In the two years since Mamata Banerjee came to power, there has been a sea change in the balance of political forces on the ground
Set in the labyrinthine lanes of the busy bazaar here, where fresh vegetables compete for attention with tiny shops selling cheap, brightly-coloured clothing, is the local Trinamool Congress office. Last week, as I climbed the rickety wooden stairs, the large poorly ventilated room that greeted me had changed little physically since I last visited it exactly two years ago, on the eve of the Assembly elections. Even the ceiling-high posters on one of its walls, collages of scenes of violence from the Left years with a militant Mamata Banerjee – now West Bengal Chief Minister – grimly looking on, still greet the visitor.
But if in 2011, there were just a couple of workers in the office, now 40-odd activists are seated in a circle planning their strategy for the impending panchayat polls. A question on why Ms. Banerjee is determined to prevent Central forces from attending these elections – one of the issues that has seen the State Election Commission take the government to court – is greeted with hostility. If the Central forces are brought in, it will be a “black mark” against the State government’s ability to hold free and fair elections and it is an attempt to discredit the State government, said general secretary, Canning block, Sushil Sardar.
“We cannot allow that,” he said firmly. “This is Mamata Banerjee’s government, she must decide dates and other details,” adds his muscular party colleague Tapan Saha, as he brushes aside my attempt to explain the concept of the Election Commission’s rights and responsibilities.
My next stop is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) office, located at Joydeb Palli, in a quieter part of the bazaar. Beneath the mandatory portraits of Marx, Stalin, Lenin and Bengali Communist leaders, all covered with several layers of dust, sits the bespectacled zonal committee member Ajoy Sen. With him are a handful of comrades, all going through lists. They look dispirited, as Mr. Sen talks about the terror unleashed by the Trinamool Congress against his party, the number of CPI (M) offices that have been ransacked or burnt.
“But we are ready to fight,” he said bravely, “Although the police takes no notice of our complaints. Instead, they have been lodging false cases against our comrades.” Without Central forces, he said, there will be a bloodbath.
From there, I head for the Congress office. Propped against a wall painted a lurid green is a carrom board. As I step in, half a dozen youths seated on the floor look up: they are playing cards. Pradip Das gets up and offers me a chair in a corner of the room. Are they not preparing for the panchayat polls? “We had selected a candidate here,” replied Mr. Das, “His name is Snehashish Bag, but after Trinamool Congress workers threatened him, he doesn’t want to contest, unless he is provided security.” Is this their party office? He points out a crumbling single storey building through the window, with an iron collapsible gate across it, Congress Bhavan inscribed across the top, its letters broken. “That was our office, but the roof is leaking and it is in a state of disrepair. We tried to repair it, but the Trinamool Congress blocked it. So we now operate out of this room,” explained Mr. Das, adding, “It is becoming difficult to survive here.”
In the 2011 Assembly elections, hadn’t the two parties fought together? Yes, in theory, he said, but the Trinamool Congress got our candidate defeated. Now, Mr. Das said, if there are no Central forces, the Congress will not be able to field any candidates at all from here.
In the two years since Ms. Banerjee led the Trinamool Congress to victory, ending 34 years of uninterrupted Left rule, there has been a sea change in the balance of political forces on the ground. In south Bengal (the Congress still has a presence in north, where it has six MPs), the Trinamool Congress that dented the Left citadel in the panchayat polls in 2008, and then went on to destroy it in the 2011 Assembly polls, rules the roost. With a large section of the lumpen elements, that had provided muscle power to the Left Front in its dying days, switching allegiance to the Trinamool Congress, the comrades are now finding it hard to fully function in many parts of the State.
Whether it is here, or Bardhaman – from where the CPI(M) began its work in the State – or West Midnapore (where I travelled last week), the reports were the same: the Left parties are no longer able to hold public meetings or local rallies without fear of reprisals. They hold organisational meetings, but generally in secret.
Ask the Trinamool Congress workers, as I did in Keshpur and Chandrakona town, in West Midnapore district, or in Mongolkote in Bardhaman district – all of which have been the scenes of some of the bloodiest clashes over the last decade between the Left and the Trinamool Congress – whether this is true. The answer is uniform: Left workers have left the villages because they have become unpopular with the people. Indeed, in these areas, where red flags flew over roofs, now you would be hard put to find one. Now, they have been replaced by the orange and green flags of the Trinamool Congress and Ms. Banerjee’s posters. In West Bengal parlance, this is called area domination.