Debating India


A Left Front sweep

Tuesday 7 June 2005, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

in Kolkata

The Left Front’s victory in the civic elections in West Bengal is seen as an indicator of the outcome of the elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in June and to the Assembly next year.

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Ramesh Sharma
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

THE recent elections in 79 municipalities of West Bengal were in a way a rehearsal for the larger battle for control of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) on June 19, and also perhaps for next year’s Assembly polls. It brought to the attention of all, especially the Opposition parties, the increasing might of the Left Front in the State.

There was little doubt that the Left Front would win the elections. But not everyone expected the sweep that the polls resulted in: the Left won 49 of the 79 municipalities where elections were held on May 22, wresting 18 municipalities from the Opposition and losing control of only four. By all indications, a change of guard seems likely at the KMC too.

The results of the elections in the 79 municipalities are testimony to the disintegration of the Opposition in the State. The Left Front, on the other hand, increased its margin of victory in almost all the municipalities. Whereas the ruling coalition increased its tally from 37 municipalities in 2000 to 49 this year, winning 19 new municipalities, the Opposition parties won only 23. Seven municipalities produced hung verdicts.

The Congress won in 12 municipalities, two more than its tally in the last elections, the Nationalist Trinamul Congress won in three, nine less than its tally in the last polls, and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) won in one. The 19 new municipalities which the Left Front now controls are: Bansberia, Hooghly-Chinsurah, Rishra, Konnagar, Ghatal, Chandrakona, Garulia, New Barrackpur, Barasat, Baidyabati, Taki, Gobardanga, Dainhat, Bankura, Sonamukhi, Jhalda, Ziagunj-Azimgunj, Dhulian and Old Malda. Seven of these were wrested from the Congress and two from the Trinamul Congress.

The Left Front’s success has been most noticeable in the districts of Bankura, North 24-Paraganas, Murshidabad, Hooghly and Malda. In Bankura, the Left Front now controls two of the three municipalities. Earlier it had none. In North 24-Paraganas, the Left not only retained all the boards it won in 2000, but also won four new ones, including three wrested from the Congress.

One of the most important victories for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Front, was in Old Malda, where it won seven wards. It involved a reversal of fortunes for the Congress here, which had won 11 wards last time whereas the CPI(M) won none. This time, it is the Congress that failed to secure a single seat.

At Englishbazaar in Malda district, the Congress retained the board through an understanding with the Trinamul Congress and the BJP, though the outgoing Congress chairman of the municipality, Krishnendu Chowdhury, lost to an independent backed by the CPI(M). This was the only instance of the grand alliance (mahajot) making an impact on the polls. Congress leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chaudhury, one of the proponents of a mahajot along with Kolkata Mayor Subrata Mukherjee of the Nationalist Trinamul Congress, is reported to have said: "It was a great blow to our party in Old Malda, but in Englishbazar it was clearly an anti-Left verdict."

Englishbazaar has encouraged proponents of a mahajot. State Congress secretary Manash Bhuniya said: "If the Opposition parties were united, the Left would have lost 15 municipalities." According to reports, the Opposition might form boards by forming alliances in some municipalities where no party has won a clear majority. These include Suri and Bolpur in Birbhum district, Tamluk and Ramjivanpur in Midnapore, and Baduria and Bongaon in North 24-Paraganas. However, a mahajot at the State-level is unlikely as of now given Nationalist Trinamul Congress president Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to join such an alliance as its leader.

The Left has ruled out alliances with any of the Opposition parties to secure control of the boards. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas said: "We may get the support of some Independents, but we will not do anything unethical to take control of the hung municipalities; neither will we take the help of the Congress or the Trinamul or the BJP. We do not believe in horse-trading and we hope the Congress will not forge links with the Trinamul and the BJP to secure the boards."

