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Bastion of Indian communism crumbles

17 May 09 14:02 GMT

For decades it was a fortress for the Left, but now Indian voters have radically reshaped the politics of West Bengal. The BBC's Subhir Bhaumik, in Calcutta, considers where it all went wrong for a once untouchable political force.

Anti-incumbency has finally caught up with the ruling Left coalition in the Indian state of West Bengal, which has been in power for 32 years.

On Saturday, the coalition could only manage to win 15 of the state's 42 parliament seats.

The opposition alliance of Trinamul Congress and Congress swept the thickly-populated state, where the Leftists had pioneered land reforms and institutionalised local self-government to build up what appeared, until not so long ago, an unbeatable political support base with the rural poor at its core.

The fiercely anti-Left Trinamuls won 19, the Congress won five and a smaller socialist ally won one seat.

Early signals

Many, like political analyst Ranabir Sammadar of the Calcutta Research Group, had seen this coming.

"The signs of erosion in the Left support base was becoming evident over the last three years. First, there was widespread rioting against the public distribution shops manned by Leftist cronies throughout rural Bengal," he said.

"Then there was the huge unrest against the Left's efforts to take over fertile croplands for setting up industry. Finally, when the Left lost nearly 30% of seats in last year's village council elections, it was clear that the slide had started."

But analysts are stunned by the speed with which this happened.

"Only three years ago, the Left won a resounding victory in the state assembly polls and looked unbeatable," says Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri, Bengal's leading psephologist.

"And now they have lost more than 53% of their parliament seats. Though detailed statistics are not available, a four-to-five per cent swing would be needed to make this [happen]."

Mr Chaudhuri says the Left failed to retain its support base among the rural poor who felt threatened by the government's cropland takeover plans , while it failed to gain support from the urban voters for its plans to rapidly industrialise the state.

Battered image

But interestingly, the Trinamul Congress upset the Left by picking on issues once championed by the Left itself.

"We are the true Leftists, they are fakes ," thundered the Trinamul chief Mamata Banerji in one rally after another.

Her loud campaign against the takeover of croplands - that drove the "Nano" small car project out of the state - won her countless supporters among the rural poor and middle peasantry who once solidly backed the Left coalition, specially the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) that leads it.

Some say the use of organised muscle-power by the CPI(M) to take over the fertile croplands, especially in the embattled southern enclave of Nandigram, dented the party's pro-poor image.

"The police firing that killed 14 peasants at Nandigram two years ago, the terror struck by armed CPI(M) cadres on rows and rows of motorcycles donning red neck scarves, and the defence of peasants by the opposition supporters were all captured live on television, " says Bengal Left-watcher Ashis Ghose.

"The whole state saw the face of Red Terror for the first time in three decades and that turned even the urban middle class against them."

Even the highly-respected Bengali intelligentsia - some of India's best writers, playwrights, poets , film-makers and artists - turned against the Left coalition and took to the streets demanding political change.

"In Bengal, the intelligentsia commands huge respect. They are generally anti-establishment and have been largely with the Left, but no longer ," says Basu Ray Chaudhuri.

Some key figures like Debabrata Banerji - who, as a serving bureaucrat had masterminded the Left-driven land reforms - have also backed the Trinamul Congress, because they are convinced that the Left is no longer for the poor and the down-trodden.

'Self-seekers abound'

It seems the wheel has come full circle in West Bengal with political parties changing roles: The Left appearing to be pro-capital in its drive for rapid industrialisation, the Trinamuls appearing to be pro-poor in their campaign to protect croplands from forcible takeovers.

Add to that Mamata's austere personal lifestyle, which makes a great draw among the poor.

On the day of the election, hard-core Left supporter Ashis Santra of Uluberia township near Calcutta told the BBC: "Mamata Banerji's politics is dangerous, but none can fault her on integrity, commitment and her lifestyle."

Over the years, the CPI(M)'s party organisation - and that of other Left parties - has also weakened.

"Too many self-seekers have entered the party. Our numbers have increased, the quality of membership has not," admits Birnan Bose, CPI(M) state party secretary and Left Front chairman.

But many party supporters say the younger wave of leaders who have taken over the running of the party lack the organisational ability and the political acumen of veterans like former chief minister Jyoti Basu and the late party secretary, Anil Biswas - and that, they say, cost the party dear in moments of crisis.

"The present crop of our leaders have backgrounds in student politics, the type who have made it to the party politburo from university coffee-houses in a few years," said a CPI(M) state-level leader who runs a party publication.

"They lack the experience and resilience to tackle a tough political situation and they don't understand the peasantry or the working classes," said the official, who did not wished to be named.

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