November 6, 2000


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The Rediff Special/ Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Bengal after Basu
Ring out the old
Ring in the new

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

During the 1987 assembly election, Rajiv Gandhi hoped the famed poet's lines would ring true for him as well. Which could be the reason behind the slogan for his campaign in West Bengal -- 'Throw out the old; bring in the new' -- against the veteran Jyoti Basu and his well-entrenched Left Front government.

Unfortunately for Gandhi, West Bengal did not heed his call. Even as state governments changed all over the country, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the Chinese shifted from Maoism to Deng Xiaoping's version of capitalism, WB's predilection for Chief Minister Basu has remained constant. It is a love affair that has lasted 23 years.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya Which is why, as he stepped down and handed over the reins of the state to his colleague, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, one questions begs an answer: Will the Communist Party of India-Marxist be the same after Basu? It is the same question that worries the party's cadres at Muzaffar Bhavan, Alimuddin Street, the state CPI-M headquarters.

But if you voice this concern there, you will confront seemingly-brimming confidence, "Of course, the party will remain the same. After all, it was the party's decision to give charge to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. We will surely survive and we will win, like always, in the next election as well."

Somnath Chatterjee Senior CPI-M leader Somnath Chatterjee, MP, underscores his party's strong points, "For the people of West Bengal, issues are more important than leaders. Our party has always fought on issues, which is why we have successfully remained in power for the last 23 years."

Both the CPI-M and Bhattacharya can take heart in Basu's commitment that, health permitting, he will lead the campaign at the next election. Yet, one has to factor in Basu's age: he is 86 years old.

And it is obvious that the workers are concerned: Will the party survive the post-Basu phase? Will it continue to maintain amicable relations with its allies? Now that their most popular face has retired, will it result in an erosion of their vote bank? How will the CPI-M deal with internal dissent?

In an assembly that is 294 seats strong, the CPI-M has 150 seats: a number that is sufficient to allow it to form the government on its own. Yet it has chosen to partner 9 other parties in its effort to form a stable Left Front government.

The parties include the Communist Party of India (6 MLAs), the All India Forward Bloc (21), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (18), the Marxist Forward Bloc (4), the Samajwadi Party (2), the Democratic Socialist Party (2), the Communist Revolutionary League of India (1), the Biplabi Bangla Congress (1) and the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (2).

Even West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee General Secretary Pradeep Bhattacharya admits, "It is to Basu's credit that he led the Left Front government successfully for 23 years. This is a unique example in India."

"The biggest challenge," says Suman Chattopadhay, who edits West Bengal's leading newspaper, Anand Bazaar Patrika, "facing Buddhadeb is to keep all the constituents of the Left Front together. Till now, it was Basu was the glue in their unity."

The CPI-M also faces the challenge of keeping its flock together. The latest note of dissent was sounded by Saifuddin Chowdhary, the CPI-M's former deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, who was recently expelled from the party. There are others who are unsatisfied with the way the party is functioning in West Bengal; there is the unspoken threat that they might quit if things do not change soon.

Take, for example, CPI-M leader Sameer Potetundu and Transport Minister Subhas Chakravarty -- both of them are not very fond of Bhattacharya. Then there is Finance Minister Ashim Dasgupta, who enjoys challenging party leaders and has been labelled him the demolition man. His opposition was stymied by Basu's presence, but it will be difficult for his successor to exercise an equally tight rein on Dasgupta.

Bhattacharya also needs to keep an eye out for any conflict between Writers' Building (where the government is located) and Alimuddin Street. Unlike other parties, Alimuddin Street is more important than Writers' Building for the CPI-M. Though no one dared to question Basu's authority, Bhattacharya may not be accorded the same courtesy. "If Alimuddin Street wants to change a government decision, all it needs to do is call a meeting," points out a senior CPI-M leader.

He will have to keep in mind the fact that age is a major factor in the CPI-M. Many older party members feel Bhattacharya is junior to them. But Basu made his preference clear when he appointed Bhattacharya his deputy CM.

With the West Bengal assembly election scheduled for next year, the CPI-M and its allies need to pay serious attention to the erosion of the Left vote.

