In 1977, the whole of India heaved a sigh of relief when Indira Gandhi lost the parliamentary elections, since her imposition of Emergency rule in 1975 had suffocated people’s aspirations and gagged the free press. On 16 May 2009, the people of West Bengal heaved a similar sigh of relief—only a much more intense one. The Trinamool Congress and Indian National Congress combine captured 26 of the 42 parliamentary seats from the state, defeating the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and its allies for the first time since they came to power in West Bengal in 1977.
The CPM ran the state with an iron fist, and won every single state assembly or parliamentary election in the last 32 years. People were afraid of the CPM; whenever someone used the word “party”, it meant the CPM. Even though it had other partners in the coalition that ruled West Bengal, it basically ran the state as a single-party system (the Left Front is still in power in the state).
The CPM’s diktat was supreme: Police officers feared local party bosses; the administration in the districts could not function without the permission of district party bosses; businessmen had to recruit CPM cadre as staff; and government jobs went only to the party faithful. Democracy was trampled in college union elections, local government and assembly or parliamentary elections were rigged systematically. Yet, the mandate has been so hugely against the Communists that, two decades after the Berlin Wall collapsed, Bengal’s red bastion has fallen.
Though the CPM or the Left Front has suffered a humiliating defeat, this should not be seen as the end of leftism as an ideology, per se. Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress leader who led the alliance to such a decisive victory, thinks that leftism is not necessarily bad; it is the CPM that she sees as anti-people.
In fact, Banerjee’s distinctive style—she dresses in the most inexpensive saris and a pair of slippers—and the movements she has championed have the hallmark of leftist activism. She has led the successful movements of peasants and landless labourers against forcible acquisition of land in Singur and Nandigram. In the case of Singur, where Tata Motors wanted to build the Nano car factory, her opposition to forcible land acquisition led the Tatas to relocate the plant to another state. This earned her a lot of disrepute among large sections of the middle class in India.
Yet, the people of West Bengal felt democracy was their bread; but the butter of economic development could wait. Those who have first-hand experience of one-party dictatorships will easily relate to such a sentiment. The restoration of democracy in West Bengal was Banerjee’s first objective, and the 16 May results have given her a great opportunity in that direction.
The CPM, with its reckless trade unions, drove out thousands of entrepreneurs from the state. With Banerjee’s victory, the official Left will crumble. If she comes to power in West Bengal, her biggest challenge will be to manage the politics of a populist movement as well as the economics of progressive development in an era of globalization. The people of West Bengal have voted against party-led state repression and for democracy this time around. Next time, they would like to vote for the politics of development.
The old is crumbling in West Bengal. Whether Banerjee can create a lasting politics that ensures smooth and equitable development on the rubble left by a Stalinist Communist party, will be the key element in the coming years of West Bengal’s politics.
Sunandan Roy Chowdhury is editor-publisher of the Sampark Journal of Global Understanding, Kolkata, and lecturer in Asian studies at Satakunta University of Applied Sciences, Finland. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org