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Post-poribarton in West Bengal
Colours changed overnight, from red to green, from the rickshaw stand in the colony to Writers' Buildings. And those who ran the red writ in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's Jadavpur constituency had either vanished from sight or were busy putting up Mamata Banerjee's cut-outs - a scene people in their late thirties, an entire generation, had never witnessed before in West Bengal.
Change. Which way? There's no definite answer to this. What's definite is the no-confidence against stifling status quo, lack of governance and, above all, the party society nurtured by the world's longest-elected Communist government. Is this the other name for anti-incumbency, or something, perhaps, even stronger? It's a wish (ichchhe ) that breaks and makes regimes as in Rabindranath Tagore's allegorical play, Tasher Desh (Land of Cards).
The ruling Marxists remained content with the huge turnouts in their election rallies and meetings. But they missed the pulse. They couldn't read the mood of the dormant masses that asserted themselves in the EVMs. Once unlocked, those boxes unleashed a force potent enough to bring the red citadel crashing down after 34 years. As destiny would have it, the end of the Left Front rule came when Bengal was celebrating Tagore's 150th birth anniversary.
This change was different from those in the erstwhile Communist bloc. Pro-change enthusiasts smeared in green made their way to Mamata Banerjee's Kalighat residence, but did not uproot Lenin's statue at Esplanade. After all, Bengal is part of a federal democracy, where Communists had to renew their popular support every five years. But the change of guard has failed to restore peace in trouble-torn villages - Nanoor, Sashan, Garbeta, Keshpur, Nayagram, Arambag - where power flows from the barrel of the gun. The roots of political strife remain, as does the Maoist threat, and the unrest is likely to continue till the final battle in the panchayat polls scheduled in 2013. For, the real power in villages lies with the panchayats.
Pieced together, all these facts should give the Left family in West Bengal food for thought. Is this a mandate against the Left per se, or is it against the ruling Left? Which course should Bengal pursue - a Left route of a different shade or a neo-liberal route? Whatever it is, large sections of the gentility and middle class that had backed the Left all these years do not want confrontation with the Centre anymore. They want Bengal to catch up with other states fast on infrastructure, industry and connectivity as they had expected from the Buddhadeb government in 2006.
The CPM had grabbed that opportunity to renew its waning base among the aspiring middle class since 2000. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Deng Xiaoping of Bengal politics, chose the fast track for development in Haldia and Nandigram on the lines of Shenzhen in China, which was a nondescript fishing village like Haldia a decade ago. While doing so, the government went on a land acquisition spree, that came as a blow to the marginal farmer, particularly bargadars, whose right to till the land was established during the Left Front regime. This was the result of Operation Barga, something unique in Bengal. But the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, recognises only landowners and not the recorded bargadars, leave aside their compensation or rehabilitation. Taken aback with the role reversal, small farmers dumped the red flag and embraced the opposition that fought for them, at least for the time being. It marked the end of the Left legacy long nourished since the Tebhaga movement during Independence.
Party mandarins in Alimuddin Street, namely Benoy Konar and Nirupam Sen, remained unfazed at the dissent. They kept on arguing that the acquisition comprised a small fraction of the total arable land in West Bengal. They also wrote articles saying the move was intended to "unleash productive forces" - a theory rubbished by Marxist pundits namely Ashok Mitra and Prabhat Patnaik. In the process, the neo-Left in Bengal chose the market to Marx, presenting a dichotomy in what they preached and practised. It failed to appreciate the fact that the new industry supplants more than it absorbs.
While the debate was on, civil society, with a few exceptions, swore by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee until his government failed to meet its rising aspirations in Singur. It switched loyalties after the Singur experiment failed. Singur and Nandigram became the turning points in the history of Bengal. They fomented the dissent building up for the last 34 years against arrogance, corruption and hegemony of the ruling CPM.
If rejection is the dominant feature, then the Bengal CPM has to reorient itself and go back to the roots to renew its Left identity among its traditional support base, the urban and rural poor. It's easier said than done. Some feel the party must come out of the traditional mindset and address questions of development and industry with a focus on the market dropouts. The implementation of this idea can begin now, when the CPM is in opposition, a role it hasn't discharged for the last three decades. And while doing so, it has to keep in mind what it did when it was in power. It is all about building trust.
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