|The Congress alliance, led by populist Mamata Banerji, has won elections in the West Bengal state assembly [Reuters]|
The color of India’s eastern state of West Bengal turned from red to green on Friday, when the world’s longest-ruling elected communist government was decisively voted out of power.
Supporters of the opposition alliance that defeated the communist-led Left coalition danced wildly to the tune of drums, exchanged sweets and colored each other with green phagu (dry color).
The celebrations reached a crescendo as the opposition leader, Mamata Banerji – a diminutive yet aggressive Bengali woman in her mid-50s – emerged from her small shanty home adjoined to Calcutta’s Kalighat temple to announce the historic victory.
“Communism is history in Bengal, we have won a decisive victory. This is a day of liberation for our people,” Banerji, leader of the Trinamul Congress Party and India’s railways minister, told waiting journalists.
An Indian television channel quickly dubbed her as “India’s Lech Walesa”, in reference to Poland’s famous anti-communist leader.
The communist-led Left coalition has ruled West Bengal for 34 years, that makes it the longest tenure for any elected communist government in the world.
But when they lost the elections on Friday for the 294-seat West Bengal state assembly, the defeat turned into a landslide when Banerji’s Trinamul Congress – in alliance with India’s ruling Congress party – won 73 per cent of the seats.
Only five years ago, the opposite had happened when the communists crushed the Trinamuls by winning 80 per cent of the seats.
“It is the most dramatic reversal of fortunes in Bengal’s history,” says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury of the Calcutta Research Group, a think-tank.
This time around, all but two of the top Communist ministers survived the landslide.
Those defeated included chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, a pragmatic young communist leader whose drive to acquire land for a huge industrialisation project had alienated Bengal’s traditionally militant peasantry and loosened the left’s strongholds in rural Bengal.
“How could a communist government ask police to fire on peasants like they did in Nandigram to set up a chemical industry. That has eroded their support amongst the rural poor and Mamata Banerji has gained by leading campaigns against the acquisitions,” said Bengal’s leading political sociologist, Pradip Bose.
But many others say the urban Bengali gentry (called Bhadraloks) were also fed up with the communists for not joining the government in Delhi, even though they had at least two opportunities in the last 15 years.
“When left of centre parties formed a ruling coalition in 1996 and wanted the legendary Bengali communist leader Jyoti Basu to take over as prime minister, his party decided to stay out. Jyoti Basu described it as a historical blunder and that is what most Bengalis feel. So why should they vote for the communists?” said former communist lawmaker Saiffuddin Choudhury, whose breakaway party – PDS – is now in alliance with India’s ruling Congress Party.
The communists built up a formidable political party and were popular with the rural poor and industrial workers during their three decades of continuous rule in West Bengal.
They also enjoyed the support of the influential Bengali intelligentsia – until Nandigram happened four years ago. After that, the cultural elite distanced themselves from the communists in protest of the police shootings that killed 14 farmers.
Seven Bengali film stars and theatre personalities won seats on a Trinamul ticket this time.
The anti-left vote in Bengal has never slipped below 40 per cent of the electorate, even at the peak of communist rule, but the anti-communists lacked a leader who could capitalise on that support until the fiercely combative Banerji arrived.
“The anti-left mass got a powerful leader in Mamata Banerji and she started to reach out to the floating voters, issue by issue. That explains why the tide has turned against the communists,” says analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury.
“The communists were functioning within the parameters of Indian democracy but they tried to create a party whereby they could control all segments of Bengali society. They are paying dearly for their obsession for control because the fiercely independent Bengali middle class would take it no more,” alleged Indian economist Bibek Debroy, who hails from Bengal.
Women on the rise
Banerji’s victory, marks the coming of age of Bengali regionalism.
“Within thirteen years of breaking away from the Congress and forming her own Trinamul party, she has marginalised the Congress in Bengal as much as the communists now. That’s a major achievement,” says political analyst Ranabir Sammadar.
Gender expert Paula Banerji described Banerji’s stunning victory as a “demonstration of the political power of the Bengali women”.
Across the border in neighbouring Bangladesh, where more than ninety per cent are Muslim, the present Awami League government is headed by prime minister Sheikh Hasina – five of the top positions in her cabinet are also held by women.
“Now Banerji has done ‘a Hasina’ in our state. Both the Bengals will now be ruled by women and in Bangladesh, even the main opposition leader is a women,” Paula Banerji said. “The communists don’t have a female leader of Banerji’s stature and unless they find one, they cannot take her on.”
Nearly half of West Bengal’s population are women and they strongly identify with Banerji.
During the six-phase elections held in West Bengal, women showed up in large numbers and could be seen standing in queues at polling booths – sometimes waiting five or six hours to vote.
The communists have also lost the southern state of Kerala, so they now hold only one Indian state – the tiny north eastern state of Tripura which has only two seats in the Indian Parliament.
“Their future in Indian politics is in jeopardy,” says Indian editor Prabhu Chawla. “This is an obsolete ideology and will not work here anymore.”
With the communist defeats in West Bengal and Kerala, the chances of a third front emerging in Indian politics are remote.
Though the Indian left never joined a non-Congress or non-Hindu nationalist BJP government in Delhi, they decisively supported the experiment in 1996.
“Now Indian politics at the federal level will be more bipolar – with the Congress leading one coalition and the Hindu nationalist BJP leading the other,” said Tarun Vijay, editor of the Organiser Weekly that reflects the views of Hindu nationalists.
“Bengal’s communism was unique in that it grew among the people not through armed revolution. This was a party that grew by consensus by carrying with them all sections of middle class, rural and urban poor – even the gentry. But somewhere down the line, the arrogance of power led them to adopt narrow, sectarian politics and that is their undoing now,” says analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri.
‘Old Left values’
Their only hope now is if Banerji, whose performance as India’s railway minister has not been overly impressive, fails in her position of governance.
“We are down, but not out. We will perform our role in opposition and win back the people’s trust,” said Bengal communist party leader Biman Bose.
Bose points to the state of Tripura, “where the communists messed up and people brought us back. That will happen in Bengal,” Bose said. “They went out of power in 1988 and came back to power five years later…ruling it all the way until now.”
But that is only likely if Banerji makes major mistakes.
On Friday, she outlined her priorities in a brief interview, even as her supporters continued their noisy celebrations outside her small shanty. She emphasised a return to true democracy that have been undermined by the communist politics of control.
Banerji also plans to promote inclusive development that benefits rural and urban poor by balancing allocations between agriculture and industry. She also wants to make governance more efficient – especially in terms of maintaining law and order in what has become a fairly violent state.
“I will continue to live like a commoner because I don’t like luxury. The support of my people is more important,” said Banerji, whose austere lifestyle appears closer to the old icons of the Bengal communist movement than their successors who had become corrupted by three decades of power.
“I am against the Left here but not against Leftism. I share the values of the old Left,” said Banerji.