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Bengal poll results will sink or save Left Front

May 11, 2009 08:53 IST
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At a political rally in Kolkata, Jyoti Malhotra finds a mellower version of CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat, trying to woo the electorate in Bengal, which holds the key to the Left Front's power-play in Delhi.

Prakash Karat is railing against the pro-United States and anti-people policies of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in front of a crowd of the committed Left Front in Kidderpore, and although he gets some of the gender-related endings wrong in his Hindi speech, everyone here knows that it is not the medium but the message that is awfully important.

As the general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, there are few men today as powerful as Karat, which is why he has been criss-crossing the country in an effort to serve up a third alternative in Delhi.

Clearly, there are few states as important as West Bengal with 42 seats, and the all-important question in Kidderpore on Saturday and all other nights in the run-up to May 16 is, will the fabled party machinery of the Left Front hold its 35 seats in the Lok Sabha?

That's the question we pose to Kushal Rai, a self-acknowledged party worker we meet early in the morning at a dhaba off the highway in Uluberia constituency, from where Hannan Mollah of the CPI-M is hoping to win for the fourth time. Rai has come to inquire who the strangers are at this time of the morning.

He confirms the unease within the party. "Tai-tai hobe," he says, invoking a popular phrase which means "the situation is very tight. Mone hoye poribortan hobe (I think there might be a change)."

Hannan Mollah is fighting against Sultan Ahmed of the Trinamool Congress, which in coalition with the Congress party is fighting from 28 seats (the Congress is contesting the remaining 14), and in the morning after Uluberia went to the polls on May 7, it seems that the fight will emerge as a photo-finish.

Rai emphasised that Hannan Mollah is a good man and that the party has very good leaders, "but the problem is," he added, "it is the middle-rung that is bad."

He has put his finger on the problem that ails the Left Front in Bengal, 32 years after it won power in 1977 and has since won more elections -- as many as seven -- than any other party in the world. With party workers controlling more and more aspects of life on the ground -- from health and education to job cards and contractors as well as benefits from central schemes -- a groundswell of silent resentment is beginning to take hold, especially in south Bengal.

According to party insiders who wished to remain unnamed, the resentment could cost the Left Front as many as 16 to 18 seats by the time the last phase is polled on May 13. "But remember, this is an anti-party vote, not a pro-Trinamool Congress or a pro-Congress vote," the party insider stressed.

Raigunj, from where Deepa Dasmunshi, wife of ailing Congressman Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi is contesting, and Hannan Mollah's Uluberia are the two seats teetering on the edge, said the party insider. He emphasised that the central Bengal region of Bardhaman, Purulia, Asansol, widely considered to be the heart of the 'Red Fort', would hold strong.

The detailed crystal ball-gazing is hardly unique to this party insider. The stakes for the Left Front are so high in this election, because a loss in the number of seats or vote share will be not only be widely considered a referendum on the Front's policies in Bengal, of which the land issue has acquired such magnified importance, but also have huge repercussions on the formation of the next government at the Centre.

A reduced victory for the Left in Bengal -- alongside the drubbing that is being projected for the Left Democratic Front in Kerala -- will significantly defang the Left's ability to influence the political wheeling-dealing that will reach a crescendo when results come in by the end of this week.

That is why Prakash Karat, in his meeting with the Gujarati Samaj in Kolkata on Saturday afternoon, hours before he spoke at Kidderpore, subtly changed the tone of his remarks when answering journalists. "We will see what happens after May 16," Karat said, except that in the days before he had emphasised that the Third Front, without the support of the Congress or the BJP, would form a government at the Centre.

Karat's language has now come to resemble his pragmatic comrade Sitaram Yechury's, who also told reporters in Kolkata last week that what the Left does -- and who it aligns with -- will have to wait till May 16.

Hari Vasudevan, a professor at the Maulana Azad Institute for Asian Studies, pointed out that significant losses in the elections will be seen as a "severe warning for the party machinery and will have much more of an impact in the state, not so much in the Centre." After the Opposition won 15 out of the 16 panchayat elections held last year, the CPM gave itself up to 'self-criticism', promising to make amends in the Lok Sabha polls, Vasudevan said.

Social scientists point out that the Left Front's magnificent record in diminishing poverty and redistribution of land in the initial years after it came to power in 1977 has been significantly tarnished by its inability to keep up the good work.

Amiya Chaudhuri, a senior fellow at the Maulana Azad Institute for Asian Studies, quoted data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (reports 55,56,60,61), the West Bengal government's own pre-Budget economic review, 2005-2006, as well as the West Bengal Human Development Report, 2005, to argue that the state's socio-economic indicators had fallen much below the rest of the country.

The state's GDP stands at no 18 out of 28 states, the school dropout rate is 78 per cent (below Bihar, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim), primary education is the third lowest out of the 35 states and Union territories, only 28 per cent of the population has access to potable drinking water (compared to 78.4 per cent in Maharashtra and 84.2 per cent in Tamil Nadu), infant mortality is in the front ranks (although female foeticide is at the bottom), there are 77.2 lakh unemployed people in the state, while 55,000 small and medium industries have closed down.

The state's inability to transform agricultural prosperity and industrialise itself with public approval is its biggest challenge, said Chaudhuri.

That is perhaps why Karat's speech in the Muslim-majority Kidderpore dock area in the South Calcutta constituency on Saturday night was so significant. Breaking off his speech in Hindi to allow the muezzin to finish leading the prayers over the loudspeaker in the nearby mosque, Karat came back to exhort the crowd to vote for CPI-M candidate Rabin Deb and defeat Trinamool leader and sitting Member of Parliament Mamata Bannerjee.

"The Trinamool is in alliance with the Congress and has in the past allied with the BJP. You have to decide what your role in the development of a secular government at the Centre is going to be," Karat said.

The small crowd heard him out in pin-drop silence. After all, such powerful party leaders don't come to Kidderpore mohalla every day.

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