At a railway crossing leading into Bardhaman town, a small truck is standing for almost ten minutes, waiting for the Rajdhani Express to pass. Standing at the back is a group of restless men, looking at the delay in their journey as a stalling tactic by none other than Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee. During the last assembly elections in West Bengal in 2006, they were the confident footsoldiers of a political force that has been ruling the state for the last 34 years. Today, they seem nervous, irritable and in denial. They are the cadre workers of the CPI(M) from the ‘red bastion’ of Bengal’s Bardhaman district.
“Thunder doesn’t mean rain,” says one of the men when I ask whether ‘paribartan’ (change) in the form of Trinamool Congress rule is coming after the election results are announced on May 13. They are on the way to a rally in Bardhaman town of one of the party’s bigwigs, Gautam Deb, the state housing minister.
“Shatrughan Sinha is also here in Bardhaman,” says another passenger, who is immediately corrected by his comrade, “No, no. It’s Hema Malini of the BJP.” I am told later that Malini had cancelled her meeting in Bardhaman. Which is just as well considering the sample of CPI(M) cadres I just met seemed to be distracted by the BJP MP’s presence in what is really an epic battle between the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress.
The breach in Bardhaman, more than anywhere else in Bengal, tells the story of how weak ‘The Party’ is today. In the 2006 assembly elections, the CPI(M) retained both the Bardhaman North and Bardhaman South constituencies, the latter won by state industry minister and the man ‘credited’ with the government’s disastrously executed industrialisation policy — Nirupam Sen. The last time there was a non-CPI(M) legislator in either of these two constituencies was in 1972, five years before the Left Front came to power in Kolkata for the first time. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the party may have retained all three seats, but by 2010, the municipal elections saw the Trinamool enter for the first time. “Municipal elections and assembly elections are very different things,” a party worker tells me at the party headquarters.
Even the new Shahidullah Bijoy Bhavan in downtown Bardhaman on Parcus Road, looks like a gleaming Egyptian monument that has been deserted. Two black stray dogs lie on the shiny black steps, more in repose than on guard. Inside, a handful of officials are there. CPI(M) district secretary of Bardhaman, Amal Haldar, I’m told, is away in Durgapur for a meeting and I’m sent off to the other party office in the very underwhelming Mubarak Building near the main market on BC Road. There, in the early afternoon, one man is taking a nap who, on being woken up, tells me that no one’s here to speak now.
Some 100 km away in Kolkata, in chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s Jadavpur constituency (that falls in South 24 Parganas district), the local CPI(M) dadas were uncharacteristically passive outside the polling booths on election day. One of them sitting outside a poll booth aggressively produces his voter ID card and tells me, “Why don’t you write down my details? Coming from the media you should be writing all this down. I’m a voter.” A friend sidles up from the other end and defuses the situation saying that he too is a voter but has ‘party contacts’. The swagger of the CPI(M) cadres have been transformed into nervous aggression.
And it is this ‘nervousness’ that is reportedly bothering the CPI(M) leadership in the party headquarters on Alimuddin Street. There is an unspoken acceptance of the ‘outcome’ on May 13. Some leaders are pitching the possible defeat as an opportunity to firm up the “CPI(M)’s identity” that may have become diluted over time. Being in opposition is no longer a theory, but a palpable praxis.
But what happens to the superstructure of the party’s cadres, the enviable network that has made West Bengal’s public life synonymous with ‘The Party’? Leaders are apparently already making efforts to see to it that cadres don’t jump ship, cut themselves off the CPI(M) mothership, or worse, turn into a terror mob flailing about the countryside. The euphemism being used is that they need to be ‘protected’.
For the CPI(M), the departure of Muslims, adivasis and large swathes of the peasantry marks a huge seepage of support. Some point to a single mistake made by the Left Front government for this mess: flush with the victory of the 2006 assembly polls, the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government did not send its leaders to the panchayats to explain, discuss, share opinions of its industrialisation policy. It took the poll mandate as an automatic signal of approval.
As Manik Hazra, a 71-year-old resident of forever-CPI(M)-voting Gramdihi village in Bardhaman says before he votes on May 3: “It’s their arrogance.” If that’s an opinion coming from the CPI(M)’s old bastion, where the Left Front’s entry into power through Operation Barga’s land distribution programme gave genuine economic power to lakhs in agriculture-rich Bardhaman 34 years ago, it would seem clear that Bengal as a whole will be teaching the CPI(M) and its allies a lesson whatever the outcome of the results may be on May 13.
Far from those cadre workers on the back of the truck in Bardhaman, in the CPI(M)’s headquarters on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata, a young party worker sitting in the office is wearing a rather tight T-shirt depicting the over-familiar stencil drawing of Che Guevara. But it’s the tagline on the shirt that catches my attention: ‘Death is a frequent accident in the life of a revolutionary.’ Now to pass on that message to the disaffected cadres strewn all across 2011 Bengal.