May 27, 2020
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West Bengal

Buddha Smiles

Even CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee admitted that bagging 233 (out of 294) seats was "beyond all our expectations". A victory for the liberal Left, with the hardliners sidelined, should make the UPA breathe at least a little easy. But will it?
Buddha Smiles
Buddha Smiles

There was never any doubt that the Left Front (LF) would win the Assembly polls comfortably and form the government for the seventh consecutive time in West Bengal. But the landslide victory surprised many, including even Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who told reporters that bagging 233 (out of 294) seats was "beyond all our expectations". That the LF posted such an impressive win despite a few odds is remarkable. And, thus, this could perhaps be the sweetest and most significant victory for the LF so far.

The 'TINA' factor

What undoubtedly aided the LF victory was the lack of any credible alternative. The opposition parties had no leader who could match the charisma of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Nor did they offer any alternatives to the policies and programmes pursued by Bhattacharjee's party and government. Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee urged people to vote for a change. The Left Front, she said, had been in power for too long and it was time for a change. But why was such a change required? What alternative policies would be in place? Which direction would the state take in that case? She did not - and perhaps, could not - provide answers to these crucial questions. No wonder, then, that the Trinamool's tally plunged from 60 seats in 2001 to just 30 this time.

As for the Congress, even its leaders like Sonia Gandhi who campaigned, albeit half-heartedly, for the party, had little to say against the Left. Others like Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi didn't seem too enthusiastic in campaigning vigorously for their party. Even in its strongholds, the Congress was a badly divided house. One of its firebrand and controversial MPs - Adhir Choudhary - propped two Independent candidates against the party's official nominees whom he had personal differences with. The two Independent candidates won, one of them trouncing even the Congress Legislature Party chief Atish Chandra Sinha.

That Congress and the Trinamool failed to enter into an electoral understanding to prevent a division of the anti-Left votes was another factor that helped the CPI(M). But not to a large extent, claimed CPI(M) party secretary Biman Bose. "The division in anti-Left votes did help us in a few constituencies. But according to our preliminary analyses, even if the Congress and the Trinamool would have struck an alliance, we would have won very comfortably," Bose said. So much so that even the Left-backed RJD managed to open its account in West Bengal with its victory in Non-Bengali-dominated Burrabazar.

Political pundits say that the disunity in the Opposition ranks, the Opposition's failure to project anyone as a viable alternative to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, their failure to come up with a set of policies and programmes for the state's development different from the Left's and the abysmal lack of any talented persona in the Opposition ranks made even anti-Left voters to vote for the Left or, at best, stay away from the hustings.

The 'Buddha' factor

There's no doubt over yet another thing: the LF owes its landslide victory to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The man who, seven years ago (when he took over the reins of the state from Jyoti Basu in 1999), seemed to be in the shadows of his towering predecessor, has emerged as perhaps a more popular politician than Jyoti Basu. His simplicity, transparency, commitment to good governance, his empathy for the poor and suffering masses, his liberal policies and wooing of capital, his stress on infrastructure development, his hard stance against militant trade unionism, his unequivocal rejection of dogmas that hindered the state's progress and his frank admission of past mistakes - all these combined to make him the darling of all sections of the people.

He found supporters among even the upper middle and affluent classes -- the traditional anti-Left voters. A steady stream of industrialists feted him, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was "India's best Chief Minister". Bhattacharjee's approachability, democratic temperament, flexibility, willingness to listen to others, ability to feel the pulse of the people and his simplicity put him in stark contrast to his haughty, overbearing, imperious and inscrutable predecessor. Basu, as the people of Bengal had started realizing, had presided over the state's steady decline and downfall. It was time for a change. And Bhattacharjee, rather than any opposition politician, arrived on the scene to seize that opportunity for change, to harness the people's quest for change and to effect a dramatic turnaround in the CPI(M)'s (and, by extension, the LF's) policies to bring about that change. Bhattacharjee emerged as the sincere face of that change.

Over the past five years, things have changed for the better. Investments have poured in, jobs have been created, infrastructure has improved dramatically, the liberal policies has led to growth of consumerism and urban centres have started sporting those typical landmarks -- shopping malls, multiplexes, amusement parks, lounge bars, gourmet eateries, salons et al -- while, overall, the face of the state and the impression it evokes in the rest of the country and the world have started improving. Bhattacharjee is the architect of this change. Bengal's electorate knows this change has to continue. So why vote against the Left? For -- and this applies to even ardent critics of the Left -- voting against the Left would mean voting against Bhattacharjee who's become synonymous with Bengal's progress.

Bhattacharjee himself admitted that the massive mandate received by the Left Front is a mandate to carry on the policies and programmes he's been pursuing. "It is a mandate for more industrialisation, for more jobs, for more progress," he told reporters in the afterglow of Thursday's victory. Ever the simple and humble person, he added: "But these are not my policies. They are that of the Left Front. It is the party that's emerged victorious, not me. Even in my constituency (he nearly doubled his 2001 margin and won by more than 53,000 votes this time), I would not have been able to win without the support of my party and workers. It is the party that's supreme".