In the traditional Congress bastion of Murshidabad, the Left Front made a dent, securing control of Jangipur, Dhulian and Ziagunj-Azimgunj and taking its tally to four in the district. The Left’s success in the district was facilitiated by a bitter feud between the powerful Congress Member of Parliament from the region Adhir Chowdhury and the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader Atish Sinha. The independent candidates fielded by Chowdhury against the Congress nominees captured two boards, but in the end the Congress was the loser.

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Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee announcing her party’s candidates for the elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, at her residence on May 11. Also in the photograph are Ajit Panja (right) and Pankaj Banerjee.

In the industrial district of Hooghly, the Left staged a dramatic comeback, winning seven of the 12 civic bodies. The Congress won two and the Trinamul none. In Arambag and Tarakeswar, the Left won uncontested 18 and 15 wards respectively. However, it has not yet managed to break its jinx in Serampore, where the CPI(M) district headquarters is located. Once again, this 25-seat municipality went to the Congress. In the last polls, the Trinamul Congress and its ally, the BJP, together controlled eight of the municipalities. However, the Left had won back some of them through successful no-confidence motions.

However, in the hill district of Darjeeling in North Bengal, the CPI(M)-led alliance, including the All India Gorkha League, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists and the GNLF(C), proved unsuccessful against Subhas Ghising’s GNLF, which won in all the nine wards of the Mirik municipality. The GNLF also won the byelections to Ward No. 22 of the Darjeeling municipality. Though the Mirik municipality is the smallest in the State, this victory underlines Ghising’s hold on the hills and is particularly significant in view of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) elections due in September, in which Ghising will once again face a united Opposition.

The CPI(M) made significant gains in as many as 84 wards. It won 773 wards as against 689 in 2000. For the Left Front as a whole, the scale of the success is even larger. Out of a total of 1,574 wards, it won 972 as against 808 in the last polls. The Left Front improved its vote share from 51 per cent to 62 per cent. Party-wise, the Communist Party of India (CPI) won 50 wards, the Forward Bloc 55, the Revolutionary Socialist Party 23 and other Left allies 61.

The Congress and the Trinamul-BJP suffered a major jolt. Most significantly, in North 24-Paraganas district, where the so-called mahajot was arraigned against the Left Front, the Congress won in 300 wards, 60 fewer than in 2000. The Trinamul-BJP suffered heavier losses. From its tally of more than 300 wards in 2000, the Trinamul slid to 184 wards. The BJP’s tally was less than halved to only 17 wards.

Addressing a meeting after the results were announced, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that whereas the Left Front worked for the uplift of the people, the Opposition parties did nothing more than quarrel among themselves.

This victory is particularly significant in view of the Assembly polls due next year. The Left has not fared well with urban voters in the past. Of late, however, city dwellers seem to be having a change of heart. The last Lok Sabha polls also gave an indication of that. The municipal polls seem to have further reinforced this, prompting Anil Biswas to say: "It is a grand victory. The results prove that the urban middle class trusts us. We congratulate the voters."

It should also be kept in mind that Kolkata has a history of anti-establishment inclinations as far as elections are concerned. During Congress rule from 1947 to 1967, it more often than not favoured the parties in the Opposition. And now that the Left has been in power for about three decades, it has generally voted for the Congress, and later the Trinamul, during this period.

Sections of the media not favourable to the Left Front projected the idea of a mahajot as posing a threat to the ruling coalition in the coming elections. However, the Opposition parties suffer from infighting. Even the Congress strongholds in Malda and Murshidabad districts fell to the Left in the civic elections, showing that any concerted campaign to unseat the Left is still nowhere near taking shape.

If anything, the polls have exposed the vulnerability of the Opposition parties, especially those of the Trinamul and the BJP. Most of the lieutenants of Mamata Banerjee seem to be going against her though a formal split is yet to take place.

The Left Front’s prospects in the Kolkata, Bidhannagar and Uttarpara municipal polls appear bright. The Congress looks at best a distant second, while the Trinamul appears to be in total disarray.

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