Today's Paper

A challenging electoral battle

Marcus Dam

The result in West Bengal could determine the fate of the Third Front and have a crucial bearing on the 2011 Assembly election, when the Left Front government will seek a public mandate for a record eighth term

Having been in power for 32 years, the Left Front in West Bengal is set to face what is perhaps its most challenging electoral battle.

This Lok Sabha election, which has seen the Congress and the Trinamool Congress teaming up, is extremely significant for at least two reasons. First, the fate of the Third Front could depend vitally on the performance of the Left Front in West Bengal. Secondly, with the Lok Sabha polls coming two years ahead of the next Assembly election, the outcome is going to have a crucial bearing on 2011.

“New dawn”

Senior leaders of the Left Front admit the going will be “tough.” “A new dawn beckons,” say leaders of the principal Opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, which has set its sights on the Assembly elections, confident that its prospects have brightened after its electoral understanding with the Congress.

This understanding has had its share of hiccups, but leaders of both camps believe that the combined challenge to the Left is the most critical factor this time. The Left Front, of course, has found itself in similar situations before, where there have been seat adjustments between the major Opposition parties.

Such an electoral arrangement was formalised in the Assembly elections in 2001, but the Congress and the Trinamool Congress still came a cropper.

The two parties and their allies ended up polling nearly 10 per cent less than the Left Front did. That the Trinamool Congress subsequently joined the National Democratic Alliance is still fresh in the memory of the Congress — particularly that section of the party which had reservations about the hurried manner in which the understanding between the two was reached. Dissenters were cautioned with the threat of expulsion.

Though the results of the previous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections establish its electoral supremacy, the outcome of last year’s local body elections — and most recently an Assembly by-poll — suggest an erosion in the Left’s support base, primarily in the rural belt.

This has given the Congress-Trinamool camp some cause for cheer. The leaders of the Left parties say they have been analysing the factors that contributed to the reversals over the past few months and have emerged the stronger for this. Moves have been made to consolidate unity within the Left Front constituents — the lack of which has been cited as a reason for the setback in the local body elections. Caution appears to have replaced a sense of complacency that might have crept in from being in power for an uninterrupted three decades and more.

Contentious debate

The contentious debate between the Left Front and the Opposition over the acquisition of farmland for industry — an imperative in a State where the land-use pattern is characterised by its intensiveness — is expected to be uppermost in the collective psyche of the electorate. The controversy is an integral part of public discourse and is one of the major planks of the Trinamool Congress, which opposed the proposed chemical hub at Nandigram and Tata Motors’ small car project at Singur. In the past few weeks, the Trinamool leadership, in an attempt to clear misgivings, has been toning down the rhetoric and stressing it is not opposed to industrialisation per se.

How else can the unemployment problem be addressed if not by setting up more industries, the Left Front asks.

A rehabilitation and compensation package for land-losers has been put in place; so have a revised land acquisition policy and a land bank. “Nandigram and Singur are exceptions. It is fallacious to presume they are the rule,” says Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The stakes are high. The Lok Sabha election is being perceived as some sort of a verdict on the performance of the Left Front government, even though the Assembly election is two years away. The Trinamool and the Congress are already speaking about the need to take the fight forward and the Left Front is aware that the result of this election is something it will have to take into account when it seeks a public mandate to govern West Bengal for a record eighth term.

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