A primer on West Bengal Assembly Election 2011
Six years is a long time in politics. I don’t know how many remember today that in the 2006 West Bengal state election Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) aligned with BJP (and few other small parties) to form a Mahajot (United Front) with an avowed objective to defeat the Left Front(LF). Congress wasn’t part of Mahajot as it was running its government at the centre with CPM support. CPIM led LF has been ruling the state from 1977, easily the longest serving, democratically elected ‘Communist’ Government anywhere in this world. That meant LF outlived two of the biggest Communist crises of modern era- spectacular implosion of the mighty Soviet Union and brutal massacre of student protestors at Tiananmen Square by ruling Communist dispensation. Unless something dramatic unfolds to change the electoral landscape of West Bengal,it appears to be curtains for the Communist regime in West Bengal as the Mamata juggernaut appears poised to steamroll it.
2006 Election: Cursory look at results of the 2006 elections is very revealing. It demonstrated the extent of stranglehold that Communists led alliance had over the electorate. After 29 years of rule, LF won its second biggest mandate bagging close to 50% vote share and recording their seventh straight win. The runup to the election witnessed an election commission on an overdrive to ensure free and fair elections ( even questioning legitimacy of the electoral mobilization tatctics of CPM). Though the opposition was not united, Buddhadeb had to embark on a hardsell of his development and industrialization agenda to the voters . He helped LF to an astounding seventh straight win . “It is a verdict for industrialization,” said the Chief Minister after results were out. One of the first visitors to greet Buddhadeb was Ratan Tata. The day result was announced, Ravi Kant, MD of Tata Motors, met the Chief Minister, and announced Tata has chosen the state for their Nano Car though plant location needed to be finalized. Even after 29 years of rule, the massive swing for LF showed the CM got it right when he made economic development his electoral plank.
Singur, Nandigram: It’s has been a downhill for Buddhadeb since then. The land for Singur was chosen wrongly in the middle of fertile land of South Bengal that provides 3 crops a year. Livelihoods of many families depend on those lands and they were not willing to part with the land. Govt setup a wall but people opposed the land acquisition doggedly. As Tata received bad press worldwide, they moved out of the project ultimately in 2008. Though no court ruling has come against Govt’s Singur land acquisition, Buddha lost the political battle. Singur falls between Kolkata and my home in South Bengal. I have passed through it thousands of times in my life. By no stretch of imagination,a smooth acquisition of large tracts of fertile land was possible. That was the biggest mistake, rather harikiri , Buddhadeb did in his political life. Mamata took the side of those agitating farmers, thus scored a massive political victory over Buddhadeb.
The share croppers, farmers, poor, minorities (Nandigram has significant Muslim population where similar land acquisition failed) who have been backbone of LF’s long rule saw through the game the LF under Buddha was playing and turned against its benefactor. This caused massive slide of vote away from LF thus their rout in 2009 national and subsequent local bodies’ election.
While Singur and Nandigram were specific instances of mismanagement by an overzealous government, WB has been plagued with huge governance issues and lack of development thanks to 34 years of Left rule. I can’t remember one single sector be it industry, health, education, irrigation or any developmental indicator where state of West Bengal has improved its relative position over what it was in 1977. Let me highlight some very important ones.
Unemployment: Unemployment is a serious issue amongst educated and youth of India. In West Bengal, the unemployment rate is almost 25-50% more than the national average. Unemployment rate among urban people, the all-India figure is 8.3%, but West Bengal its 9.9%.Unemployment rate among educated rural people, the all-India figure is 8.5%, but West Bengal its 12.3%. Unemployment rate among young urban people, the all-India figure is 12.5%, but West Bengal its 15.4%. In case of rural youth the figures of all India is 7% and in case of West Bengal its 10.3%.
HDI: The state’s human development index (HDI) is 0.610 which is not bad when compared with rest of India. But there are districts in West Bengal where HDI is below 0.50 which makes it at par with Sub Saharan Africa. It’s pathetic specially when a purpotedely pro-poor communist Government is ruling the states for last 35 years. Data shows 47% of state’s poor don’t have any BPL card while 44% of non-poor have BPL card. This indicates at the ground level those who don’t support CPIM will not get BPL cards. This huge swathe of poor people are now primary support base of Mamata Banerjee as they have seen how CPIM promotes inequality.
