BENGAL ASSEMBLY POLLS
A Victory Less Impressive
The Left Front forms the government consecu tively for the 5th time in the state though with reduced majority and CPI(M) alone has secured more than half of the total number of seats. The CPI(M) leaders look pretty smug and confident. With an enhanced role in national politics, return to power by the LDF in Kerala and even a gain of one Lok Sabha seat in a not-yet-stabilised Tripura, apparently there is no reason for not being so. Still anxiety and apprehension are all too evident in each and every gesture of their state leaders. The reasons are many and not difficult to understand.
Nine ministers have lost and Jyoti Basu himself has fallen from eminence with a reduced margin. Six CPI(M) ministers and three Forward Bloc ministers have been defeated, and they include high-profile political figures like transport minister Shyamal Chakraborty (a state secretariat member of CPI(M) and co-operative minister Saral Deb (central leader of FB). Moreover, the supposedly clean personalities of ministerial stature like Dr. Abiral Mukherjee and Ashis Ray, brought in to replace some of the Rashid-tainted leaders, also faced rejection in Calcutta. The most alarming event perhaps is a lowered margin of Jyoti Basu's win, which came down to 11,000 this time from more than 20,000 in '91. All said and done, Jyoti Basu is the man behind the government and fluctuation in his popularity is a very sensitive indicator of his government's popularity.
Thus a definite fall in popularity of the LF is quite apparent. This time Congress has almost doubled its MLA tally (from 42 to 82) and fared well in Lok Sabha (from 5 to 9). CPI(M) faced a near rout in Calcutta giving away all four Lok Sabha seats and 15 out of 24 assembly seats to Cong(I). Causing greater concern is the fact that Congress has also retained its strength in industrial muffassils and adding further insult to the injury, three of the four known criminal candidates of the party have virtually stormed the respective left bastions. Do not all these indicate a real revival of Congress in WB in body and spirit?
Strength and Weakness of the LF
While an anti-Congress wave sweeps India across its length and breadth, in some pockets like WB, Orissa etc., a different picture is visible. The vanquished CPI(M) nominee Prof. Malini Bhattacharjee of course indicts a pro-Congress wave (among the middle classes) for her shock defeat from Jadavpur L.S. seat. But this 'pro-Congress wave' was hardly any reality in this state. The tremor in the 'red fort' this time is rather the result of a very calculated drubbing dealt by the people to the LF policies and Congress had only to make good use of that. Let's get the details.
Firstly LF's industrial policy appeared utterly irrelevant. It failed to take stock of the mounting sickness problem in the state industrial scene. After the Bakreswar frenzy went awry, the LF is now busy creating illusion on foreign investment. Instead of taking actions against the law-violating industrialists who are guilty of PF-default, illegal lock-out etc., the LF, instead of enforcing the existing labour laws and striving to strengthen them further in favour of the working class, for which there are adequate powers with the state government, they are busy finding out subtle ways of imposing strictures on workers' movement. Naturally, the exercise of the LF government in the industrial front appeared as a menace to the workers no different from Rao's NEP. Violation of democratic rights in the state has already become a popular issue. The killing of Bhikhari Paswan, a jute worker in police custody, added a class dimension to the issue. These things, combined together, pushed the LF into a tight corner and Congress reaped good harvest out of it in the last municipal election held one year or so earlier in the industrial muffassils. This time also the same trend is maintained.
Congress has bagged all the three seats in Asansol industrial zone. In Hooghly and South 24 Parganas it secured all the seats in industrial areas (4 and 2 respectively), and improved its position in the North 24 Parganas industrial belt. In Calcutta, the CPI(M) lost all four LS seats and gave away 15 out of 24 assembly seats. This rejections along with the fact that there is a general trend of decline of winning margin of LF candidates which is invariably visible in Howrah, Hooghly, 24 Parganas and Burdwan reflects a definite decline in LF's popularity.
Congress has also fared much better in rural Bengal, particularly in the district of Malda, Murshidabad and Midnapore. This gain can be attributed to the BJP's decline, especially in Malda and Murshidabad. In the absence of any tangible Hindutva wave, the vote share of BJP has come down from 11.37% in '91 to around 7% this time. This shift of choice of more than 4% of the electorate went in favour of Congress and it increased its tally in Malda (it bagged 8 out of 11 assembly seats) and Murshidabad (here Congress got 9 out of 19). Dissension and groupism within LF have taken their toll in Midnapore, where apart from winning the Tamluk LS seat Congress has also wrested 6 assembly seats from the district. In other rural districts like Bankura, Purulia, Dinapur and rural Burdwan, the LF has maintained its superiority and it can be said that CPI(M) and the LF has also maintained its influence on the weaker sections of rural Bengal, and its social base (which holds rich peasants and the landless together) remains more or less intact. Any major breach in this area didn't become a reality, at least in this phase. Even CPI(ML) which has consistently championed the cause of rural proletariat and bargadars in its pockets of influence could do little in the electoral fray to gain support of these sections. Nowhere in the state has there been any evidence of en-masse shift of their support away from LF. And perhaps this explains why a veritable wave didn't generate in the state.
Status Quo - The Essential Message
So, the situation in the state remained more or less static. Though the reverses faced by the LF in industrial muffassils during last municipal polls could not be reversed and these areas paid richer dividends to Congress this time also, the latter's fond hopes of using it as a launching pad to dent in the former's rural base have crashed. And this rural base, basically the life-belt of LF, remains more or less intact. That way it is not hard to follow why the call for a real changeover could never appear practicable in popular perception. So, all said and done, '96 election in WB reflects a mood of maintaining the status quo among the people and it perfectly corresponds to the all-round stagnancy in the state's economy. And it is by virtue of a long-standing stagnancy that social democracy paves way to reaction. Congress's advance in the state must be viewed against this backdrop.
No review of elections can conclude without a mention about the quality of the campaign. This time perhaps it owes a special mention. Be it by the left or by the right, the propaganda was generally drab and devoid of substance. Characteristically, Congress cared a fig for any positive programme and harped on the "failure of the LF government on all fronts". In reply, CPI(M), and the LF for that matter, chose to cook up a peculiar blend of nostalgia and negativism. Its first option was to remind people of the dark days of Congress rule in '70s and the initial glory of LF govt. in late '70s. "Hawala" was its second option which appeared to the public as onesided negative mudslinging, because quite a few LF cabinet members too are not far behind in the race of corruption. This explains why the LF campaign failed to generate any enthusiasm among the masses.
The LF leaders were so disinterested about the political content that even the so-called 'distinction' between their industrial policy and Congress', which the left leaders often claim to have, didn't even figure in their election propaganda. Not a word had been said on this account in their manifesto even. The silence is deceptive and exposes their political hypocrisy. What really can they say, if they are blamed for the economic stagnancy? After all, they are the rulers in the state for nearly two decades. What they may have in defence if people's general ire against NEP is directed against the LF? Practically, they are the implementing agency. And clearly when the Congress made good use of this ire and surreptitiously crept into the so-called red fort, the LF had no defence indeed!
Absence of anything prospective about further reform in industry and agriculture is another significant feature of the LF poll campaign. While their abject hypocrisy on the industrial policy front is becoming progressively clear to the masses, things are not the same in rural Bengal. But then, is not the peasantry also known for its remarkable ability to suffer prolonged periods of stagnation? Probably they appear to be seized by some such spell under these status quoist Marxists. But for how long one is not sure.