If the CPI(M) had continued with its land reforms in West Bengal, it could have continued to rule the State

Whether the Left will succeed in retaining its vote share of 43.3 per cent of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, or whether this will drop is being widely debated. The vote share came down by 3.62 per centage points in the 2011 Assembly elections and slid further in the Panchayat polls two years later. Even if the ruling All India Trinamool Congress loses some votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party in this election, it is crucial for the Left to get 30 per cent plus votes to reach a double-digit mark in West Bengal which has 42 seats.

Reasons for slide

There are various reasons for the slide in the Left’s vote bank. One plausible explanation, mostly given by Left sympathisers, is that the generation that witnessed repression of the Congress between 1971-77 made way for a generation that was unaware of the Congress’ legacy of the 1970s in West Bengal. These voters in their 30s, the foot soldiers of any party, slowly moved away creating a space that was almost impossible to fill. Secondly, the people who moved from the Congress to the Left in the late 1970s may have joined the party or voted for it to access the usual benefits that come with being with a party in power. This community, including the “left intellectuals of Kolkata,” changed sides as soon as the CPI(M) landed in trouble. This change of sides has reference to recent history. In his book “Land, Labour and Governance,” Debabrata Bandopadhyay provides an interesting analysis. Mr. Bandopadhyay, a TMC MP in Rajya Sabha, wrote that post-1977, when the Left Front came to power in West Bengal, many people who belonged to the big land-owning class in the rural parts of the State joined the Left Front. It was allowed by the then Communist leadership, as the size of the party was small in rural areas and the CPI(M) had to quickly build its base.

If the CPI(M) had continued distributing land to farmers and giving them legal rights over land (patta), thereby making them eligible for financial assistance from banks through creation of cooperatives, then the party could have continued to rule the State. But by incorporating the ‘middle-peasant,’ the process of land reform stopped. While many in the Left feel it is a proverbial hindsight argument, the fact is that the big land-owning class has now aligned with the TMC.

In addition, the plans of acquiring vast tracts of farm land for industries without really consulting the lower rung of the party, as claimed by the expelled leaders of the CPI(M), have eroded the traditional base of small and landless farmers created over the last few decades. Landless peasants, a vast majority of whom are Muslims, did not appreciate either the move to acquire farm land or the CPI(M)’s much-debated criticism of madrasas.

Muslim vote is above 20 per cent in West Bengal and 40 per cent in some pockets. Muslims had almost entirely gone against the Left in 2011. Moreover, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee, who was initially seen as a relatively inexperienced Chief Minister, has matured. She has learnt strategies to keep her enemies divided, coupling strong-arm tactics with diplomacy. By not acquiring farm land, not flexing urban land-ceiling and blocking multi-brand retail giants, she has virtually hijacked the Left agenda.

In spite of this, the Left Front may get more seats than expected in West Bengal, but that would be more due to the rise of the Right, rather than any ground-breaking political experiment. That is perhaps one reason why Ms Banerjee has been going hammer and tongs against the Right for the last one week, rather than her primary adversaries — the Left parties.

suvojit.bagchi@thehindu.co.in

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