The state is a bit off my regular route these days. In the past twenty years I cannot recall spending more than a couple of days at a time in Kolkata, and that only for social occasions such as attending a wedding. This time, I was determined to venture out of the great metropolis.
I went to Barrackpore, home to several jute plants, a place I had last seen some forty years ago. Nostalgia apart, I was curious to see what new things they were doing with jute. The fibre is ideal for this environment-conscious age, durable yet totally biodegradable. Some designers are apparently even using jute for haute couture.
Well, time seems to have stood still in Barrackpore, seemingly nothing changing in the intervening four decades. The same inhuman conditions prevailed -- workers beavering away in the heat and terrible humidity of pre-monsoon Bengal, choking in dust, without as much a ceiling fan operating because that might have blown up even more gunk into the air.
As for innovative uses of jute, there were precisely none. Gunny-bags are still the only item in production, exactly as it was forty years ago. And precisely the same machinery groaned away, possibly a little worse for age.
If I was getting accurate translations -- I speak no Bengali -- the workers could not even enjoy their earnings in full because 'the party' took a cut. And now even the workers understand that fear of 'the party' is keeping capital away from Bengal -- and without money there can be no upgradation of machinery, nothing spent on teaching new skills.
Many of the jute workers will have damaged lungs because of the conditions. Yet talk of medical insurance or pensions -- social security measures of any kind -- got only rueful shrugs. And this is the workers' paradise the Left Front promised?
Visit one of its factories and you understand why Barrackpore's voters finally toppled the Communist Party of India-Marxist's Tarit Baran Topdar, who had won every Lok Sabha election from the place for twenty years.
The voters of West Bengal want change. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment not just in Kolkata and Barrackpore but all across the state. People resent the fact that idiotic policies set by the Left Front -- banning English from primary schools, hampering the installation of computers -- have left them behind applicants from other states in the race for jobs.
Above all, they are tired of the corruption of the Left Front.
Where did it all began to go wrong for the Marxists?
The CPI-M was once known for its dedicated cadre, occasionally misguided but scrupulously honest. How did it end up with a reputation as an organisation that feeds on the very working class that it claims to represent?
The answer goes back to the 1970s, when the party had power thrust upon it. The West Bengal assembly polls of 1972 rank among the dirtiest elections in India. In the 1971 assembly elections the CPI-M won 113 seats in a House with a total strength of 280, the Congress winning 105.President's Rule was the result, to be followed by fresh polls.
The Congress was determined to let nothing stand in its way this time. The assembly elected in 1972 saw the Congress romp home with 216 seats. The Communist Party of India, then allied with Indira Gandhi, won 35 more. The CPI-M was reduced to 14 MLAs.
In 1977 the Janata Party was in power in Delhi, and strong-arm tactics on the scale of 1972 were not an option. The Janata Party had won 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal during the general election and the CPI-M had won 17 seats. (The Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party each won three.)
Common sense said the Janata Party and the CPI-M should have an electoral alliance. Jyoti Basu and Pramode Dasgupta spoke for the Marxists. Pratap Chandra Chunder, education minister in Morarji Desai's Cabinet, led the negotiations on the Janata Party side, and he was determined to have the last word.
The CPI-M made an amazingly generous offer, asking for just 100 seats in a House of 294. (The number had increased after a delimitation exercise between 1972 and 1977.) P C Chunder refused to give them more than 90 seats, and the two Marxist leaders refused to bend to such obduracy.
I was there when the negotiations were going on, and still remember the grim atmosphere when the talks floundered. The Communists themselves were convinced that the Janata Party would sweep all before it. To general surprise, the CPI-M won 178 seats in the new assembly, the Forward Bloc winning 25 and the RSP getting 20.
How about the Janata Party? It won just 29 of the 289 seats that it contested, and suffered the humiliation of its candidates losing their deposits in as many as 121 constituencies. P C Chunder's ego had condemned West Bengal.
Local body elections were just around the corner. The total number of dedicated CPI-M members was then estimated at 27,000. There was no way the party could find suitable candidates for the thousands of contests from its own battle-hardened ranks. That was when it decided to co-opt outsiders, winnability being almost the sole criterion.
This led to an influx of members who had never demonstrated any allegiance to the core beliefs of the party. Time took a toll on the veterans -- Pramode Dasgupta dying as far back as 1982 -- and the original ideology of the party was diluted as the years passed.
The Left Front's one real achievement -- land redistribution in favour of the peasants -- dates back to its first term in office. In one of history's ironies the Left Front now stands accused of grabbing land from farmers to give it to industrialists.
The results were there to see in the Singur and Nandigram agitations, when Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lamented that the party had not taken pains to educate the people in those places. And I saw and heard the results for myself in Barrackpore when workers complained that the Left Front of old had become the protection racket of today.
Barrackpore is a mere thirty kilometres or so away from Kolkata. If the situation is so bad there, practically under the noses of the CPI-M leaders, how much worse is it elsewhere in West Bengal?
The CPI-M should lose these elections, and it deserves to lose them.