifold," said Jyoti Basu, who stepped down as Chief Minister six months before the elections. His successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, said: "The people of this State have known us for 24 years. They know what we are capable of doing and what we have not been able to do. I greet them for reposing faith in us." He did not envisage any problem arising out of the CPI(M)'s failure to win an absolute majority on its own.

The credit for the Left Front's victory goes mainly to the CPI(M), which has successfully held together 10 other like-minded parties in a coalition for 24 years. The task has been tough, but the party leadership made the coalition work by evolving a code of conduct based on its experience in the first United Front government in 1967 and the lessons learnt over the years. The CPI(M) follows the code as strictly as the other constituents of the Front.

The new Chief Minister with CPI(M) leaders Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Sailen Das Gupta during the swearing-in. In the second row are (from right) Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Although the CPI(M) does not have an absolute majority on its own, unlike in the previous terms, it is unlikely to face any challenge from its partners. The other major constituents of the Front, the CPI, the Forward Bloc and the RSP, are one with the CPI(M) on important issues. Talking to Frontline, Anil Biswas, State secretary of the CPI(M), pointed out that the Left Front was a force that remained united for over 24 years. The Front, he said, was not constituted not just to capture power; it existed for the realisation of the goal of improving people's lives. Above all, it had given the people of West Bengal stability. West Bengal was perhaps the only State where communal and separatist forces had failed to raise their heads in the last 24 years, he said.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has set the priorities of his government: providing clean, effective and dynamic administration; promoting industrialisation; and maintaining political stability.

IT was a humiliating defeat for Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. A shocked Mamata was silent for two days since the results came. Later, she alleged that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, the Left Front government in West Bengal and the Election Commission had conspired to defeat the alliance she led. The NDA government, she said, wanted to teach her a lesson for having withdrawn support to it. The Election Commission played a partisan role as the Centre had manipulated Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill, she alleged. "He will retire shortly and may get a plum post," she said.

The real reasons for the defeat were different. The alliance led by Mamata Banerjee was fragile and fractious. Before pulling out of the NDA following the Tehelka affair, Mamata Banerjee had released a list of candidates of the Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. The equations changed when she walked out of the NDA and struck an alliance with the Congress(I). By the time she reached an understanding with the new ally on the sharing of seats, her party workers had painted the walls of Kolkata with the names of contestants who figured in the Trinamul-BJP list. This created confusion and the new alliance could not start the campaign in time. Besides, the alliance came unstuck at the grassroots level. Defying the leadership, rebels from both parties filed nominations in many constituencies.

Political observers feel that Mamata Banerjee's volatile temperament and inconsistent behaviour have given her the image of being a rabble-rouser and an agitator rather than a responsible leader capable of governing a State like West Bengal. Her style of functioning has been criticised by a section of leaders in her own party. On the eve of the election, Ajit Panja, chairman of the Trinamul Congress and former Union Minister, called her a dictator. After the election debacle, Panja is believed to be busy mobilising support within the party for his move to go back to the NDA fold.

The Left Front has always fought the elections on a platform where local issues are linked to larger political issues. This practice of issue-based electioneering has been in sharp contrast to the personality-based campaigns of the Congress (I), and now the Trinamul Congress. The Congress(I)-Trinamul Congress failed to place before the electorate any positive programme that could bring about a change, or paribartan as Mamata Banerjee put it, in the socio-economic set-up.

Another major reason for the defeat of the Mamata Banerjee-led coalition was that she underestimated the Left Front's strength and its credibility with the people.

Decentralisation of power was one of its major achievements. It devolved powers to the local bodies in a three-tier panchayat system. It amended the laws in order to ensure the involvement of rural people in the decision-making process and in the implementation of plans and projects. About half the annual budget of the government is spent through the panchayats. The money is used to create rural employment and finance local development. The panchayat system as practised in West Bengal brought about a major change in the theory and practice of public administration in India.

Then came Operation Barga, under which over 1.5 million sharecroppers were formally registered as tenants. Rural development in West Bengal was based on the equitable distribution of land and other productive rural assets.

These achievements have contributed to the consolidation of the Left Front's support base among the rural poor. The Front virtually swept the rural areas, which accounts for about 200 Assembly seats.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was sworn in Chief Minister in the presence of a gathering of politicians, intellectuals, industrialists and film stars at the Raj Bhavan on May 18. At the brief ceremony, Governor Viren J. Shah administered the oath of office and secrecy to 33 Cabinet Ministers and 15 Ministers of State. Before the ceremony began, Buddhadeb greeted Jyoti Basu with a bouquet of red roses. General secretary of the CPI(M) Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Polit Bureau members Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, Anil Biswas and Biman Bose were present. The audience burst into applause when Nandarani Dal, who has won seven times from Keshpur in Midnapore district, came to the dais to take oath as a Minister. She is one of the 15 new faces in the sixth Cabinet of the Left Front. Ashim Dasgupta, Suryakanta Mishra, Nirupam Sen, Mohammad Salim, Mohammad Amin, Subhash Chakraborti and Kanti Ganguly, all from the CPI(M), will be the key players in the Cabinet.

The Trinamul Congress and the Congress(I) boycotted the ceremony, alleging that the elections had been rigged. However, Ajit Panja, chairman of the Trinamul Congress, attended it.

Addressing a press conference after the ceremony, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya outlined his government's plans. He said: "We have found our priorities and we know changes are required in education, health, administration and industrial policies. We will rectify our failures in these fields and do better." He said that the public grievance cells would be strengthened in order to ensure that the government was effective, dynamic and transparent. The party would not interfere in the daily functioning of the government, he added.

Talking to Frontline, the Chief Minister said: "We have won a big victory and we are aware of our shortcomings. But more than anything, we are aware of our increasing responsibilities. We must examine our failures so that we can rectify our mistakes."

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