Now that the euphoria of Mamata Banerjee’s technical knockout—to use a boxing analogy—of the Left Front in West Bengal’s municipal elections has subsided, it may be an appropriate moment to, ask what’s next? For both West Bengal as well as Banerjee.
Going by the recent trends, it is all but certain that Banerjee is going to pull off a political coup in the assembly elections due in 2011. It should result in the establishment of an entirely new political regime in West Bengal, after what would be over three decades of single-party (if the Left Front can is taken as a single entity) rule.
It will be something similar to what transpired in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, once Mikhail Gorbachev initiated glasnost in the erstwhile Soviet Union. At that time, there was a wave of euphoria that swept the region in particular and the world in general, soon giving way to bitter disappointment and, in some instances, bloody violence in Europe.
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Ironically, it has been the clumsy effort of the Left Front to loosen norms to enable freer enterprise that has undermined its government. Realizing that the country’s development paradigm had changed, the state government was keen to push for a change in agenda akin to what the Chinese communists had managed since the 1980s. Technically, it had all the ingredients: a major port on the eastern border of India at a time when China is beginning to dominate the country’s trading basket, a literate workforce and so on. However, this effort went horribly wrong, especially after land acquisition for industrial projects met with resistance. The administration, unfamiliar with such organized opposition in its take-no-prisoners policy of three decades, compounded the problem by first underestimating the resistance and then unleashing force.
Not only did West Bengal lose the iconic TataNano project to Gujarat (from where the first car rolled out last week), Banerjee, who positioned herself on the side of the opposition, succeeded in putting the Left Front on the defensive and successfully rewrote the agenda by forcing the Left Front to virtually abandon its plans for spurring industrial growth in the state. The growing strength of the Naxalites has only further discredited the Left Front’s administrative abilities, setting off this cynical response both among its cadres, resigned to their fate, and voters thirsting for change. The collective public desire seems to be to vote out the Left Front and Banerjee is the vehicle to do so.
If voting trends in the general election of last year and the recent municipal elections are an indication, West Bengal is preparing for an upheaval. The process of change would be swift, but what is likely to follow will not be so. A regime that has been around for over three decades cannot simply vanish overnight; it is entrenched in every aspect of the state and will inevitably resist change. What complicates it is the spread of Naxalite or Left extremism across parts of the state and their implied associations with organized political parties. People more familiar with the state warn of serious bloodletting as the new regime goes about establishing itself, but first after exacting revenge for past political excesses. Is this what voters really want?
This is where Banerjee’s administrative acumen will count. Assuming that Banerjee does move to the state, as she has unequivocally asserted time and again, she will inherit the problem that she has helped create in her two-decade effort at regime change. She has already demonstrated her political skills in first branding herself as a person of simple means (the visible but effective use of flip-flops and the simple cotton sari) and then tapping the collective urge for change. But it is one thing to wage a revolution and something else to govern effectively afterwards.
However, her stints in the Union government do not inspire any confidence in her administrative skills. Her obsession with regime change in West Bengal (no one can quarrel with this, really) has come at an unfortunate moment—the railways was positioning itself for one of the most ambitious expansion programmes that would ready infrastructure so critical to absorb the demand generated by the rapid economic growth. A distracted leadership that has led to decisions being put off has triggered enormous demoralization in the bureaucratic echelons; a delay in implementing the expansion strategy would inevitably result in the railways, a key part of the infrastructure network, beginning to act as a drag on the rest of the economy.
But that is another story. Right now the focus is on West Bengal and its future. So far the Left has shown no inclination that it can in any way weather Banerjee’s challenge; unless something dramatic happens between now and the assembly elections, the state seems to be on course to a tryst with a new destiny.
What follows will depend entirely on Banerjee and would depend fundamentally on how she interprets the electoral verdict. It would help the state immensely if she was to remember that it will not be so much her victory as it would be a defeat of the Left Front.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org