The question is not who will win but what lies behind the Left Front's impending electoral victory, its 15th in succession, say Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar
There are no prizes for guessing who will win in West Bengal. Of the four States that go to the polls in the current round of Assembly elections, the outcome in West Bengal is the most easily predicted. The Hindu-CNN-IBN Poll carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) only confirmed what any observer of State politics already knew. The poll said that if elections had been held in the first week of April, the Left Front would have secured 54 per cent of the vote and won 233 to 243 seats in the 294-member Assembly. Thus, the Left Front appears set to win the seventh consecutive Assembly election and add to the size of its majority. If one takes parliamentary elections into account, this would be its 15th straight electoral win since 1977.
The near certainty about the poll outcome does not mean a consensus on what accounts for it. One needs to explain not just this election, but the 29 years of Left Front dominance. The successive victories mask variations in regions, segments and social groups. These are crucial to understand what this election means for the politics of West Bengal. The question is not the electoral verdict but what goes into its making and what outcomes flow from it.
Before explaining the dominance of the Left Front, it is useful to take a quick look at the cold statistics, which have few parallels in electoral democracy. The Left Front came to power in the post-Emergency election of 1977, following the infamous regime of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who came to power on the back of a controversial poll in 1972. Since then it has not looked back. The Left Front's vote share has stayed around 50 per cent, give or take about three percentage points. The only time it faced serious erosion was during the Rajiv Gandhi wave of 1985, when the Front lost 16 of the 42 parliamentary seats to the Congress. The Front has always won a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. The CPI(M), the dominant partner in the Front, has won a majority on its own in every election except in 2001.
In 2001, there was talk that Mamata Banerjee could cause an electoral upset. But following her crushing defeat, it has been downhill for her since then as well as for the anti-Left forces. The Lok Sabha elections of 2004 saw the Left Front scoring an even more emphatic victory. The Trinamool-BJP alliance secured just one Lok Sabha seat. The Left Front went on to score a comprehensive victory in the urban local body elections to complete its dominance and eliminate any possibility of a radical reversal in the Assembly elections.
This kind of dominance is reminiscent of the `Congress system' that prevailed in many States in the 1950s and 1960s. But the nature of Left dominance is very different from the one-party dominance of the Congress. The Left Front is not a single party but a CPI(M)-dominated coalition that includes three major allies (the CPI, the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party), some minor partners (such as the West Bengal Socialist Party and the RCPI) and some Independents. Over the years, the CPI(M) has retained the allies and even increased its hold over the allies. The Front's dominance of West Bengal is more complete than the one-party dominance of the Congress has ever been. The CPI(M) is known as `The Party' even by the unlettered voter. The party dominates not just the elections and politics of the State, but also civil society spaces in a way that the Congress did not.
The Left Front and its supporters see the lack of vulnerability to `anti-incumbency' as a corollary of the performance of its Government. There is some substance in this. Unlike the Janata Party, which also came to power in 1977, the Left Front Government consolidated its victory with a series of far-reaching policy measures. These policies, most famously Operation Bargha, gave land to the sharecropper and empowered the rural poor. The first two terms of Left Front rule were a rare example of the use of State power for the social transformation of the marginalised classes. Even though this drive subsided thereafter, the Government has created a climate of security for minorities and has provided more for the poor than other Governments have.
However, it is too simplistic to see the dominance of the Left Front as a function of its governmental performance. The overall economic record of West Bengal under the Left Front is not exactly glorious. The State has seen little industrial growth. This was initially compensated by a decade of amazing growth in the agricultural sector in the 1980s. The State has a high unemployment and poverty rate. A high burden of debt and insufficient support from the Centre has left little resources with the State Government. While the visible face of Government has remained largely free of charges of corruption not a mean achievement in our country widespread corruption at lower levels of Government has been a matter of concern.
In other words, the record of the Left Front in Government alone cannot explain 14 successive electoral victories. We need to supplement it with an understanding of the social bloc cultivated and consolidated by the extraordinary election machine of the CPI(M), the creative role of the leadership, and the failure of the political opposition in West Bengal.
The architects of the Left Front, leaders such as the late Pramode Dasgupta, carefully integrated Government policy with a strategy of political mobilisation. This design was flawlessly executed by legendary party managers such as the late Anil Biswas, who created a party machine unmatched in any Indian State. The Left shifted its social base from being a party of the industrial proletariat to that of marginal farmers, sharecroppers and the landless poor. This class base was carefully stitched together; a coalition of the socially marginalised groups that included Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. This class-community coalition has stood by the Left Front through all the political change of the last three decades. The CPI(M) election machine has ensured a very high level of mobilisation, thus increasing the turnout in the State to one of the highest in the country.
The power of this election machine is perceived and presented as `scientific rigging' by the opponents of the Left Front. This assumption seems to be behind the Election Commission's unusual attention on the West Bengal polls. The EC's special measures could achieve the opposite of what was intended. If the Left Front wins this election with a comfortable margin, it could be just the certificate it needs to refute charges of scientific rigging.
Evidence from the last few years shows that the social base of the Left Front has changed in a subtle but significant way. Earlier the Left used to enjoy a huge advantage among women voters; this has reduced in recent years. Also, the Front's traditional support in urban industrial areas has eroded substantially. A few years ago, the Left faced a severe deficit of support among younger voters, threatening its future. The Left never enjoyed dominance among the urban poor in a way it did among the rural areas.
Thus, the Left faced a challenge of renewing itself. Like many dominant parties, the Left managed to produce an alternative from within. This is the real importance of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the new face of the Left Front and a symbol of continuity and change. With him at the top, the CPI(M) is in the process of changing its Governmental policies, which now focus more on industrialisation, urban infrastructure and the urban middle class. The findings of The Hindu-CNN-IBN Poll suggest that the Left has succeeded in retaining its old social base while adding new classes to it. It has lost a little among the rural poor but gained more by expanding its support among the rural well-to-do and the urban middle class. It has also recovered ground among younger voters.
The Left has been helped in achieving this by an Opposition that lacks a political perspective, a policy package and a credible leadership. Mamata Banerjee, the only Opposition leader capable of taking on the Left, is no match for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who has inherited Jyoti Basu's charisma. Besides, non-Left votes are badly fragmented. The BJP has become a marginal force in the State. It is significant enough to cut into the votes of the non-Left forces but not big enough to challenge the Left on its own. The Trinamool Congress is now the main opponent of the Congress. The parent party is still a force to reckon with in the Malda and Murshidabad districts. The political impossibility of Banerjee's dream of a mahajot (a grand alliance of Congress, the BJP and the Trinamool) is a reflection on the state of the Opposition.
In politics, a short-term advantage can be a long-term handicap. In this election, the political bankruptcy of the anti-Left Front forces combined with the newly acquired social base of the Left Front make the result a forgone conclusion. But in the long run, the political vacuum and the social churning can create conditions for a `left' alternative to the `new left' politics practised by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.