In 1991, the Congress had 35.25 per cent of the vote and it won 43 out of the 294 assembly seats. The figure saw a drastic upswing in 1996, when the Congress almost doubled its tally with 82 seats and 39.48 per cent of the popular vote.

In contrast, the CPI-M won 182 seats in 1991 and bagged 35.25 per cent of the vote. But, in 1997, it won only 150 seats even though the percentage of its votes increased to 36.46 per cent.

Two recent elections, though, were a major blow to the Left Front. In the first, a re-election to the Panskura parliamentary seat after the death of the CPI incumbent, Gita Mukherjee, Gurudas DasGupta (also of the CPI) lost by nearly 41,000 votes. Later this year, it lost the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to the Trinamool Congress. This was its first such loss in 30 years.

But Somnath Chatterjee refuses to be discouraged, "You cannot call it an erosion of the CPI-M base. If we lose one or two elections after being in power for 23 years, it could be because of the anti-incumbency factor."

Even the parliamentary portents are not auspicious for the CPI-M-led Left Front. Says Suman Chattopadhay, "Look at the general election results of 1977 to 1991, the Left Front had more than 50 per cent of the vote. That dipped to 46 per cent in the 1999 general election. It never faced this situation earlier. That means that 54 per cent of voters in West Bengal do not want the Left Front. Even Basu could do little to arrest this erosion of the Left vote."

Saifuddin Chowdhury agrees. "The Left Front has to see its vote percentage does not decline any further. As it is, it has fallen below the 50 per cent mark; this is not a good sign for them. They have to find out the reason for this alienation; they have to look at what will happen 10 years from now. Many supporters of the CPI-M, particularly those who belong to the younger generation, are unhappy; the leadership needs to find out the reason and resolve it."

A definite rainbow on the Left horizon has been the formation of Mamta Banerjee's Trinamool Congress. Particularly since the parent Congress has succeeded in retaining a sizeable chunk of the votes. This has caused a divide in the vote bank of the non-Left parties.

Mamta never quite matched Basu's stature. But Basu's retirement levels the playing field between the two parties vying for control over Bengal.

Besides, there is a strong feeling of resentment in the CPI-M. It stems from the belief that its politics in the state is being dictated from New Delhi by leaders who have little or no mass base support in Bengal. Basu managed to mitigate this factor by maintaining a perfect balance between state party leaders and the Politburo in New Delhi. Can Bhattacharya maintain that balance? Only time will tell.

Ever since Basu came to power in the state, there has been no serious opposition to the Left Front. Mamta Banerjee was vociferous, but powerless. The other two senior leaders in the Congress, Pranab Mukherjee (the present PCC chief) and A B Ghani Khan Chowdhury, are so busy politicking at the Centre they pay little attention to the party's state in Bengal.

The Congress could not repeat its experiment in Kerala where it cobbled together the United Democratic Front with smaller parties. Whenever it put together a coalition, it was with insignificant allies who did not have a sizeable vote bank.

"A united forum, like the United Democratic Front in Kerala, would have definitely given a tough time to the CPI-M," says Pradeep Bhattacharya. "Unfortunately, that did not happen."

One must remember that Basu joined the undivided Communist Party of India in 1940. When he first became an MLA in 1946, Bengal was still undivided. Bhattacharya was born in 1944. "Basu's political experience spans Buddhadeb’s existence. This is going to make a difference. Buddhadeb has a daunting task before him," says Suman Chattopadhay.

Adds Minister Of Water Investigation and Development Nand Gopal Bhattacharya (a CPI MLA), "Everyone knows that Jyoti Basu had no alternative but to resign. Buddhadeb has said he will follow Basu's footsteps and complete his job. We have given our word that we will work together despite Basu's absence."

The final word comes from Buddhadeb Bhattacharya himself, as quoted in the CPI-M daily, Ganashakti: 'There is no alternative to Basu. We don't have a leader who can replace him. Therefore, all the Front partners should work together to fill this void.'

PART II: West Bengal's new helmsman

PART III: The X Factor

PART IV: 'In Bengal, ministers have become redundant'

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