On the face of it, panchayat elections are relatively unimportant things in the larger scheme of regional — never mind national — politics. On the face of it again, the Left Front winning 13 of the 17 zilla parishad seats in West Bengal’s staggered panchayat elections would seem like something that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his comrades would be celebrating. But even the most poker-faced supporter of the CPI(M)-led coalition government will not even try to downplay the loss of face in three traditional CPI(M) strongholds — the whole of East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas districts and in the panchayat seat of Singur in Hooghly — where voters rejected the Left outright.
If the places sound familiar to casual observers, it is because Nandigram, the subdistrict that was the venue for Mr Bhattacharjee’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ moment, as well as Singur of Tata plant-resisting fame, were always going to be an acid test for the administration. As for voters in South 24 Parganas booting out the Left, the obvious reason became visible to outsiders only during the panchayat polls when the longstanding intra-Left Front terror cycle between the CPI(M) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) — allies in Kolkata, but bitter rivals in the district — reached its apogee with murders that included family members of a sitting RSP minister and an infant.
While it would be far too premature to echo Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee’s words about this being the “beginning of the end” for the Left Front in Bengal, comrades at the Alimuddin Street headquarters are rattled. For a party that has been confident of its rural support base for 30 years, this is a crack that hurts. It is also a personal humiliation for the Chief Minister who shepherded and hurrahed hurriedly pushed development projects that he had to give up on after, under his watch, blood flowed in retaliation to resistance to industrialisation. So does this mean a resounding ‘no’ to industrialisation that will halt development in a state that badly needs it? We think the wobble in the ruling Left Front is the result of people reacting with that ultimate weapon — the vote — to tell Mr Bhattacharjee and his men that the days of force-feeding — even if its healthy but distasteful food — are over.