Communists face biggest electoral test in Bengal

Communists face biggest electoral test in Bengal
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First Published: Wed, Apr 08 2009. 12 24 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Apr 08 2009. 12 24 PM IST
Kalicharanpur: If this remote village heralds things to come, India’s powerful communists face their toughest vote yet in their stronghold state of West Bengal as farmers rebel over policies to industrialize the region.
Many rural voters in eastern India, for decades the backbone of support for India’s communist parties, are showing signs of switching sides to the opposition in what could improve the ruling Congress party’s chance of winning the general election.
“The communists gave us land and we voted for them for years,” Nepal Haldar, a farmer said in a remote village in Diamond Harbour constituency, a Left stronghold since the 1950s.
“Now they are taking away land from us and I will not vote for them,” he said in this village about a two-hour drive from Kolkata, the state capital.
Haldar pointed at fields of rice and mustard, which the government wants to take over and build a highway.
West Bengal is home to the world’s longest-serving, democratically-elected communist government, and the Left’s domination of the state’s 42 seats allowed them to win the balance of power after the last 2004 general election.
In this April-May election, the communists are helping lead the “Third Front”, which pitches itself as an alternative to Congress and an opposition Hindu nationalist-led alliance.
But even communist leaders recognize they have a battle on their hands after a backlash against attempts to industrialize this region has combined with signs of voter fatigue at what critics say is an autocratic, out-of-touch left government.
At least 50 people, mostly farmers, have been killed in protests over land disputes with West Bengal’s government since 2007.
Last year, the state government was forced to cancel a chemicals hub project in Nandigram, a cluster of villages, after running battles between farmers, police and communist cadres.
In October, Tata Motors moved a factory -- slated to produce the world’s cheapest car -- out of the state after villagers blocked highways to protest the seizure of their land.
“It is a very volatile situation and extremely difficult to predict how things will finally unfold in the election,” Nirupam Sen, West Bengal’s industries minister, told Reuters.
“It will be a tough fight in West Bengal, but we will emerge victorious,” Sen said in Kolkata.
Setbacks
The Left parties still have a popular base in rural areas and have often surprised experts with huge victory margins. The Left says industrialization is desperately needed to boost the state economy and generate jobs.
A strong showing could see the communists prop up or form a federal government that could block many economic reforms and cancel defence agreements with Washington.
But this time round, the communists appear to have misjudged the sentiment of villagers, offering low compensation for land seizures that critics says highlights how out-of-touch the left has become after 32 years in power.
The communists have suffered setbacks in village council elections, including Nandigram, and lost a crucial assembly seat to the Trinamool Congress earlier this year in Diamond Harbour.
Some pollsters say the Left could end up with just over 22 seats, losing out to the Trinamool Congress-Congress party alliance, which hijacked the left’s “land to the tiller” slogan.
“Left and land had always been together in West Bengal’s politics, but now the trend is different ... the opposition has taken over their slogan and they have the edge,” said Ashis Chakrabarti, senior editor of The Telegraph.
Green flags of the Trinamool Congress and Congress are fluttering in Kolkata, with huge cutouts of local opposition leader Mamata Banerjee set up on busy streets.
In 2004, the communists swept polls in the state, winning 35 seats to support a Congress party-led coalition government for four years before quitting last year, angry over a civilian nuclear deal with the United States.
“The villages won them power, and now there is a crack in the traditional rural vote bank,” Abhirup Sarkar, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, said.
Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress, has successfully made land seizure a major political issue.
“We are not against industry. We are against seizure of poor farmers’ land by the communists,” Banerjee said this week.
In several villages, dotted with mud houses and fertile fields, people are still afraid of losing land.
“People have started to lose faith in the communists, we want change after what happened in Nandigram,” said Bidesh Haldar, a farmer in the left bastion of Kalicharanpur village, which still lacks electricity and running water.
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First Published: Wed, Apr 08 2009. 12 24 PM IST