The dust is slowly settling over the Indian Election Circus 2009, and the shock and awe at the Congress’ (oh all right, UPAs’) sweeping victory is no longer as intense. For the people of West Bengal, though, it’s proving hard to shake off the ‘we have entered a new dawn’ feeling. ‘Green revolution’ has become quite a catch phrase, and amidst conflicting reports of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee offering to step down and of the Trinamul Congress (TMC) and Congress deciding to bring a no confidence motion against the Left Front government, everybody’s acting as though these are the Assembly, rather than Parliament, elections which the Left Front has lost.
And you can’t blame them.
I belong to a generation of Bengalis who have never seen the Left Front — CPI(M), CPI, RSP, Forward Bloc — lose an election, at whatever level. As a youngster who was born and brought up outside Bengal, it always seemed to me incredible that a single political alliance could inspire such unswerving loyalty. It was only as I grew up — and grew more politically conscious — that I realised what inspired that loyalty, primarily in rural Bengal. Stories about Left intimidation of voters and electoral fraud became so widespread that they became impossible to brush aside as isolated incidents. It was clear that here was a government which, as soon as it came to power, spent the next five years plotting how to recapture power at the next elections. Every administrative organ was pressed into the Left Front’s service, so that the police, for instance, became just another extension of the party in power, and party leaders acted as though the judiciary belonged to them, too.
What was initially an expression of spontaneous support — in the era of such leaders as Pramod Dasgupta, EMS Namboodiripad and Harekrishna Konar — became a support born out of fear and then inertia. It didn’t help either that West Bengal had no viable Opposition, because the once mighty Congress had gradually worn down to a rump, and the Trinamul Congress was seen as an unstable gathering of very unlikely individuals at the mercy of the fiery but whimsical Mamata Banerjee, whose only ideology seemed to be to oppose the Left.
Systematically, the Left Front built a party machinery any corporate entity would be proud of. Particularly in Bengal’s villages, which were its strongholds since the land reforms of the 1970s, the red bastion was virtually impregnable.
This time, it was in Bengal’s villages that the red downfall was staged.
The warning signs were there for everyone to see in last year’s Panchayat elections, when the Left Front’s fiefdom of Nandigram slipped out of its grasp after a series of brutal encounters that only proved how completely the state government had come to rely on force to suppress any signs of opposition. And then, of course, there was Singur and the Tata Nano saga, which showed how completely the state government had lost touch with its principal support base.
The wonder of it all is that nobody saw this collapse coming, not the Left Front and its much vaunted party machinery, and certainly not the Opposition. It was such a silent revolution, and so many voters feigned support for the Left while voting Trinamul, that even seasoned political observers have been taken by surprise.
Well, the Left has just about a year to get its act together before the Assembly elections of 2011, and unlike on many previous occasions, Mamata Banerjee may not let opportunity slip through her grasp this time. So much so, that there are reports that she may refuse a Central ministry because she wants to concentrate on the state, though she did well as Railway Minister of the NDA regime. And there are indications that she may call for an early Assembly election, though she may not be able to pull it off.
Whatever happens, no one will now say that West Bengal lacks a viable Opposition party. Whether Mamata didi can cash in on the mood is entirely up to her.