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Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 16:01 UK

Poll woe looms for West Bengal left

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

A Communist Party of India Marxist party cadre paints his party"s election symbol on a wall, ahead of Indian parliament"s lower house elections, in Calcutta, India, Saturday, March 7, 2009.
The left is expected to lose many seats in its West Bengal heartland

With a fortnight left to the start of India's parliamentary elections, the country's left-wing parties are trying hard to push a "Third Front" in opposition to the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalitions.

The left has tied up with strong lower-caste parties in a number of states and with some regional parties like the ruling BJD, a former BJP ally, in the eastern state of Orissa.

But the left's success in stitching together this apparently unwieldy coalition depends greatly on its own performance in its strongest bastion, the state of West Bengal, where a left-wing coalition has now ruled for more than three decades.

Going by current trends, that will not be an easy task.

In the 2004 parliamentary elections, the left won 62 seats - 35 of them in West Bengal.

That made the left the third-strongest bloc in parliament after Congress and the BJP.

Its support helped Congress form the government and when the left withdrew support over the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, Congress only barely managed to salvage its administration by courting lower-caste parties.

"The left will be losing many of its existing seats in West Bengal this time," says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury.

Tata Nano

In fact, pre-poll assessments by Indian media indicate the left may lose anything between 15 and 17 of its seats in West Bengal.

Former chief minister Jyoti Basu
Former chief minister Jyoti Basu admits the left could lose a few seats

The opposition Trinamul Congress, which would probably be the biggest beneficiary, claims it will win nearly half of Bengal's 42 parliamentary seats.

"You will see how we surge forward this time if the elections are held in a fair manner. We are riding the crest of a popular wave," says Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerji.

Her popularity in rural Bengal has been boosted by her campaigns to save fertile croplands from being acquired for big industrial projects such as the one planned by Tata at Singur to produce the world's cheapest car, the Nano.

The Trinamul improved its performance in rural polls in Bengal last year - increasing its tally of village councils by almost 30%.

The left admits this is its toughest election of the past 25 years.

In 1984, it lost 16 seats in parliament amid the national sympathy vote for Congress that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Tata Nano
The Tata Nano had been set for production at Singur

"That was a freak event but this election is different," admits veteran Marxist leader and Bengal's longest-serving chief minister, Jyoti Basu.

At 94, physically ailing but mentally sharp, Mr Basu told journalists last week: "Our tally in the parliament from Bengal will come down. We will lose a few seats."

Those leading the left campaign admit Mr Basu is right.

A determined effort by Mr Basu's successor, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, to put Bengal on India's industrial map by attracting big-ticket investments has somewhat backfired - with Tata leaving the state to set up the Nano plant in Gujarat.

"But I am determined to push for major industrial investments at any cost. Only big industries can help us tackle growing unemployment and propel the state towards growth," Mr Bhattacharya told a party rally near Calcutta on Monday.

Rural vote

That may be exactly what the state needs now, after years of militant trade unionism that has sickened much of industry.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee campaigning in Calcutta 7 April 2008
The Trinamul Congress is hoping for big gains in West Bengal

But it may not get Mr Bhattacharya's leftist coalition the votes he needs to propel it into a position of national importance.

Bengal's rural poor, who benefited from the left-sponsored land reforms and administrative decentralisation, have been the left's surest passport to electoral success for three decades.

But as Chief Minister Bhattacharya pushes to acquire cropland for industry, more and more peasants are turning against the left.

"If you threaten to take back the lands you have given to the rural poor, for whatever reasons, they will never take kindly to it," says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury.

The much-improved performance of the Trinamul Congress in the rural polls shows they certainly have not.



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