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KOLKATA, India, May 13 2011 (IPS) - The cheapest car in the world proved the costliest for a 34-year-old Left Front CPI-M government in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, as the communists lost the elections here by a wide margin.
A sweep by a regional party – Trinamool Congress – led by Mamata Banerjee, a firebrand and frugal- living woman leader who is now India’s railway minister, brought to an end 34 years of Marxist electoral politics in this state of 90 million people.
The Trinamool Congress, in alliance with India’s ruling Congress party, won 226 of the 294 assembly seats, leaving only 61 for the Marxists – who had captured 235 seats in 2006.
The communists, who used to consider West Bengal a flagship state of the red movement and political power in India, survived the fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Union, but a land war against villagers and farmers here finally cost them their seats.
“The left had distanced itself from the people. Now it is going to be a long haul for them to regain lost ground,” political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told IPS. “They have to be far more concerned about people and their aspirations.”
After assuming power in 1977, the Left Front in West Bengal carried out a land reform programme that distributed patches of land to millions of small farmers in the state, thus endearing itself to the rural poor and earning accolades worldwide.
It is this same land that they forcibly tried to seize for industrialisation recently. Their latest slogan was “agriculture to industry”.
In 2006, after winning a huge mandate for a seventh consecutive term, the Left Front, led by its reformist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee decided to boost industrialisation and move away from the trade unionism of the past.
It seized about 1,000 acres of land in a fertile region called Singur – barely 40 kilometres from the state capital Kolkata – against the wishes of the farmers and handed it over to one of India’s top carmakers, Tata Motors, for a factory to manufacture the ‘Nano’ – billed as the cheapest car in the world priced at just over 2,000 dollars.
“It was a wrong decision,” says the outgoing government’s Land Reforms Minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah. “I had warned them [the senior leaders and the chief minister] then, but they did not listen and now they face the consequences.”
The left government unleashed policemen on the farmers of Singur who protested the land-grab. The farmers were beaten mercilessly, triggering a public outcry, and offering a weapon to the opposition.
In another southern constituency called Nandigram, the fear of land acquisition turned into a yearlong turf war between the communists and their political rivals – led by parties like Trinamool Congress.
On Mar. 7, 2007, at least 14 people were killed in a police shooting in Nandigram, while the armed cadres of the left simultaneously brutalised and raped women.
The battles of Singur and Nandigram were seized by Banerjee, whose image was a leader with a clean image and Spartan life.
She found steady support in the revolting intelligentsia of Bengal who were until then aligned to the left.
“This is finally the victory of people, of Ma, Mati and Manush [Mother, Soil and People],” said Mamata Banerjee, after the win Friday, as celebrations broke out outside her humble dwelling in a south Kolkata neighbourhood.
While the people celebrate the victory, some political analysts are concerned about the loss of mainstream communist relevance, especially in light of the rise of leftist extremism championed by the Maoists in India.
“It is sad that mainstream left is losing its power while the Maoists gain strength,” says political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury.
“The ideology of left still has relevance in India owing to the large number of marginalised people being left out of the economic prosperity and progress of India, Asia’s third largest economy. Poverty and unemployment are affecting a large majority still in India,” Chowdhury says.
“The left in India has to reinvent themselves and that is their biggest challenge. In Europe there are so many experiments going on now, but the left in West Bengal did not catch up with anything happening in other parts of the world. They thought their model is the ultimate model of communism in present day. They were in a permanent mode of denial and complacency and wanted people to bow before them,” he says.
“They politicised the education system, appointed party members in key posts and only the cadres of the party prospered. They did nothing in areas where now the Maoists dominate,” according to Thakurta. “Everyone has to be a CPI-M man to be a beneficiary in West Bengal.”
Meanwhile, vast swathes of underdeveloped land in West Bengal and neighbouring states were overrun by the Maoists, whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the biggest internal threat in India.
The Maoist movement began in the late 1960s in a northern town of West Bengal called Naxalbari, from which the word ‘Naxalites’ or ‘Naxals’, as the rebels are also known, is derived. It subsided in the early 1970s only to resurface as a more violent force that now operates under the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Lalgarh town in West Bengal became a symbol of the growing Maoist expansion when they captured the police station there and adjoining areas in early 2009.
When this correspondent visited Lalgarh, he found no development work whatsoever done for the poor in the region. The impoverished people broke down in tears narrating their plight.
“This result is a slap in the face of the communists,” says Thakurta. “It is time for introspection and correction. The Left in India should find out what went wrong and not live in fool’s paradise.”
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