With Mamata Banerjee’s convincing win in the West Bengal civic elections, the writing is clearly on the wall for the state’s ruling Left Front. This is no wind of change; it increasingly looks like a cyclone that is likely to sweep away over three decades of the Leftist rule in next year’s state elections.
But a closer look at the reasons for Banerjee’s victory will remove some illusions. To be sure, after three decades of misrule, the people of the state are fed up with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, led front. It has presided over the steady decline of the state. It has successfully banished industry, so much so that Salt Lake, Kolkata’s posh suburb, looks like a retirement home as the younger generation has been forced to seek jobs in other states and countries. But the tragedy is that the Communists did not even push their social agenda.
Some of the country’s best social sector schemes were first tried out in states that had nothing to do with the Left. Take Maharashtra’s employment guarantee scheme, or Tamil Nadu’s midday meal project. The Communists did push through a radical land reform programme and revive panchayats, policies that fetched them a loyal following. But their long stint in power brought attendant evils, a story told tellingly on TV screens across the country when tribals brought down the palatial homes of the CPM cadre in dirt-poor Lalgarh. Over the years, the exploited had become the exploiters, just as had happened in the Communist countries, just as it happened in Animal Farm. And their long stint in power led to hubris, a hubris that led straight to Nandigram.
To its credit, the government of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee realized there was no alternative to industrialization. The solution he came up with was to move to the right, as they had done in China, with Bhattacharjee casting himself in the role of Bengal’s Deng. Alas, he had reckoned without the anger of the people and without Banerjee. She used the same weapons that the Left had used with such devastating effect—a heady mix of populism and raucous street protests. Banerjee has opposed land acquisition; she refuses to raise prices to reflect costs; she makes no bones about her opposition to the privatization of moribund state units. Her ambivalence towards the far left Maoists is well known. In short, she projects herself as the champion of the poor against CPM oppression. The tables have been turned—it’s not Bengal that has deserted the Left, it’s the CPM that has moved to the right. Whether her populism will help the people of Bengal, though, is another matter altogether.
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