Measuring change

The Left in West Bengal has staged a brilliant recovery, even though it is near certain that it will be voted out of power after 34 years when the ballots are counted on May 13. The last stand to stop the tsunami of parivartan has worked; the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has ensured that it will live to fight another day.

Just as the United States of America has not won the war against terror even though it has fulfilled its promise to find Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”, so too the political war of the Trinamul Congress will not end with the electoral defeat of the Left. The world remains a dangerous place even though Bin Laden is dead; West Bengal will remain a Left bastion even after it loses the 2011 election.
When the parivartan wave crashed against the badly maintained walls of the Left bastion in 2008, it broke through the crumbling defences because the CPI(M) had been complacent and careless, even arrogant, in its belief of invincibility. The panchayat elections revealed the extent to which the Left had lost support among the masses.
Since the panchayat elections, the CPI(M) has been fighting a war on two fronts: internally, to “rectify” its machinery, and externally, to contain and compress the spread of the anti-Left political consolidation under the Trinamul Congress leadership. The realisation that it was doing so came only after it lost dramatically in the Lok Sabha elections.
It has taken the party 18 months to handle the shock of the defeat and work out how it can save itself from being wiped out.
The last stretch of the 2011 election campaign has been the Left’s strategic fight back as a dominant political force in West Bengal. It helped that the burden of running a government was virtually taken off its back under the existing dispensation where the Election Commission assumes the role of a supra-state.
It was to pin the Trinamul Congress down and nail its lie about parivartan that the Left sought to achieve in its fightback in the run-up to the elections. By halting the wave of emotion that swept through West Bengal, the CPI(M) has managed to drain out much of the mystique of Maa, Mati, Manush. It has inserted real expectations into a hypnotic trance and post the Trinamul Congress’ victory and the Left’s defeat, Mamata Banerjee will have to deliver on what she has promised. The refrain that has gained strength and at some points seemed to overpower the lullaby that the Trinamul Congress warbled about parivartan is: What will Ms Banerjee actually do for a positive parivartan?
The Trinamul Congress’ campaign was simple — it declared that the CPI(M) had done “nothing” in 34 years for West Bengal except siphon off resources to its supporters and consequently exclude those who were politically against it.
It was the second part of the campaign that captured the popular imagination and wiped out the enormous accumulated political capital that the CPI(M) had amassed since 1947 — that the CPI(M) had siphoned off resources to its “own people”. There was sufficient truth in this accusation of patronage and party raj, of alienation and arrogance, because the anti-incumbency mood that swept West Bengal in 2008, 2009 and 2010 leading to the Left being defeated in panchayat, parliamentary and municipal elections confirmed it. People matched their real life experiences to the charges made against the CPI(M) by the Trinamul Congress and voted for Mamata Banerjee.
The CPI(M) needed to rescue its party and its past from this very powerful political message. It was, therefore, interesting that as the election campaign reached its final stages, the merits and demerits of various Left candidates were measured in terms of how much they had been accessible and helpful, individually and, collectively, through the party.
Therefore, the reactions to the nomination of “outsiders” by the Trinamul Congress — from the patrician ex-Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry boss Amit Mitra, to former chief secretary Manish Gupta, to film actors Chiranjit and Debasree Roy — changed from excitement to doubt and then resistance. It did not help that Ms Banerjee herself is notoriously inaccessible despite her girl-next-door persona.
From repeating that any parivartan from the CPI(M) is better than no parivartan, the political debate that now
pervades the political space is — if this parivartan does not work, we will produce another parivartan.
For the CPI(M) this is balm to its wounded spirits, for it gives hope where once there seemed to be nothing but oblivion. The cost of every personal attack — wearing hawai chappal and flying around in helicopters — is small compared to the dividend that the CPI(M) has gained in terms of restoration of its credibility and a return in small measure of the trust that had deserted it.
The combination of “party raj” and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s headlong rush to enter West Bengal as a competitor in the 21st century India growth race was almost lethal. The resistance to the “vision” of West Bengal as an investment destination and, therefore, a participant in the India growth story has been enormous within the CPI(M) and among its Left Front partners. The resistance, therefore, gained traction when the Trinamul Congress added its unique mix of high-pitched emotional blackmail via its Maa, Mati, Manush slogan and the Singur-Nandigram debacle. It succeeded in stopping the Tata Nano factory from going into production even though most of the construction was complete because it captured the blind panic that had swamped the state and its political leadership barring Mr Bhattacharjee and a few of his men at the prospect of a change that would fundamentally alter the economy and the old way of life of West Bengal.
The parivartan that the Trinamul Congress promised and will have to roll out when it assumes power is the assurance of a weak parent who, in the desire to be protective, falsely promises the child that even though things have changed nothing will change.
In other words, the Trinamul Congress will have to, as it has promised, make West Bengal prosperous without selling out to the market, and well governed without setting up its own “party raj”.
That these specific expectations and minimal requirements are in the foreground vis-à-vis parivartan is the CPI(M) calling card for 2010. Even as seems certain it will lose the 2011 elections.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist in Kolkata

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