The Election Commission's role

First, there was the Election Commission that imposed a slew of tough measures, including holding the polls over an unprecedented five phases. The EC deployed a large number of observers from the initial process of revision of electoral rolls and this resulted in deletion of 25 lakh names from the rolls. These (25 lakh voters), the opposition alleged, were the army of 'false voters' that would help the LF post victories year after year. The state police were kept in the periphery and central para-military forces deployed to conduct "free and fair" polls. The Opposition parties welcomed the tough moves, but the CPI(M) reacted angrily, calling the EC's steps an "insult" to the people of Bengal. At the grassroots level, it mobilized more people through its impressive party machinery to exercise their franchise. This resulted in an increase in turnout from the usual 75 percent to a high 82 percent. While pundits were divided on who bagged those extra votes, it's now clear that it was the CPI(M) that had gained from the rise in poll percentage.

What was an apparent adversity -- the EC's strict glare and conduct of polls -- was turned around deftly by the CPI(M) to its electoral advantage. Many also were taken in by the CPI(M)'s campaign against the EC -- the "insult to Bengalis" line struck a chord among many, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas -- and the party leaders' statements against the EC and its observers only strengthened the resolve of the party workers to pull out all stops and ensure a large turnout of party supporters and sympathizers outside the polling booths. The opposition and critics who have been crying themselves hoarse about "scientific rigging" by the CPI(M) have been silenced this time, perhaps forever.

What lies ahead

The impressive LF victory, thanks to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is no doubt a victory for the liberal lobby within the CPI(M). Bhattacharjee's critics within the Left Front -- they range from some of his senior ministers who've vociferously opposed measures like handing over farmlands to industries as well as his liberal policies, to party apparatchik, CITU leaders who're dead against the CM's zero-tolerance for militant and irresponsible trade unionism as well as his opposition to trade unionizing the IT sector and allies opposed to policies like wooing private capital -- had strategically positioned the just-concluded polls as a referendum on his policies. Had the LF's tally of seats slipped below 175 (from the 199 in 2001), they'd have reared themselves and taken on Bhattacharjee, urging the LF to get back to its old, dogmatic policies. But this victory has sealed the lips of such critics within the Left and made Buddhadeb and his aides like industries minister Nirupam Sen (a liberal who's now set to become a member of the CPI-M politburo) much stronger.

It can, thus, be said that the seventh Left Front government in Bengal will pursue policies of liberalisation and industrialisation with greater vigour. "But it'll not be unbridled liberalisation. For instance, we don't want whole-scale privatization of PSUs. We don't want FDI in the retail sector. We want labour law reforms, but not provisions that'll make it easy for employers to hire and fire employees. Policies have to have a human face. They should be aimed at bringing about equitable development. All sections, including the poor in the backward rural areas, have to benefit from policies of liberalisation and industrialisation. Our policies will not benefit only a small section and make the rich richer," he clarified. 'Reforms with a human face' is Bhattacharjee's mantra.

How will these policies be different from those pursued by the UPA government or by some other states? CPI(M) leaders cite an example. "Land has to be provided for new industrial units. We can't cut down forests and there's very little vacant land in West Bengal. So this has to be agricultural land. We have to provide land for new townships, for roads, for hospitals and even for entertainment parks. But the original owners of these farmlands won't be given just adequate cash compensation. We'll upgrade their skills, ensure that they get jobs, provide subsidized housing to them, make them stakeholders in projects that come up on their lands, provide free education to their children and extend various other benefits to them. We won't leave them in the lurch after simply providing cash for the land acquired from them. That's development with a human face. That's equitable development," explained a senior CPI(M) functionary.

What it means for the UPA

Since the LF victory in Bengal is a victory for the liberals, and not the hardliners who've been relegated to the sidelines here, Dr Manmohan Singh and the UPA can perhaps heave a stifled sigh of relief. Singh and Bhattacharjee share an excellent rapport and are know to be mutual admirers. This friendship and genuine mutual admiration has helped Bhattacharjee win many favours and concessions from the union government. Singh, in turn, has tapped Bhattacharjee to restrain the CPI(M) hardliners. On many an occasion, Bhattacharjee had intervened to ensure that the knives the hardliners had started brandishing at Dr Singh and the UPA government were sheathed. A stronger Bhattacharjee (and the CPI-M politburo will, soon, get a few more liberal faces like Nirupam Sen) could translate into greater relief for Dr Singh.

But that doesn't mean the sparring would end dramatically. It may actually only increase as the voices emanating from Delhi indicate. But ultimately, and especially if push comes to shove, Dr Singh can (and would need to) tap into Bhattacharjee to pacify the CPI(M) hardliners. Significantly, when asked by reporters on Thursday evening if the LF victories in Bengal and Kerala would embolden his party to sharpen its attack on the UPA, Bhattacharjee replied: "We don't believe in and pursue such policies. We operate transparently". For good measure, and as if sending a message to the hardliners, he added: "I'm one who believes in allowing a multiplicity of opinions. Everyone has a right to have an opinion and my opinion is not necessarily always right or one that should prevail. I may be wrong. Listening to others' opinions can help me improve or take a better course of action". He also said policy differences with the UPA would exist. "But such differences will always be resolved across the table in a spirit of give and take and mutual adjustments," he said.

But as the pressure mounts Perhaps Dr Singh can take some cold comfort from the fact that at the end of the day, Bhattacharjee would just be a phone call away. How much clout Calcutta would have on Delhi of course remains an open question.

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