The new puffballs of Bengal

Thirty-four years, more or less, of perceived frustration went into the EVMs (electronic voting machines) and delivered a merciless verdict that swept out the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and much of its Left Front coalition partners, bag and baggage. It was third time lucky for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress.

The mandate is overwhelming. Vertiginous expectations abound. Creating out of this a “parivartan” work plan for the next five years is the Trinamul Congress’ challenge. It can be safely said that Ms Banerjee will deal with it in her unique style.
The priorities are set: good governance and jobs. Her methods too are set: a commitment to parivartan because there are good people in the administration who want to do good things. All that is required is a signal from the leader to jump into action. That tocsin has been sounded and the delivery should roll out as powerfully and uniformly as the votes across West Bengal in response to Ms Banerjee’s Ma, Mati, Manush call.
With the political space virtually empty of any Opposition, the task of getting on with good non-partisan governance won’t be complicated. This begs the question, what happened to the Opposition? Why did it get blown away like the puffballs from cotton trees floating in the breeze all over West Bengal this season?
Like the puffballs, the CPI(M) and its partners seem to be drifting further and further away from the reality that produced the extraordinary election indictment. Describing the defeat of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his 26 ministers, including the general who led the last stand against the growing tide of rejection, housing minister Gautam Deb, as “wrong assessment” is as delusional as the statement of other satraps within the CPI(M) who tried to minimise the damage by declaring the verdict “normal” because no party can last in power forever.
It was a tidal wave of emotion that expressed itself as parivartan. Thirty-four years ago, under very different political conditions, another tidal wave had swept the Congress out of power and installed the CPI(M)-led Left Front. The Congress was reduced to 20 seats. This time the CPI(M) has been reduced to 40 seats and the Left Front to 63. Then, too, the chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, and most of his Cabinet was chucked out.
In other words, there is a pattern. The “normal” in West Bengal for regime change seems to be a deadly blow.
Leadership failure has ailed the CPI(M) since the 1996 elections. It was obvious to even the most ardent and biased supporter that the CPI(M) needed new blood, new ideas and new policies energetically conceived and delivered. But the decision was postponed till 2000 and the CPI(M) saved itself from defeat by replacing Jyoti Basu with Mr Bhattacharjee. The CPI(M) even received an unexpected bonus when Mr Bhattacharjee was re-elected in 2006.
But the CPI(M) leaders knew they had it coming. The fury over Singur-Nandigram land acquisition and the Lalgarh-Netai violence were clear indications. Yet, blinded by the belief of CPI(M)’s invincibility, they failed to recognise that the Trinamul Congress had been a party-in-waiting since 1998.
Despite the verdict of the 2008 panchayat election, the CPI(M) continued to believe that it could bring around people to its way of doing things. But the disconnect grew larger and larger, the verdicts of the Lok Sabha and municipalities elections confirming it. Some suggested that the party should face defeat, quit and recharge to fight another day. The CPI(M) threw the idea out.
Using instinct and charisma, Ms Banerjee produced an IED that smashed the CPI(M) to bits. She did not have an “organisation” or a “party” and that made her appeal all the more powerful. Her success is the absence of clutter, though that now could be a limitation in monitoring what her government does.
The CPI(M) and the Left were blown away by two sentiments — distaste for their limitless hunger for power and the dreary taste of the same menu for 34 years. As one lady put it on the eve of the ballot count: “Give Didi a chance”. For her, clearly, giving Didi a chance by voting against the CPI(M) was empowering. And she used that power to defeat a regime whose network of patronage and favour left no opportunity for anyone else to feel powerful.
This being the 21st century and the age of consumer choice, expecting the voter to continue doing as s/he is told is stupid. The CPI(M)’s organisation and discipline were part of the rigidities of “no choice” imposed by a party that unfortunately pirated a read-only version of the software that built the Soviet empire and the simmering Chinese Communist one.
West Bengal is an outlier among states. It is not Kerala, where the issues of ideology, governance and policy have evolved differently. West Bengal in 2001 set out to join the globalisation-liberalisation gang and raced to avoid missing the growth bus. People revelled in the freedom that choice bought.
For Ms Banerjee to deliver a buffet of choices will be easy. The priorities have been set and the method too has been decided: a motivated administration for the people. Policies already exist. So, the new government of the 21st century can start with a bang. It has administrators, policemen, economists and corporate honchos to lead and deliver. But it is Ms Banerjee herself who matters the most. The choice voters made was for Ms Banerjee and not an organisation, tired and intimated as they were by the CPI(M)’s machinery.
So, does the CPI(M) have the leadership and skill to handle the meltdown triggered by the 2011 verdict? Going by their initial reaction in West Bengal, it does not. Snarling and then fleeing, as Biman Bose and Mr Bhattacharjee did from the media glare, is symptomatic of the Left’s problem; it did not have a blueprint for a strategic retreat.
In theatre, as in political theatre, delivering a perfect exit is crucial to delivering a memorable experience to the audience. The CPI(M) leadership needed a perfect exit line on May 13 so that it could create top of mind recall. There was nothing.
Their ungainly curtain call left the audience hankering even more for Ms Banerjee’s Act 1.

Shikha Mukerjee is a Kolkata-based senior journalist

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