People can be forgiven for viewing the emphatic defeat of the Left parties by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal’s civic polls as a paradigm shift in the state. The truth is that the paradigm has been shifting for a while now, having left its first major trailmark in last year’s Lok Sabha election results where, for the first time since it came to power in 1977, the Left Front came out second best. The panchayat polls the earlier year was a significant sign of things to come.
In that continuing scheme of things, Wednesday’s TMC victory marks another key moment in this now-unswerving trajectory. Lest we forget, Mamata Banerjee’s run in the communist shop has had its share of false starts. Way back in 2001, when the TMC-Congress ‘mahajot’ (great tie-up) first surfaced, Ms Banerjee ended up running into a wall. The Left had cleverly managed to short-circuit the TMC’s mantra for change by giving the people of West Bengal a new face of their own: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s instead of Jyoti Basu’s. In the next state polls in 2006, the Left actually bettered their numbers, driving the TMC numbers down.
So what happened between 2006 and now that didn’t happen between 2001 and 2006? Answer: the disastrous handling of the Nandigram issue in 2007 by the CPI(M)-led government. Ms Banerjee not only found a polarising issue to latch on to, but she also managed to stitch a billowing quilt of popular discontent. Not only did the Left’s hardsell of ‘development’ alienate the very electorate that kept bringing the Left back to power election after election, but it finally gave the TMC a real, flesh and blood issue to sink its teeth into. For those who expected Ms Banerjee’s irresponsible attempt to play politics with last week’s Maoist attack to affect her party’s performance, the latest elections to 81 civic bodies proved that the electorate had its mind firmly on a longer-term view. The TMC’s sweep in the Kolkata municipality highlighted the urban electorate’s rejection of the Left Front. But the TMC had, from 2000 to 2005, controlled this important municipality. The real gamechanger that has made Left leaders turn a much paler shade of red is the TMC’s victory in rural constituencies, the traditional bastions of the Left.
Mamata Banerjee as the first non-communist chief minister of West Bengal since 1977 doesn’t seem such a fantasy anymore. Questions are already being asked about how Ms Banerjee, a professional anti-establishment artiste, will be as an administrator. It would be interesting to see how Ms Banerjee, whose political ascendancy has been fuelled by raiding and enhancing the Left’s tricks of the trade, manages to sell her version of a cure for a tottering Bengal. That’s, of course, if the 2011 assembly polls go according to the present script.