Monday, January 12, 2009

Left front breached

Mamata breaches Left’s fort

Shikha Mukerjee (Pioneer, Monday, January 12, 2009)

By defeating the CPI(M)-led Left Front in the Nandigram by-election, the storm petrel of West Bengal politics has proved a point. But can she forge a meaningful alternative?

In Nandigram, the Trinamool Congress’s labour has yielded exactly the outcome that it worked to achieve. The by-election result in this intensely controversial constituency, which was the battleground between the dominant CPI(M) and every other political party, organisation and individual in 2007 over the possibility of locating the petrochemical Special Economic Zone, has revealed that the Trinamool Congress, backed by the Congress, has consolidated its base at the cost of the Left.

Three by-election results were declared on January 9 and the diversity of underlying causes that produced these outcomes reveals the complexities that pose a challenge to the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front in its crusade to transform the State’s economy and integrate it with that of the rest of India and so build a link to the changing global economic environment. The way voters have made their choices it has became clear that West Bengal would have to first live through and survive a fierce conflict between deeply rooted conservatism defended by the Trinamool Congress and also the Congress, and a change-inducing CPI(M).

The ferocity of the conflict that erupted in places like Nandigram has surprised many, because the unsuspected depths of conservatism in progressive West Bengal were never seriously acknowledged. Because West Bengal had voted the Left since 1967; because the ‘renaissance’ had started here; because social movements challenging obscurantist practices within religion blossomed here, there was little understanding of and sensitivity to the strongly emotional attachment to the old ways.

As a run up to the Lok Sabha election, the Nandigram result is good news for the Trinamool Congress and depressing for the CPI(M)-led Left Front. It has to come to terms with the fairly conclusive evidence that voters have transferred their allegiance. Instead of regaining ground lost in Nandigram over the proposal to set up the SEZ, CPI(M) must adjust to the new politics of eroding popularity and an ascendant Trinamool Congress.

Instead of there being no serious alternative to the Left in West Bengal, the Nandigram result shows that for voters in that place, the Trinamool Congress is the alternative. Apprehensions of Ms Mamata Banerjee’s detractors about the planks that make up her populist appeal are irrelevant, because Nandigram prefers to be represented by Firoza Bibi, mother of a martyr, whose usual arena of activity has been her home rather than Premanand Bharati, a school teacher, put up a candidate by the Communist Party of India.

By making its choice, Nandigram has confirmed what some had suspected: There are deeply rooted pockets of antipathy to the processes of modernisation in West Bengal. For those who do not want modernisation, the antipathy has spilled out as a vote against the ruling Left and its commitment to change. It must also be noted that in Nandigram it hardly mattered that the candidate was from the CPI; to the voter the Left was subsumed under the overarching dominance of the CPI(M).

While it is possible to explain the Nandigram outcome as a consequence of the cumulative discontent born of disappointment and resentment over the high-handed ways of the CPI(M), which took it for granted the opinions and concerns of the people, a simpler and startling explanation could be that just over half of the people in Nandigram do not want change. Since they are free to exercise their choice, the thumbs down to change, progress, modernisation, integration with the trajectory that India’s economy is pursing is irrefutable evidence that West Bengal’s politics will henceforward be a bitter fight between those who propose change and those who oppose it.

However, Nandigram’s is not the only verdict and in other places, it seems, the Trinamool Congress’s brand of conservatism, dressed up a righteous jihad against the CPI(M), does not sell. In obscure Para, a reserved Schedule Caste constituency in Purulia district, which has a significant tribal population, the CPI(M)’s brand of progressive politics continues to accurately capture and reflect the aspirations of the voter. Ms Mina Barui has won from Para, confirming that the CPI(M) is a significant vote catcher even in troubled times.

Congress’s win in Sujapur, the fiefdom of the Ghani Khan Chowdhurys, reveals yet another aspect of politics in West Bengal, where loyalty to a family takes precedence over everything. Ms Mausam Benazir Nur is a global citizen, but that hardly matters; to the voter she is ‘the family’.

Sentiment over science (Marxism to its believers is a science), conservatism against Communist ideology, a simulation of the world of rural Bengal vis-a-vis the real describes the ways in which voters make up their minds. Different sets of voters prefer different ways of life. In as much as the CPI(M) and its transforming agenda have been challenged, the by-election lifts and drops a question on the Trinamool Congress plate — can it gather together all the conservative voters and make a credible bid as an alternative, necessarily with the backing of the Congress?

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