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The East’s beautiful sunrise

Bengal’s long Left nightmare might be ending

Written by Bibek Debroy |
May 17, 2009 1:54:02 am

Since 2004,the Left has held a disproportionately high importance in national policy-making,media bytes and coalition politics,while its ideology is reflects mindsets young India finds difficult to identify with. This is not to suggest there aren’t concerns about unbridled,unregulated market-based reforms,or uneven benefits from “trickle-down” for the poor,especially relevant in this period of downturn. However,that agenda has successfully been captured by the Congress. This leaves the Left with nothing but an obstructionist space to occupy — be it on economic policy or external affairs,including specific issues like Indo-US relations and the nuclear deal. It is a space where the Left has rights but no responsibilities,where it is part of the government but is also outside it. Among several trends in these elections,that bluff has been called and the Left reduced to less than half the numbers it possessed in 2004. Barring a few seats elsewhere (including Tripura),the Left holds but Kerala and West Bengal — and it has been decimated in both states.

Opposition-type posturing doesn’t work when one is the government,as in West Bengal. And nor,after more than three decades in power,can one blame the Centre for all one’s travails. The progressive decline in West Bengal’s economic performance,both relative to other states and over time,has been documented. The initial growth momentum based on agriculture and land reforms petered out; deprivation in WB’s worst-off districts is worse than that in some districts in Bihar and Orissa. In industrialisation and land acquisition,typified by Nandigram and Singur,there were genuine issues of compensation and non-transparent procedures,capitalised on by the Trinamool.

However,in both Delhi and West Bengal,the Left displayed an arrogance of power,blinded by the belief that Left bastions could not be stormed,especially since voting was never fair and clean,with electoral procedures subverted. Panchayat and municipal elections provided enough evidence this wasn’t the case,but the Left underestimated the extent of disenchantment,or believed it could be suppressed. With the Congress- Trinamool tie-up,what is significant is not just the magnitude of the Left’s decline,but its loss in key constituencies like Tamluk,Jadavpur and Barrackpore,believed to be unassailable. The Sachar Committee documented the status of Muslims,reinforced by local developments too. The Muslim,ST and rural vote has now turned against the Left and it has been reduced to its original support base in the industrial-cum-trade union belt. 2009 was a semi-final; extrapolated,with the mahajot in place,the Left is certain to be dislodged in the finals,the assembly elections of 2011.

Vote shares vary in individual constituencies. But on average,in local body elections,the Left’s vote share was 45 per cent,with 35 per cent for the Trinamool,10 per cent for the Congress and 10 per cent for the BJP. 2009 should therefore have been touch-and-go. However,it wasn’t,and the Left has been convincingly trounced. There was thus a swing away from the Left,particularly in rural Bengal. In urban Bengal,there was still cynicism about whether the Left could ever be dislodged,which is why prominent intellectuals preferred to sit on the fence rather than take sides.

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There remain question marks about the Trinamool’s governance agenda and about its co-opting of riff-raff to counter the Left. But those are questions for the future. For the moment,proof that the Left can be bested will certainly snowball,reducing cynicism and fatalism among fence-sitters. Change in West Bengal will be believed to be feasible.

Soul-searching and cleansing should be good for the Left too. Historically,it has been identified with honesty and integrity,traits increasingly absent in West Bengal. The Left in West Bengal has instead become identified with corruption,graft,criminalisation,violence and scant respect for the rule of law. Governance is non-existent and administration has yielded to party fiat.

This is good neither for democracy,nor for West Bengal. 2009 doesn’t directly change the status quo,but shows it can be changed. High growth since 1991 has benefited India,but certain geographical regions remain deprived. Other than central India,these areas are to the east and Northeast. (Even MP, Bihar and Orissa have begun to change.) What sticks out like a sore thumb is West Bengal,critical to the Northeast’s development too. Some indicators in that state are inferior to those in Bangladesh,suggesting possible reverse migration if these trends continue. For a state that was once supposed to think today what India thought tomorrow,this is nothing short of pathetic. Human and financial capital have fled. Unskilled and semi-skilled labour in west and north India now comes from northern West Bengal,not eastern UP or Bihar. The Left’s decimation should help change this. Overall,there is much for West Bengal’s voters and India’s citizens to celebrate.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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