Education: Most devastating impact of 3 decades of left rule has been on education. Kolkata had many institutes, college, Universities that were renowned globally. CPM started controlling these institutes through backdoor by appointing teachers,professor, VC from its cadres whose primary goal was to further party’s interest and cosequently destroyed their excellence. In the process talented, meritorious students, teachers left the state and institutes lost their character. Elite institutes of learning were destroyed systematically to further political agenda. In mid1980s, CPIM didn’t allow the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University to enter his office in main Univ campus for 2-3 years because though Santosh Bhattacharya was eminent economist, he was not a leftist. Unlike China where Communistsdone commendable job on primary education, in West Bengal there are districts where literacy rate is less than 50%. The average literacy rate for the state was 68% which was bit better than India average of 65% (2001 census). In case of primary school enrolment rate, West Bengal is worse than Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa,Rajasthan, Uttarakhand , and Chhattisgarh. In case of drop outs only Bihar performs worse than West Bengal among large states. 33% of states primaryschools don’t have pucca building, 66% don’t have drinking water facility, 76% male students don’t have toilets, 85% girl students don’t have toilet facility. Above all, Govt spends 95% of its spending of primary and secondary education on paying salary of the teachers and non-teaching staff.If the advantage state had in education could be sustained during 3 decades of left rule, it could have been at leading position in knowledge based economy.
Growth: The state has slipped its position in development index across sectors. I have summarized few important ones. This piece is not the right forum to elaborate all these. I will just conclude my point on thestunning decline of the state under 3 decades of left rule by discussing the growth. Its generally believed the state performed above all India average in 1980s because of land reforms (operation barge). Though the impact of land reformats may be exaggerated (only 6% arable land was distributed under operation Barga), its true West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa was above India average growth in agriculture because of other reasons like a) small irrigation, b) high yielding seed, c) ‘boro’ cultivation. However agri growth has stagnated since 1990s and still has not recovered. Overall growth of the state during 1990s was close to 6%. This was largely similar to average all India growth. However after 2003, country grew to 9% while the state remained in the same 6% growth rate. This has not allowed the per capita income of the state (Rs 30,000 in 2007-08) to grow like rest of India. Though the state was within top 5 in per capita income few decades back ,it’s now down to 18th amongst Indian states.
[For detailed analysis on state of West Bengal, one can refer to “transforming West Bengal by BibekDebroy and LaveeshBhandarihttp://www.scribd.com/doc/12834375/Transforming-West-Bengal-An-Indicus-Whitepaper]
Election 2011: Considering the decline and decline of West Bengal under 3 decades of left rule, and complete stranglehold of Communists on virtually all aspects of life in the state it’s was almost impossible to ameliorate the governance process with Left being in the helm of affairs. Slow but a steady realization began to dawned on the electorate on why Left has been winning for so long even after such pathetic performance. Primary reason behind that has been the absence of credible opposition. Mamata has been trying for last 15 years to forge a grand anti Left alliance and defeat CPIM but Congress never took part in it because BJP was part of it. Change is in the air and it’s very much possible the Left front will lose election after 3 decades of rule. The Headlines Today-ORG opinion poll has come out with a figure of 182 seats (out of 293) for the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine with 44 per cent of the votes. The Front expected to get 43% of vote but will get 101 seats (http://www.hindu.com/2011/04/01/stories/2011040165411600.htm) .
TMC-Congress: I think these figures are bit inflated. Trinamool is riding on a popular upsurge but it has very little party structure at the villages. Mamata is known to be emotional and can take decisions that are going to put her party into tight corner (the hurried way she resigned after a Tehelka expose ). Also her party is not known to be a cohesive political movement with agenda based politics. Its raison detre is CPIM Hatao (Throw out CPIM) and is hoping such stunning banruptcy of govrnance ideas be addressed after Left is thrown out of power. Trinamool is particularly strong in South Bengal and after bungling of Singur and Nandigram, the small farmers, share croppers, minorities, the mainstay of Left have switched allegiance to Trinamool. Congress has less than 10% vote in West Bengal these days and divided along factional lines . Its strength is primarily based in North Bengal and bordering districts of Bangladesh. Few disillusioned factional leaders are trying to setup candidate against official TMC-Congress candidates which will help Left Front. However how much it will have real impact on the poll is not easy to judge. Also how much Mamata’s mercurial temperament and unproven governance record will weigh against her remains to be seen.
