Kolkata: The first signs of discontent have surfaced in the West Bengal chapter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, after the Left Front’s big electoral setback in a state that has been an unshakeable Marxist citadel for 32 years.
A section of CPM leaders in West Bengal and its peasant wing are demanding a change in the party order as the CPM-led Left Front tries to come to terms with its diminished stature. The immediate target is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who has been chief minister since 2000 and has been actively courting industrial investments in the state.
The critics claim that policies adopted after the 2006 assembly election by the state government to aggressively woo industrial projects had resulted in the alienation of the party from its rural cadre.
The Left Front won as few as 15 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, down from 35 in the 2004 parliamentary elections. It received 43.3% of the popular vote, around 7.5% less than what it garnered in 2004. The vote share of the CPM alone went down by 5.5% to 33%.
Even in 1984, when the Congress rode a sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and grabbed 16 seats in West Bengal, the Left Front had received 48.5% of the vote.
In 193 of the 294 assembly segments in the state, the Left Front received fewer votes than the Congress-Trinamool Congress combine.
“The only exception is Burdwan (district) where out of the 21 assembly constituencies, Left Front candidates were ahead in at least 16. They (state government) should learn from us how to handle critical issues such as land acquisition,” said Amal Haldar, CPM’s Burdwan district secretary.
The influential “Burdwan lobby”, which includes the state’s commerce and industries minister and politburo member Nirupam Sen has, over the past couple of days, been extremely critical of the state government’s drive to acquire farmland for industrial projects, and wants a change in leadership, according to at least three CPM leaders, who didn’t want to be named.
With assembly elections due in 2011, the party needs to “change course immediately” and choose a new leader, they added, referring to the chief minister.
Land acquisition for industrial projects is a major issue in West Bengal. A protest campaign by the Trinamool Congress against the government’s acquisition of farmland for Tata Motors Ltd’s small car factory in Singur caused the company to move the project to Gujarat last year.
“They (the state government) didn’t consult us before acquiring land in Singur,” said a leader of the All India Krishak Sabha, or AIKS, the CPM’s peasant wing.
“Had they told us, we would have done the groundwork and made sure there wasn’t any confrontation. Instead, they acted in haste. He (Bhattacharjee) relied more on bureaucrats than us and we are paying the price.”
The AIKS leader didn’t want to be named because he isn’t the organization’s official spokesperson.
CPM leader and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah said land acquisition was the biggest mistake committed by the state government in the past three years, and that it wasn’t the first time that leaders from Burdwan and Kolkata were pushing for a “change in the party order”.
These leaders are also upset with Bhattacharjee’s handling of the impasse in Singur that led to the car maker pulling out of the state. They said the state government should have dealt firmly with the Trinamool Congress and not let things get out of hand.
“What made matters worse for us was the withdrawal of the project. This could have been avoided,” said one of the leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Allies of the CPM such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party, or RSP, too, have been openly criticizing Bhattacharjee for the 14 March 2007 police firing in Nandigram that killed at least 14 people protesting land acquisition for a proposed chemical hub.
All this has led to speculation that Bhattacharjee has offered to step down as chief minister, owning up responsibility for the poll debacle in the state.
Though no official confirmation could be obtained, The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika newspapers in Kolkata reported on Monday that the chief minister had offered to step down. Asked about the news reports, Bhattacharjee refused comment.
RSP leader and minister for public works Kshiti Goswami, however, told Mint, “Offering to resign and resigning aren’t the same things. This could well be an eyewash.”
Economist and political commentator Abhirup Sarkar said the Left Front had suffered a setback in West Bengal because it abandoned “Leftist policies, which Mamata (Banerjee) usurped”.
“Across India, the Congress owes its victory to socialist policies reminiscent of the times of (Jawaharlal) Nehru and Indira Gandhi, such as NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and farm loan waiver,” he said.
Asked if the CPM should find a new leader for the 2011 assembly elections, Sarkar, who teaches at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, said, “Either the state or the central leadership of the Left has to change because they don’t speak the same language.”
“Which one would, I don’t know, but the bigger question is if the Left has any leader at all who can rescue the party from this mess.”