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Winds Of Change Even 'Natural' Allies Have Deserted Left

Winds Of Change Even 'Natural' Allies Have Deserted Left

Author: Manash Ghosh
Publication: The Statesman
Date: June 23, 2000

THE Left Front's defeat in the Panskura by-election signals the decline of Left politics in West Bengal. Not that this trend has surfaced just now. It was evident earlier; but not on the scale and dimension seen in Panskura. The result signifies the front's dwindling political appeal and clout, and the erosion in its commitment to uphold the causes it espouses. Corruption, nepotism and other "bourgeois vices" have further compromised the front's image and credibility.

The myth of a 10-party front is also exposed. Panskura was a CPI-M show. Des-pite the candidature of Gurudas Das-gupta, their visibility was marginal. Other front partners, who have MLAs in Panskura, were non-existent.

But it was the feeling of being invincible that turned out to be the front's undoing. Eighty per cent of voters in the constituency were supposed to be their natural allies - landless agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and marginal and middle peasants. Their support was taken for granted. It was this over-confidence which made Buddhadev Bhatta-charya reassure his party colleagues on polling day that Gurudas Dasgupta would win by at least 15,000 votes. Biman Bose, member of the CPI-M Politburo, who had camped and campaigned in Panskura had predicted a margin of 100,000. MARXIST CROSS

Even those who did not quite share this optimism had no doubt that he would win. Panskura had always returned the Left Front. All the seven assembly seats and 95 per cent of panchayats belonged to the front. So confident was Das-gupta of victory that he rubbished apprehensions to the contrary. Little did he realise that he was bearing the CPI-M cross which proved a handicap. His fate was sealed on 20 May when the Marxists killed 11 people in Kespur. This whipped up a strong reaction and helped the Trinamul Congress to unleash counter-terror.

The Marxists were blissfully ignorant about a pro-Mamata swing. The old system of independent information channels had fallen into disuse. There was no way they could verify that there was a distinct mood for change even among traditional Left voters. This was not perceptible to CPI-M leaders who, even on polling day, nursed hopes of securing a handsome lead in Kespur.

The bulwark of landless and poor peasants that they had built for the party' s organisation was badly breached by their creation of a new class of haves among the have nots. So wide was the breach that they were unable to retain their traditional support base and allowed Trinamul to make deep inroads into their strongholds either through persuasive or coercive skills.

The Marxists had neither the strength nor inclination to resist Trinamul. Hapless party supporters blamed the local leadership for being cowards and throwing them to the Trinamul wolves. At Tilonta-para in the Balpai anchal of Sabong several hundred Marxists were left to the mercy of Trinamul goons who earlier had set fire to their houses. Three key party leaders, whose tyranny and infamy are comparable to that of Pol Pot or Papa "Doc" Duvalier, fled the area. They paid occasional "reassuring visits" with armed police escorting them. But they did not stay as the cadres had begun to "hate them for being concerned only about their own safety".

The leaders were aware of this and unwilling to take risks. The cadres blamed their suffering on the "sins" of these leaders. The terror these leaders had unleashed in the past was being met with counter-terror by Trinamul. This worsened matters. It was mostly disaffected Marxists who helped Trinamul to rig elections in Panskura.

Similar was the scene in Pingla and Kespur. Let alone resisting Trinamul's atrocities, the Marxists could not even summon up enough courage to condemn them. Morally they were so weak after the 20 May carnage in Kespur that many leaders sought to rationalise the Trinamul backlash by quoting Newton's third law. On polling day the cadres deserted the polling booths en masse.


But the alienation from the party leadership had begun much earlier. Marxist panchayat pradhans and schoolmasters had antagonised their own comrades by institutionalising nepotism. They provided jobs, institutional finance and assistance to their undeserving kith and kin. Jobs were sold against hefty bribes. All this widened the chasm and made the party's rank and file hostile. In a climate of extreme backwardness and poverty such examples stood out as iniquitous and inconsistent. The by-election was a handy opportunity for the party's have-nots to rebel against the haves. The poll verdict was also a protest against attempts to wholly regulate rural life. It was aimed at unshackling the control of the party's zonal and local committees.

But it is the large-scale corruption by panchayats that eroded the Marxist base and its striking power. Corruption has been so thoroughly systematised that it has upset most sections of rural society. A bribe of Rs 10,000 ensures permission for sinking a deep tubewell. Another Rs 8,000 is required to "process" the application.

Extortion with the panchayat's blessings reached alarming proportions. Whether it is the middle peasant or the small trader, all are forced to pay huge "dharjya" (ordered amount) to the party although the receipts mention only a nominal amount. Dharjya has forced many traders out of business. Heavy "fines" are collected even from feuding spouses. Big sums are raised for "sramik majoori" and "sramik hajira" funds from all those who engage labour in their fields. The bulk of this money undoubtedly goes to the party but a sizeable part lines the pockets of party functionaries many of whom own the latest Marutis and two-wheelers.

A partisan approach in selecting beneficiaries for anti-poverty schemes has also alienated the electorate. They made brazen distinctions between "our and their poor". While "our poor" were favoured with "free" below the poverty line ration cards, "their poor" have to bribe panchayats to get their dues. But even payment does not always ensure this. The bid for the supply of items for rural schools is open only to a few partymen.


The process governing the provision of power connections is even more whimsical. Tribals of Kusumdah in Pingla, who have traditionally voted the CPI-M, have not been given connections. Reason? An ad-joining Congress village will have to be given connection first because of its locational advantage. But Marxist leaders always get priority when it comes to getting power connections. High school teachers with strong party links and 40-45 bigha holdings have been given vested land violating entitlement rules. The Panskura verdict is also against the tyranny of the oppressed that rural Bengal has experienced these past 23 years. The rich and middle peasantry supported Trinamul with a vengeance. As the worst victims they have not been able to forgive and forget. With the Congress defunct, Trinamul appeared the only credible force to take on the Marxists who of course view this as re-emergence of powerful proprietory interests.

But anti-Marxist feelings are fanned by the realisation that a cash-strapped Left Front government has nothing to offer in terms of development. With Trinamul sharing power at the Centre, support to it may bring a windfall. Expectations of even small farmers have soared. This reflects the spirit of the slogan of a soft drink giant: Yeh dil mange more.

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