Kolkata: Following the Left Front’s dismal performance in the 2009 parliamentary elections in West Bengal, two cabinet ministers in the state, Nirupam Sen and Asim Dasgupta, said it would take years to turn the tide of anti-incumbency the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and its allies were facing.
After ruling the state since 1977, it seemed that the Left had finally given up.
The Trinamool Congress, West Bengal’s main opposition party that claimed 19 of the 42 seats in the 2009 parliamentary polls—compared with the Left Front’s 16—consolidated its growing influence with gains in civic body polls the next year.
The CPM was not even putting up a brave face. Key leaders such as Biman Bose, who is a politburo member and the Left Front’s chairman in West Bengal, said the party had realized its mistakes and it was time for a course correction.
The CPM as well as the government started making amends. The party got rid of thousands of workers who were exploiting their political affiliation for personal benefit, while the administration made key policy changes with an eye on the weaker sections of society.
The biggest apparent reason for the Left’s poor electoral performances was the heavy handed manner in which the government had begun acquiring land for industrial projects—manifest in the March 2007 police firing on farmers at Nandigram that left 14 dead, and the Trinamool Congress-led anti-land acquisition protests that forced Tata Motors Ltd to abandon its small car project at Singur a year-and-a-half later.
Sen, the commerce and industries minister, put together a resettlement and rehabilitation scheme for land acquisition, which helped the government acquire thousands of acres for setting up factories without much resistance.
Alongside, finance minister Dasgupta created more than 100,000 government jobs at a time when governments are downsizing everywhere. He made funds available to release more cut price foodgrain and allocated more money to be paid to workers of closed factories and the elderly.
The result: West Bengal’s debt is approaching Rs1.9 trillion, making it one of India’s most indebted states that is still able to pay salaries on time because of deft cash management.
The efforts made the Left a little more confident going into the assembly elections than it was after the reverses of the past two years. Assembly elections began in West Bengal on 18 April; the sixth and last phase of voting will take place on 10 May and results will be announced on 13 May.
Inflation has become a key polls plank for the Left. The CPM says in its manifesto that if voted back to power, it would strengthen the poor to mitigate the effects of the Central government’s policies, which it blames for the rising prices.
This isn’t the first time the CPM is speaking of course correction and empowering the underprivileged. For years until the 2006 assembly elections, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee criticized militant trade unionism and disruptive ways of protesting, such as general strikes, which his party and its labour wing had patronized for long. West Bengal’s electorate was swayed by his confessions and promises to make amends.
The Trinamool, too, has made efforts to deepen its growing clout among the electorate. In the two years that its leader Mamata Banerjee has been the Union railway minister, she has added new trains, extended existing connections and laid the foundation stones for factories to be built by the railways.
The party has presented a please-all manifesto, with definite timeframes to achieve each goal, drafted by Amit Mitra, secretary general of industry lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and a Trinamool candidate in the ongoing polls.
It isn’t impossible to turn things around, said Mitra. If the Centre is willing to make concessions, the state’s fiscal health would improve, he adds, but it is important to pluck the low-hanging fruits to make a beginning.
That is what Banerjee and Bhattacherjee have been doing for their respective parties in the run up to the polls. But bigger problems, such as the state’s abysmal tax to state domestic product ratio, which is less than 5%, falling industrial output when measured against the national income, and appalling state of healthcare, are deeply entrenched.
“The legacy of the Left’s 34-year rule is a tall one and overcoming it is not going to be easy,” said an additional chief secretary in the state administration, requesting anonymity.
Even if the people vote for a change, he said it is beyond reason to expect the state to go any further in the next five years than just emerge from the shadow of Left rule.