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Thursday, October 28, 2021

How Bengal was won

An insider narration of what it took to trounce the Left in its stronghold

Written by Derek O’Brien |
May 18, 2009 1:57:15 am

In the run-up to May 16,many of us in the Trinamool Congress were impatiently expectant. We sensed we were going to do well in this general election — better than ever before. Yet,when friends asked us for estimates,what our surveys told us,what the feedback from the districts was,my colleagues and I turned cagey.

There was a reason. The Left Front had been such an overwhelming presence in West Bengal that it was adifficult to believe,to admit to ourselves even privately,that it could be defeated.

When the CPM-led coalition came to power in 1977,I was in school. Today,my daughter is in middle school. Yet,in these 32 years,the ruling establishment has remained constant and become all pervasive.

When a party is in power for so long,especially a party as driven by a textbook agenda as the communist parties are,it becomes hegemonic. The Left in West Bengal has infiltrated every state and civil society institution — the police,schools and colleges,the public health system.

For three decades,anybody who wanted to do anything of consequence in this state had to learn the Red Salute. In the Calcutta Club,they will point to latter-day converts of convenience as “Scotch-drinking Marxists”. Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee are very different people,but united by a desire to impose absolute control.

Big Brother had to go,someday he just had to. I could feel it in my bones. When I first began working with the Trinamool Congress five years ago,the party had only one MP,Mamata Banerjee. Yet,it was clear to me that if anybody had the courage,the zeal and the stomach to defeat the Marxists,it was this tough woman. It would be a long haul,I realised,but history cannot be rewritten in shorthand.

In 2006,the CPM drubbed us in the state assembly elections. Nobody gave us a hope in hell of coming back strongly by 2009. How did Mamata Banerjee do it? It is facile to believe it was only the emotionalism and CPM oppression during the Singur and Nandigram episodes that caused this turnaround. That is half the story.

Politics can sometimes be a very simple game,with straightforward rules. The people voted for Mamata Banerjee because she had the one attribute the CPM has so cynically forgotten: credibility.

Whether you agree with her or you don’t,Mamata Banerjee is consistent — she tells you what she thinks,not what she thinks you want to hear. It is that old-fashioned decency that is her strongest calling card.

In Singur and Nandigram,as elsewhere,the Trinamool Congress’s argument has been the same. We believe in industrialisation,not at the cost of agriculture but as a complementary enterprise. There is enough barren land in West Bengal,there is a teeming rust belt at the edges of Kolkata — comprising once buzzing factories that the Left’s violent and destructive politics shut down. We have no problem if this land is allocated or sold to industrialists at a fair,market-determined price.

What the CPM did in Singur and Nandigram was brutal. They forced unwilling farmers to sell their land,leave the only home and tract they had ever known.

When the ruling party was asked why it was insistent on fertile land and not non-agricultural land that was also available,it refused to answer. It saw questioning as dissent and rebellion,and unleashed its storm-troopers. Industrialisation is welcome; industrialisation at gunpoint can never be.

For three years,Mamata Banerjee built and sustained a mass movement against the Left’s iniquitous land-grab policy. Contrary to initial suggestions,her principle has found acceptance all over West Bengal. It was initially said that the urban voter would reject her. How has this claim played out?

Consider the two Kolkata seats. Kolkata (South) has been won by 220,000 votes and Kolkata (North) by 120,000. Collectively,the two parliamentary seats have 14 assembly segments. The Trinamool Congress led in all of these,in half by over 30,000 votes. Its smallest lead in any one segment was 6,000 votes.

From white-collar professionals to disenchanted former Marxists,from farm workers to educated youth,in the past three years,the Trinamool-led movement has become a magnet for all who felt let down by three decades of CPM arrogance.

Mamata Banerjee was always keen that our party reflect the diversity of West Bengal. Of our 20 MPs,four are women. Not even the CPM,which pays lip-service to female empowerment,has this sort of a mix.

Two of our MPs are doctors,including Dr Ratna Nag,who won from Hooghly and was at the forefront of the Singur protests. Two are movie stars,a third a music artist,a fourth a former IPS officer. A two-term Rajya Sabha MP agreed to test the party’s popularity on the ground and contested a tough seat. He won.

These are good people,with able minds,with a sense of idealism and ideas,with a commitment to West Bengal. The CPM and its cohorts mocked them as “Luddites”,“Narodniks” and “backward looking”. The people of West Bengal always knew better. Today,the state is experiencing a sense of liberation.

What of the future? The immediate goal is to sustain and strengthen our alliance with the Congress and strive to win the assembly election of 2011. If the CPM had a conscience,it would call an election immediately. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government now lacks popular legitimacy.

The Trinamool Congress’s policy on West Bengal’s economic rejuvenation is clear-cut. New industry is welcome. Non-farm land is available in plentiful — please buy it by paying a fair price,don’t expect sweetheart deals and don’t expect a future Trinamool government to beat up,rape and murder citizens who don’t want to sell their property.

After 32 years of the Left’s kleptocracy and its crony capitalism,West Bengal deserves a better,more humane regime. It deserves to breathe the sweet air of freedom. May that be the lasting legacy of the 2009 mandate.

The writer is a member of the All India Trinamool Congress Working Committee

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