Three years ago, by merely speculating that the CPI(M) and its Left Front allies might some day be out of power in West Bengal, one could get labelled as a head case. But now a similar diagnosis seems justified for those who expect the CPI(M) to remain in power after the next assembly election — be it in 2011, when it is due, or early next year, if somebody delivers the Left Front government — now in its death throes — the much-needed coup de grâce.
For the CPI(M) and its cohorts, capturing three-quarters of the 294-seat assembly was taken as read. So tightly did the CPI(M) hold its grip on the state that in the 2006 assembly election, Trinamool Congress — the largest opposition party — was unable to put up agents in thousands of booths. But things got wobbly since that very year, when Trinamool under Mamata Banerjee mobilised a finely-crafted alliance of the peasantry and urban civil society. It torpedoed every new project by which Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sought to taste the joys of the ‘capitalist road’— be it Tata Motors’ Nano project at Singur, close to Kolkata, or a proposed chemical hub at Nandigram near Haldia. The CPI(M)’s electoral reverses, which began with the subsequent panchayat elections and polling in some municipalities, assumed cyclonic dimensions in the Lok Sabha elections this year. It reduced the Front’s tally to 15 (out of 42), the lowest since its formation. That the sky will not clear soon is evident from its stunning rout in the November 7 assembly by-elections. The CPI(M) has lost all the seven seats it contested. And the Trinamool has won all the seven where it had put up candidates.
In the past, the CPI(M) had proved its skill of surviving in political hibernation. In the 1972 poll, which brought the Congress to power and made Siddhartha Shankar Ray the chief minister, it won only 14 seats and stayed away from the assembly for five years in disgust. Then, it was back in the assembly with 177 seats of its own and 233 of the Front. Can the CPI(M) do it again?
The answer is no. In the 70s, history was on the CPI(M)’s side. Now everything is ranged against it. In the 70s, Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao call had proved more aimed at winning elections (the 1971 massive mandate) than actual removal of poverty. In fact, the poverty ratio kept worsening till as late as 1978. Besides, after the 1969 Congress split, the ‘Indira Congress’ became synonymous with political corruption and thuggery, a phenomenon poignantly presented by Satyajit Ray in his film Jana Aranya (‘The Middle Man’). In 1977, therefore, the CPI(M) loomed on the horizon as both the victim and the saviour.
Being in power for over three decades, the party today finds its role thoroughly reversed. It began doctoring elections since the 80s, when, oddly, its candidates — particularly in lower Bengal — were winning with more than twice their earlier margins. Stories abounded of polling officers, who owed their jobs to the CPI(M), respectfully allowing the party’s ‘envoys’ to stuff ballots into the boxes, or of party leaders holding kangaroo courts to ‘try’ those who had dared to canvass for the opposition.
From the 90s, terror became all-pervasive. It was something that had not happened in Bengal perhaps since the invasion of the plundering ‘bargi’ horsemen from Nagpur in the 18th century. And the party bent over backwards to hide the skeletons in its cupboard. In Delhi, its well-scrubbed faces, like Brinda Karat and Sitaram Yechury, and the voluble Nilotpal Basu, regularly appeared on television talk shows and kept up an impression that democracy was unharmed in Bengal, and that their party indeed enjoyed the people’s confidence. The reality was absolutely different.
It was fear alone that held the key until Mamata Banerjee’s agitation at Singur and Nandigram — when the CPI(M) found, to its dismay, that terror wasn’t working any longer. Nor will it work in future, as nobody can terrorise people twice (that’s why communists and fascists shun democracy). There is little chance, therefore, of the CPI(M) re-emerging from the opposition benches as the messiah of the poor.
Parties survive in the opposition when they have fixed constituencies and flexible beliefs. These conditions enabled Tony Blair to steer the British Labour Party out of the wilderness from 1979 to 1997. In India, caste and regional affiliations have offered to the smaller parties, like the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Shiv Sena, an insurance in bad times. But the CPI(M) has only favour-seekers and no followers. When it has no favours to give it will be condemned to a very lonely political retirement.
Can it hit the jungles, like its revolutionary cousins, the Maoists? Unfortunately it can’t, as many of its leaders have got used to air-conditioned comfort and regular foreign jaunts. Nor will Bengal under the CPI(M) rule from 1977 to 2011 command too many pages in future history books, as it achieved so little.
Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal