Kolkata: Never before has any political party in India said within two days of calling a bandh, or general strike, that it was not looking to enforce a complete shutdown.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, did this on Sunday when its West Bengal state secretary and politburo member Surjya Kanta Mishra said that he wasn’t expecting Monday’s 12-hour bandh to be successful in the conventional sense.
His party had by then realised that the hastily called 12-hour bandh wouldn’t evoke much response, especially in the wake of the state administration announcing that government officials not turning up for work would face serious consequences.
Left leaders in Kolkata say that they hadn’t expected chief minister Mamata Banerjee to oppose the bandh in the same manner as she has opposed any such disruption in the past five years. The bandh was to protest demonetisation, and Banerjee is on the same page as the CPM on this issue.
In the end, only a few hundred people turned out for a rally in support of the bandh, which according to Mishra had the support of as many as 18 Left parties. Banerjee didn’t spare the opportunity to reach out to Left-leaning people to protest demonetisation in a more meaningful way.
Biman Bose, the Left Front chairman, said on Monday that the bandh, which evoked only “partial response”, taught his alliance a lesson.
That lesson should have been learnt years ago. Apparatchiks may have lately started to communicate through social media, but they took far too long to appreciate that the bandh is only a disruption—a political tool that didn’t any more have popular support.
Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, also a CPM politburo member, had famously said in a public meeting a decade ago that he personally had given up on bandhs, but his party still believed in them. It won him kudos at a time when entrepreneurs were swayed by his vision of a resurgent West Bengal, but the CPM didn’t change tack.
As an opposition leader, Banerjee, too, had called several bandhs in 2006-07, when her agitation against forcible land acquisition peaked and she started to script her comeback in West Bengal’s politics.
The scale of disruption in those two years was reminiscent of the 1970s, when the state went through years of political turmoil. But once she took office as the chief minister in 2011, she shunned bandhs completely.
A study by the Union labour ministry shows that in 2009 and 2010 calendar years—the last two under the Left Front’s 34-year rule—around 15 million man-days were lost in the state due to bandhs. After Banerjee turned against disruption, the number came down sharply from 2011.
“A bandh is no longer a ritual,” said Left-leaning economist Prasenjit Bose. The Left Front did nothing to reach out to its supporters and suddenly called a bandh, according to Bose. If only people appreciate the relevance of an issue do they support it, he added.
“We knew people would misunderstand us,” said Kshiti Goswami, a prominent leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), an ally of the CPM. The RSP didn’t support the decision to call a bandh, but eventually fell line with the collective decision, according to Goswami, who even after Monday’s experience hasn’t given up on disruption as a political tool.
Hafiz Alam Sairani, a leader of the Forward Bloc—another ally of the CPM—said it was a hasty decision taken under pressure from Kerala and Tripura units of the Left Front. “How can you protest a deadlock in the economy with further disruption?” he asked.
The CPM has been saying far too often that it is learning from its mistakes, but there are still no signs of a course correction.