Debating India

VERDICT 2004

From strength to strength

Suhrid Sankar CHATTOPADHYAY

Friday 4 June 2004, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

THE Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front not only held on to its bastion, West Bengal, once again, but increased its tally to 35 seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, it secured 29 seats.

The Left Front’s remarkable performance was not confined to its traditional strongholds in rural West Bengal. Even in Kolkata, traditionally an anti-Left Front region, the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) could win just one seat, in fact the only seat it got in the State, when its leader Mamata Banerjee retained the Kolkata South seat. However, her margin dropped from over two lakh votes in 1999 to 98,429 votes. The Left Front also did well in other major urban and semi-urban areas such as Dum Dum, Asansol and Durgapur.

A number of factors seem to underlie the disenchantment of the urban middle-class with the NTC-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. While the progressive lowering of the interest rate hit the fixed-income groups, the disinvestment of profitable public sector enterprises (PSEs), a large number of them in West Bengal, led to widespread redundancy and retrenchment. Voluntary retirement schemes could offer little solace. On the other hand, the charisma of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the Left Front’s efforts to win over the Bengali `Bhadralok’ succeeded.

The Congress, which was almost moribund and ridiculed by Mamata Banerjee as the "B-team" of the CPI(M), has got a fresh lease of life in the election. It won all the three seats in Murshidabad district, including Jangipur, contested by Pradesh Congress Committee president and former Union Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The victory in Murshidabad, where the Left Front lost two of its sitting seats, is largely attributed to the organisational efforts of the party’s district-level leaders and functionaries. Overall, it doubled its tally from three in 1999 to six, which includes the Darjeeling seat, where the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) extended it decisive support at the last moment. This may be a straw in the wind for the State government. With a Congress-led government at the Centre, GNLF supremo Subash Ghising may revive his demand for a separate Gorkhaland State.

The Congress’ improved performance is largely owing to the disintegration of the Left Front’s main rival, the NTC. The NTC has none to blame for its plight. Mamata Banerjee’s inconsistent political stands and continuous infighting in the party brought about the NTC’s downfall. For instance, in Kolkata Northwest the NTC candidate and Calcutta Municipal Corporation Mayor Subroto Mukherjee lost to the CPI(M)’s Sudhangsu Seal. This was not unexpected, considering that sitting MP Sudip Bandopadhyay, who was at one time Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand man, contested as an independent candidate. He fell out with Mamata Banerjee and was denied the party ticket for his seat. Significantly, Sudip Bandopadhyay and Subroto Mukherjee together polled more votes than Sudhangsu Seal, thus proving that a united NTC would have retained the seat.

Elsewhere, in Jadavpur the CPI(M)’s Dr. Sujan Chakraborti defeated the NTC’s sitting MP Krishna Bose, a scion of the family of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose. Jadavpur used to be a CPI(M) stronghold until it was won by the NTC in 1996. Even in Kolkata Northeast, where the NTC’s sitting MP and former Union Minister Ajit Kumar Panja was long considered invincible, the CPI(M) candidate and State Minister for Development and Youth Services Mohammed Salim won by a comfortable margin.

Another prized victory for the CPI(M) was in Dum Dum, which it wrested from the BJP’s two-time winner and Union Minister Tapan Sikdar. The only other BJP MP, Satyabrata Mukherjee, a former Union Minister and an eminent barrister, too suffered defeat. He lost to the famous athlete Jyotirmoyee Sikdar of the CPI(M) in Krishnanagar. The BJP drew a blank in the State.

The election has thrown up some interesting electoral trends. First is the decline of the NTC as an important political factor in West Bengal. Apart from the virtual collapse of the party in the parliamentary polls, Mamata Banerjee has lost to a significant extent the support of the urban middle class because of her political somersaults and that of the minorities because of her alliance with the BJP.

On the other hand, the performance of the Left Front has proved that it is no longer solely dependent on support from the rural masses. The margins with which it won in the urban areas, especially Kolkata and its suburbs, suggest that the disenchanted lower middle class has returned to its fold. Moreover, the Bengali intelligentsia has realised that to voice its grievances against the policies of disinvestment, liberalisation, low interest rates and market supremacy, the CPI(M)-led Left Front would be a much better option than Mamata Banerjee’s NTC and an effete Congress.

Although the gains made by the Congress have been impressive, they are localised, confined only to north Bengal, particularly to Murshidabad district. It is, however, not unlikely that the Congress may try to fill in the void left by a receding NTC, which never had much organisational support at the grassroots level. Again, any further growth of the Congress will depend to a large extent on its ability to provide leadership at the lower levels and the policies of the new Central government.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 2 : Amitava Nandy, the CPI(M) leader who defeated Union Minister Tapan Sikdar of the BJP in Dum Dum.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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