A small football ground ringed by nondescript apartments, a shadowy saloon, rundown cooperative stores, a 132-year-old redbrick school and the remains of an abandoned temple. That's Harinavi maidan in Sonarpur, a chaotic middle-class suburb 40 km out of Calcutta. But, as local tea-kiosk owner and part-time political commentator Kalipada Ghosh points out, the turf is also an important political meeting ground. It falls within Calcutta South, one of West Bengal's most keenly contested parliamentary constituencies, and is on the fringes of Jadavpur and Diamond Harbour, two other equally hot constituencies.
So when Jyoti Basu, helmsman of the world's longest-ruling democratically-elected communist government, hit the road last fortnight to root for the CPI(M), the maidan was his first stop. A natural choice, as the Marxists have been jittery about their prospects in the unpredictable and angry semi-urban constituencies for some years now. The feisty Mamata Banerjee's abrasive, storm-trooping ways and a gut instinct for exploiting emotive local issues—she won the Calcutta South seat two years ago—has rattled the Marxists. "Don't let these orderly crowds fool you," whispers Ghosh, serving piping hot tea in his stall overlooking the maidan. "There's a lot of discontent, and a lot of them support Mamata."
The crowd building up slowly to listen to Basu, roams the maidan, feasting on peanuts and ice cream and checking out a collection of election limericks created by party faithful Suvendu Sarkar. "I sold 400 copies during the UF rally in Calcutta," says Sarkar of his 14-page booklet priced at Rs 2. But people are more curious than interested in buying. Two music tapes extolling the party are on sale—one ironically called Lalke Keno Bhoy (why do you fear the Reds?).
It's a balmy grey weekend at the maidan as Basu, venerable commissar and prime minister-wannabe, sends his message out to India: No need to fear the Reds, we've run a 10-party coalition in West Bengal for 21 years now, and there's no reason why we cannot do it in Delhi. "We are wanted in Delhi not because of our looks," he tells the throng, "but because of creating history (with the Left Front coalition)."
The Delhi chalo pitch has everyone on the dais hooked, so much so that other national and local issues are left untouched. The remarkably sprightly octogenarian Basu speaks for 45 minutes, arms flailing, voice rising, unfinished sentences left hanging in the air. The BJP is branded a "communal, uncivilised, barbaric, beastly" party; Trinamul as a "Congress breakaway party which has surrendered to communal forces"; and
the Congress a party "which has no democracy and whose leaders are in jail or on bail". His acerbic wit flows: housewives "like Sonia" are welcome to join politics, but "must not parrot what their speechwriters write for them without checking facts". And regrets that Mamata "lies about her education, about a non-existent doctorate from a non-existent university which we searched hard for, but never found". As Basu's seven-vehicle convoy snakes back through dusty streets, the reverberations of his Delhi chalo call remain: "Our responsibility has increased manifold. We can't think of only West Bengal now, we have to think of India."
A lesser Marxist would have been excommunicated for committing the double sin of speaking on party policy out of turn and taking a deliberate step away from the party line—the 1964 party programme forbids the party to join any ministry wherein its influence is not dominant and decisive.
This is the second time in his 50-year career, that Basu has consciously violated party discipline. The first was in '59, when he had, in defiance of the party line, written an article upholding the Chinese position on the Indo-China border question.
SUCH a unique privilege, admit political observers, gives the lie to Basu's claims that the party will decide everything. Post-poll 1998, they reckon, Basu will still be able to count on the support of the politburo for his line, as in 1996. As for the central committee, the situation remains unclear. Basu's move has embarrassed prominent Left leaders. However, a prominent member, Anil Biswas, stated: "Our party may have to play a more meaningful role in national politics and we must be ready." At the grassroot level, Basu supporters in north 24-Parganas and Calcutta agree with his stand that it was a blunder not to have joined the 1996 UF government.
The CPI(M) gameplan: if the Left parties win between 50 and 60 seats, they will form the largest chunk within the UF, now weakened after the Janata Dal split in Bihar, Orissa, Assam and elsewhere. There is, however, the proviso that Basu cannot be PM without Congress support. And this would be sacrilege. Says Charubrata Ray, veteran Left observer: "If Jyoti Basu wants Congress to support him or join him in power-sharing, he must explain why the CPI split in 1964, for one of the charges was that some leaders were too soft on the Congress."
The fear is that in the crusade against the BJP, the Left is making compromises that violate its raison d'etre, contradict its ideology and corrupt its cadres. Says a CPI(M-L) spokesman: "The sole logic in favour of the Left joining a bourgeois government led by the UF or Congress is that it would keep out the BJP. Is this enough? Has not the Left subverted its ideology already by joining the UF ministry? In '69, Mrs Gandhi had promised not to exploit the working classes as a price for winning Left support in the Lok Sabha. The UF has given no such concession."
Such sentiments are not restricted to the CPI(M-L) alone. At a recent AITUC meeting. Gurudas Das Gupta, CPI MP, flared: "It is a matter of shame that Indrajit Gupta was in the same ministry with people like P. Chidambaram whose policies we could not change. We could do little for the people."
After 80 years of struggle against the bourgeoisie, the Left finds itself caught in a Catch 22: to stop the BJP, enjoy power without strength and ignore its own programmes. Or, to stick to the well-trodden path of isolation from the power centre.