Left Front: Though the state lost track on almost every front, Left won its second largest mandate in 2006. It’s a downhill since then primarily because of bungling of Singur, Nandigram by Buddhadeb and NirupamSen (Industry Minister). The primary reason for left’s astounding blunder is sudden, premature death of its State Secretary Anil Biswas. Though a Stalinist, he used to control things between different groups in subtle way. But his sudden death barely a month before 2006 election caused imbalance how power is shared in top CPIM level thus ended with Singue, Nandigram. It can be safely assumed, if he were alive, he would have handled the fertile land giving up for industry against peoples wishes much more mature way without wasting any time which Buddha couldn’t do. Still CPIM has a formidable presence in West Bengal, has a cadre based structure which will remain even if Left loses this election(not sure whether Trinamool party will exist after 10 years or in what form). Its agenda this time is to expose Mamata’s anti Industry campaign that caused major harm to state’s long term interest. It also wants to develop Agriculture.
BJP: Though BJP’s link with the state is old (RSS founder took part in agitation against the partition of Bengal as a student of Calcutta Medical College, second RSS guru was an ordained monk at Ramakrishna Mission by a direct disciple of Paramhansa, BJP treats SP Mookerjee as its ideological founder etc.), it has never won any seat in State legislature. However in recent times 2 BJP members of parliament were elected from the state. In the current LokSabha, Jaswant Singh got elected from Darjeeling but it’s largely because of Gorkha Party supported him. BJS sent few MPs in 1950s and one of them was NC Chatterjee (father of CPIM MP, Ex Speaker SomnathChatterjee).
The vote share of BJP hovered between 5-12%. But for last few elections since BJP stood in the election as part of grand anti-left combine, its difficult to predict its present strength. It still is a marginal party with small pockets of influence in the state. I spoke with some persons on the ground and the feedback I got is this time BJP may be lucky and we might see an BJP MLA sitting in State Assembly. BJP has already finished a “Nava-jagaran” RathYatra from North to South Bengal and top leaders from LK Advani to Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj all attended it. As per media reports, Narendra Modi will also be campaigning in West Bengal. The main agenda of BJP is all round growth and development of the state as seen in BJP ruled states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh etc. In districts bordering Jharkhand, BJP is trying to strike an alliance with Jharkhand party & few other small parties which will add incrementally to its tally. BJP gets aim to get setas from the districts of Birbhum and Murshidabad.
Conclusion: The unprecedented support LF got from people for over 3 decades gave the state rare political stability. Lack of credible opposition was one reason behind it. Whether it was Pepsi opening up potato chips factory in Punjab, or computerization in financial institutions,Left always opposed it. I heard a story from a Computer Engineer who worked in 1960s that they needed to inform local police station in advance prior to delivering Computers to financial institutes which were mainly based in Kolkata those days. There used to be violent agitation by left employees union in those days against Computers and sometimes they even broke down machines (little they realized all computers were insured, so effectively their own insurance companies are paying for their act ). This violent agitation also forced flight of capital from Kolkata. After Hindustan Motors, there was not large scale private investment for over 2 decades.
When other Indian states were competing with each other to attract capital, LF due to its ideological baggage, myopic attitude couldn’t see the importance of industry, private capital in creating job, boost the economy. The negative image of the state didn’t attract any capital to the state thus stagnated the industry. A state like West Bengal with so much population, pressure on land, it can’t grow only on agriculture. Left didn’t realize the important role industry can play. When it realized it in 2006, it made major goof up in land allocation and lost its major support base. Democracy sometimes is a great leveller and has provided a small window to TMC to rule the state, induce good governance, end poverty, corruption, disease, unemployment, inequity. No state should ever elect one single front to rule continuously for over 3 decades as it degenerate into arrogance, total collapse of governance. I hope 2011 election will truly create history for the state. Expected defeat of Left will have a significant impact at the national politics as well.