A casual visitor to West Bengal will be forgiven for not being mindful that this is the same State where the CPI(M)-led Left Front exercised a stranglehold over political power for an inordinately long period from 1977 to 2011.
Although there are wall writings announcing a mass rally at the Brigade Parade Ground on Sunday afternoon, and there are rows of red flags fluttering lazily at important road junctions, the hyper over-presence of the Left that was a feature of the State until barely three years ago is noticeably absent. The names of Left leaders are absent from people’s lips and there are no whispers of the activities of the Local Committees of the CPI(M). It almost seems that all that belonged to a very distant past.
The extent to which the Left has been decimated in West Bengal seems unbelievable. Last Friday, three MLAs belonging to the smaller allies of the CPI(M) defied the party whip and voted for a Trinamool Congress candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections. This would have been inconceivable a few years ago. To compound the problems, former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee admitted at a public meeting in South Midnapore district that the CPI(M) had erred grievously in allowing their supporters to open fire at protesting villagers during the Nandigram agitation of 2010. Although Bhattacharjee is too important a leader to have been censured by the leadership, the media reported that the State CPI(M) was very unhappy over this self-criticism. It would serve, they muttered privately, to further demoralise an already demoralised party.
The concerns of the leadership are understandable. In the past, the Left banked disproportionately on its hold over rural Bengal. Even after the 2011 rout, there was a belief that the deep roots of the party in the countryside would serve as a springboard for the re-conquest of Bengal once the Mamata Banerjee Government had run out of steam. Last year’s panchayat election put paid to the strategy of patient waiting. Mamata may have become controversial in the urban areas after her insensitive approach to assaults on women, but she has used the three years in power to make significant advances in rural areas.
The political transformation was managed through a combination of patronage and coercion. In many ways it was a textbook replica of the approach followed by the Left after 1977. The Left still retains its hold in many of the outlying areas of the State but in the heartland of Bengal red flags have been replaced by the Trinamool Congress tricolour. Often, the very same people who provided muscle to the Left have simply changed sides effortlessly. The CPI(M) is justified in pointing to the vast numbers of their supporters who have been forced to leave their homes in fear of retribution. But let us not forget that this spiral of political violence was begun by the Left itself when it was dominant. This does not justify the methods used by the TMC but it underlines the underlying violence of competitive politics in Bengal.
For Mamata, the task of establishing her dominance has been made easier by the significant support she has received from the Muslim community, a process that began in the last years of Left Front rule. The presence of the firebrand Imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan mosque at the TMC rally on January 31 only served to underline the Muslim consolidation behind the Chief Minister. At one time, the Congress too had a hold over the Muslim community in the border districts, particularly in North Bengal. But over the years this too has weakened, as evident from the defection of many members of ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury’s family to the TMC.
The overall impact of these developments is that Mamata is no longer afraid of multi-cornered contests as she was in 2009 and 2011. In the past, the fear was of anti-Left votes being divided between the TMC, Congress and, to a lesser extent, the BJP. However, since 2011 the Left is no longer the dominant party and politics is no longer a tussle between the Left and the anti-Left. It is now a dominant TMC versus a splintered anti-TMC. No wonder the political pundits in Bengal are talking of Mamata sending a contingent of some 35 MPs to the next Lok Sabha — a tally that is certain to acquire monumental significance in the event the country returns a fractured mandate.
For the Left, this is a distressing prospect. For very long, the CPI(M) has used its tally from West Bengal to box above its weight in national politics and, occasionally, to even set the terms of the political discourse. It is once again playing the same game with yet another bid to reforge a Third Front, riding piggyback on the shoulders of J Jayalalithaa and Mulayam Singh Yadav. However, this time the enterprise carries even less conviction than before because the Left will not be in a position to take advantage of a rapidly shrinking Congress. If nothing else, Mamata — whose politics is based on a visceral antipathy to the Left — will ensure that the Comrades are back to where they should all along have remained: on the fringes.
Yet, what should worry West Bengal is not that Mamata is a rising force in national politics. The concerns stem from the fact that her social base makes it almost impossible for West Bengal to use its regional clout to play a meaningful role in national affairs. Mamata is caught in a sectarian bind from which she can’t get out of.