THE complacency that had crept into the Bengal Left as it stepped into its 19th term in power has received a major jolt. Barely six months into its new stint at the helm and the ruling Front is knee-deep in trouble: the spectre of a separatist Gorkha resurgence stalks the CPI(M), and a crumbling CPI delivers a surprise punch on its major ally in north Bengal to settle old scores. Ironically, the Left parties have only Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, the man they are sworn to support, to thank for the trouble in the hills.
In a late damage-control exercise, Gowda ruled out the demand for Gorkha-land in several press conferences. Neither Gorkhaland nor Bodoland, he explained, enjoyed the political legitimacy that Uttarakhand had, in the shape of across-the-board unity among all parties. But in the north Bengal hills, as in the Bodo areas of Assam, Gowdas words had little effect. His Independence Day speech was too fresh in mind. And for the Left, all this was proving costly on the rebound.
Contrary to Gowdas insinuation, all major parties support the Gorkhaland demand. Even the CPI(M)s own district committee is pro-Gorkhaland, and is organising rallies in defiance of fiats from the state and the central leadership. CPI state leader Manju Majumdar and Water Resources Minister Nandagopal Bhattacharya toured north Bengal endorsing the demand.
The CPI(M) top brass saw red. The Left Front had decided not to concede the demand for a separate state, offering total autonomy to the hills instead. Now, it had reason to accuse its major ally, the CPI, of creating confusion by openly supporting GNLF leader Subash Ghising. Says state minister Ashok Bhattacharya: "The CPIs tactics have left cadres and supporters deeply divided and confused. In fact, even personal relations between our supporters have been affected, no one can trust anybody. The situation is serious for the Left Front".
After nearly two decades of uninterrupted power, the Left Front is up against the law of diminishing returns. That a time when it could do without open dissensions and revolt from its allies. Since 91, the Congress has doubled its seats in the vidhan sabha, and its hold on the popular vote is rising.
The CPI has another version. Says a party leader: "The fact is that in our undivided party in 1959, Ananda Pathak, who later represented the CPI(M) as its Darjeeling spokesman and was MP, had once written in a party journal that the Gorkhas deserve full autonomy. The general view in north Bengal, which we subscribe to, is: the degree of autonomy accorded to the Gorkha National Hill Council is not working too well. The CPI has only reported the facts. We feel we must follow a more flexible approach. The Left needs some dialogue and self-critical assessment urgently."
The CPI(M) contests this assertion. Says a leader: "There is little doubt that the north Bengal CPI is hitting back at us for the Midnapore incident. Support for the CPI is crumbling in one of its last remaining bastions. Omar Ali, a former CPI minister, joined the CPI(M) with 1,500 followers. In my experience of the communist movement, Ive never come across an instance where so many cadres of an organised Left party switched sides. The CPI pressed us at first not to accept these people and were upset when that did not work."
Some claim Alis decision to go over to the CPI(M) with his band of followers is not as innocuous as it seems. His war with the CPI had begun during his days as water resources minister in 91. He controlled large areas in his native Panskura and his hold extended over Midnapore town and Danton areas too. It is believed Nandagopal Bhattacharya, MP Geeta Mukherjee, and Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta stand to lose by Alis decision. "Mukherjee represents Panskura in Parliament, Gupta contests from Midnapore and Bhattacharya from the Danton assembly segment. We dont know about Gupta, but Ali has been fighting Bhattacharya and Mukherjee for quite some time. The CPI(M) will now be in a position to dictate to Mukherjee, Bhattacharya and Gupta when its election time again," points out an observer.
Another theory is that Alis anti-party activities were so intense that he brought expulsion upon himself. The sparks started flying when Ali was denied a CPI ticket to contest the assembly polls earlier this year. Bhattacharya, then party secretary, controversially decided to enter the fray himself. He took over the water resources ministry held by Ali. Tension rose and a flurry of press exposes, presumably inspired by Ali, came suggesting Bhattacharya and Mukherjee had pressured Ali to make crucial appointments and to generate funds for the cash-starved party. At this point, the central leadership sent general secretary A.B. Bardhan to put the house in order. After talking to both sides, Bardhan said "the press disclosures had really put Ali beyond the pale of the party, although personally I wouldve wanted Ali to continue".
The CPI(M) saw no harm in getting rich by default. Biman Bose and Anil Biswas, central committee members, justified Alis admission, saying "hes honest and straightforward". Bhattacharya, a long-time CPI(M)-basher, was left making protestations to Left Front Chairman Sailen Dasgupta, though in vain.
Soon, Bhattacharya and Majumdar took to the hills where they expressed support for a separate state for the Gorkhas "on ideological grounds". Says a north Bengal CPI(M)leader: "It is not a question of what Pathak had said in 1959. The undivided party had at one stage even pressed for a plebiscite in the Gorkha-dominated areas, influenced by Kashmir. But will anyone talk plebiscite now, because it was suggested a long time ago? Obviously not. The issue is: why did the CPI leaders do this at such a sensitive time for the Left, stoking sub-nationalist feelings?"
The only gainer from all this may be Ghising. Observes a veteran Siliguri-based journalist: "Since the council was formed, Darjeeling has ranked fourth out of 16 districts in terms of official financial assistance from the state government, never mind Ghisings allegations. Its not important whether he got Rs 36 crore or Rs 60 crore annually for his council, but where the money has gone. Where is the detailed statement of expenditures incurred? No sign of any development exists in Darjeeling except for lavish hill council offices. Neither the CPI nor Congress leaders like Mamata Banerjee or Somen Mitra are willing to ask these very basic questions which the GNLF has never answered. Where is the minimum guarantee that things will be any better in a separate state?"
Similar levels of cynicism exist between the Left Front partners. The central leaders of both parties are preoccupied with national politics. The coordination committees at the central, state and district levels have only seen regular bouts of mutual recrimination over the years. "Where the CPI(M) is strong, as in Bengal or Tripura, you hardly hear of coordination committees. Where it is weaker, as in Bihar or Andhra, it participates more earnestly," a CPI leader quips. In Delhi, when Indrajit Gupta openly called for Left unity, he was publicly snubbed by Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who revived a litany of plaints against the CPI in an article. When E.M.S. Namboodiripad wrote a pro-unity article, it was carried by a major English newspaper but not by the CPI(M)s mouthpiece too, as is the practise.
Even Bardhan, known to be somewhat pro-CPI(M), was moved to air his differences, particularly over the question of sharing power at the Centre. Gupta, the votary of unity, too was subdued. Recently in Calcutta, he had to explain his predicament to Buddhadev Bhattacharya, heir-apparent to Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. He signalled that he could not, as home minister, shift from his party line on issues such as Gorkhaland. Further, if the majority opinion within the United Front steering committee and the Cabinet favoured smaller states, there could be little for him to do.
Jyoti Basu, who identifies the obvious threat to his partys territory, has taken the stand that the Centre cannot abandon the interests of over six crore people in West Bengal to accommodate the aspirations of 10 lakh. The CPI(M) says it will agree to the creation of a separate Gorkhaland only if the Centre plans to go the whole hog in Jharkhand, Vidarbha and 16 other regions in the country with similar demands. With Prime Minister Deve Gowda ruling this out, the simmering GNLF demand will become a test-case for Left unity.