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The BBC's Mike Wooldridge
"Allegations of intimidation come from all sides."
 real 56k

Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Communists vulnerable in West Bengal
CPI-M leader Buddhadev Bhattacharya
The CPI-M joins the campaign trail
By Mike Wooldridge in West Bengal

West Bengal has been governed by a coalition of left-wing parties for more than two decades, but a recently realigned opposition alliance may now pose a serious challenge to the world's longest-serving elected communist administration.

Current party strength
Left Front 202 seats
Trinamool-Congress 82 seats
The left-wing parties are counting on the charismatic appeal of 87-year old Jyoti Basu, who retired last year as India's longest-serving chief minister, to drum up support and fend off the challenge.

But campaigning for Thursday's elections has been marred by allegations of heavy handedness from all sides.

Intimidation

There was something strange about Keshpur. The small town, around 130 km (80 miles) from Calcutta, had its share of party flags flying from buildings.

But they all appeared to be communist flags. Where was the opposition?

Sadhan Mallick,
Sadhan Mallick is undecided over how to vote
We tried to telephone the candidate of the Trinamul Congress, who we were supposed to be interviewing.

We were told the phone lines were down and no-one seemed to be able to tell us where he might be.

Eventually we caught up with Dr Rajani Kanta Doloi in the town of Midnapore, 20 kms away.

"You saw there were no Trinamul flags in Keshpur?" he asked.

He barely waited for us to answer before launching into a tirade against the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), for allegedly carrying out a "reign of terror" against his party.

Fear

He was speaking in the courtyard of a building where several dozen Trinamul supporters from Kashpur have been living since last August.

They arrived there after violent clashes between communist activists and Trinamul. They say they cannot go home for fear of their lives.

Dr Doloi says he has not been able to campaign in his own constituency.

A few hours earlier, the man whose name is synonymous with the past quarter of a century of communist-led government in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, had been addressing a rally to the east of Calcutta and charging the opposition with trying to intimidate communist supporters.

"Now or never"

This is a volatile election. Trinamul's leader, Mamata Banerjee, says of defeating the Left Front: "It's now or never".

Jyoti Basu
Jyoti Basu remains at the forefront of the campaign
The preoccupations of politics at a national level in India do not appear to have much bearing on these state assembly elections.

Local political alignments can be confusing.

Mamata Banerjee, for example, recently took her party out of the ruling coalition at the centre and went into a pre-poll partnership with Sonia Gandhi's Congress.

The Left Front is widely considered to be more vulnerable than at any time since it came to power in the state.

Traditional support wanes

Sadhan Mallick, a commerce graduate who lives in the village of Chotojagulia, thinks he knows why.


We are in a dilemma over which way to vote

Sadhan Mallick
He is among many without a job and teaches local children part-time on the veranda of his family home to make ends meet.

The family missed out on the communists' sweeping land reform programme. They say they were offered land by the village administration, but it belonged to someone they were on good terms with and they declined to take it.

"Our family has always been inclined to vote for the Left," he says. "But we have not had what we expected from them. And cadres at the grassroots level have shown a bad attitude towards us.

It will soon be known whether the world's longest-serving elected communist administration can enjoy another lease of life or whether it has to bow out.

Jyoti Basu, who finally retired last year after trying for some time to persuade the party to let him give up office because of failing health, has remained in the forefront of the campaign for these elections.

That, if nothing else, shows how much is at stake in West Bengal this week.

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See also:

06 Nov 00 | South Asia
India's Red star fades away
15 Mar 01 | South Asia
Indian opposition capitalises on crisis
14 Mar 01 | South Asia
Scandal threatens Indian coalition
01 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
01 Mar 01 | South Asia
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