The test ahead

To understand the implications of the municipal elections in West Bengal, it would be prudent to look at the verdict in a specific district: Burdwan. Located in central Bengal, with a rich history — till Independence, it was ruled by one of eastern India’s best known royal families — Burdwan has an agrarian economy as well as two key industrial towns in Asansol and Durgapur. For 40 years and more it has been a Communist bastion.
In the 2005 municipal elections, the Left Front won five of Burdwan’s six municipalities. In 2010, it has retained only two. The extent of voter shift can be gauged from the municipality of Memari, which has 16 seats. Five years ago, the Left Front won 15 of these. On June 2, the Trinamul Congress walked away with 12 seats and the Congress with the other four. The Left was wiped off the map.
As recently as 2009, in a Lok Sabha election in which the Congress-Trinamul alliance defeated the Left in the state, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had won all three parliamentary seats in Burdwan — Bardhaman Purba (Burdwan East), Burdwan-Durgapur and Asansol. Till this month Burdwan was considered an impregnable fortress, the forever red heartland of Bengal.
Why is Burdwan such a bellwether and such a psychological blow to the CPI(M)? In a sense, this is where it all began. In 1977, the first land reforms — giving permanent tenancy rights to peasants and attempting to make them permanent CPI(M) voters — had started in Burdwan. The land reforms were the brainchild of a powerful party ideologue, Harekrishna Konar. He was from Burdwan. Benoy Krishna Chowdhury, the land reforms minister in 1977 and Jyoti Basu’s long-time number two in the Left Front Cabinet, was also from Burdwan.
For the CPI(M) to lose Burdwan is akin to the Congress losing Amethi and Rae Bareli. It is intrinsic to the party’s sense of identity in West Bengal. Even so, if the municipal elections are an indicator, Burdwan is not just vulnerable, it has slipped away. The mood for change is absolute.
No political party can be oblivious to this popular mood. For the Congress, it means an alliance with the Trinamul Congress for the 2011 Assembly election is now non-negotiable. Trinamul is clearly the senior partner and the more potent anti-Left force in the state. It is dominant in south Bengal and has managed to hurt the Congress in its bastions in north Bengal, in districts such as Malda. Here, Trinamul was an effective spoiler in the municipal contest and allowed the Left to win.
That apart, if the Congress doesn’t tie up with Trinamul it runs the risk of inviting mass hostility and being accused of obstructing change. It will be seen as sabotaging Mamata Banerjee’s attempt to dislodge the Communists. This would be a suicidal course for the Congress to adopt and, frankly, the party is in no position to do it.
The Congress was hoping to drive a hard bargain before the Assembly election and seek a more equitable partnership with Trinamul. In its dream scenario, it would be sharing power in 2011, with Congress ministers serving under Ms Banerjee and with the government dependent on Congress MLAs. It would also want the Mamata magic to fizzle out in five years and the Congress to gobble up the Trinamul space in that time.
In a sense, this is no different from the Congress’ plan for Maharashtra, where it hopes to eat into Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, bit by bit. There is one crucial difference. In Maharashtra, the Congress has strong regional leaders with a state-wide appeal. In West Bengal, the party is bereft of anybody with pan-Bengal recognition. Pranab Mukherjee is 75 and too embedded in national politics. After that there is a huge vacuum. A series of middle rung leaders have moved to Trinamul and the exodus is expected to intensify in the coming months.
It is a measure of the Congress precariousness that a first-time MP such as Mausam Noor — niece of the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and elected in 2009 from Malda North — is being talked of as potential face of the party. Ms Noor is a lawyer and could attract both young people and, of course, Muslim voters. Yet, she is not yet 30 and a complete rookie in Parliament. If this is the generation the Congress is pinning its hopes on, it is in effect ruling itself out of the power game in West Bengal for at least 15 years.
What is the roadmap for Ms Banerjee? The West Bengal Assembly has 294 seats. Her first target is identifying 148 seats (just over the halfway mark) that Trinamul can win and then demanding the Congress leave all of these for her. She would want to run a government that is entirely answerable to her and not susceptible to blackmail by an ally.
That aside, while the signs look good, victory is far from assured. It is expected Ms Banerjee will resign from the Union Cabinet shortly, “sacrificing” ministerial office to concentrate on the Big Election in West Bengal. Already, sources suggest she has sounded out the Congress leadership and requested Dinesh Trivedi, Trinamul MP and minister for state for health, be moved to the railway ministry.
There is one larger point. Ms Banerjee is an organic politician and a mass leader. She has tenaciously taken on the Left and, after two decades of trying, is at the cusp of overthrowing it. Nevertheless there remains a credibility gap in terms of her governance acumen. Her party is a heterogeneous mix of district-level street-fighters, “intellectuals” and “artistes”, and time-serving retired civil servants. The first two groups know little about administration. The third can execute orders rather than re-imagine Bengal.
As such, even those who have zero love for the Left and want it out of office in Kolkata are worried about the sort of government Trinamul will give. In the heady triumphalism of the moment, Ms Banerjee cannot run away from that question.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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