The small voice of history has delivered another statement in the local government by-elections in West Bengal. The people didn’t write manifestos for or against this or that policy. They spoke at the polls.
Even though these were by-elections, they were extensive enough, and given the acrimonious debates around the Singur and Nandigram issues, these elections had acquired an added importance. Since panchayat elections are fought around issues of local development, the questions of land acquisition, compensation and development were foregrounded.
If the opposition charge of widespread resentment against the state government’s drive towards industrialization, particularly in the rural areas, was correct, the elections results were expected to reflect that. On the other hand, if the Left Front’s claim that it had the mandate of the people for industrialization was correct, the results would indicate that.
What happened in the state as a whole? What happened in the two hotspots, Singur and Nandigram? And what happened at Salanpur, the site of the proposed Bhushan Steel plant?
Two gram panchayats (local self-government bodies at the lowest, village level) fall in the Singur block of Hooghly district. These are Balarambati and Bora. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) won both.
28 gram panchayats went to vote in Hooghly district. In the previous election in 2003, the Left Front had won 23, the Trinamool Congress 4 and one seat had gone to an independent. In 2007, with greater political polarization, no independent candidate could win. The Left Front got 23, the TMC 5.
Nandigram falls within the Purba Medinipur district. Here, of the total 25 gram panchayat seats that went to vote, the Left Front held 16 and the opposition 9 (TMC 6, BJP 2 and 1 independent) in 2003. This time around, the opposition tally dropped to 6 (TMC 4, independent 2), while the Left Front tally increased to 19. The one seat in Nandigram itself voted left.
At Salanpur, near Asansol, the Left Front retained its seat, with its victory margin going up from 600 the last time around to 4000 this time.
In the state as a whole, of 398 gram panchayats under vote, the Left Front had won 249 in 2003, while the opposition had bagged 147 (Congress 37, TMC 40, BJP 8 and 62 independents). This time, the Left Front increased its tally marginally, to 256, while the opposition got 142 (Congress 43, TMC 45, BJP 5, independents 49). In other words, in the state as a whole, while the Left Front and the opposition more or less maintained their overall positions, the greater political polarization meant that independents were squeezed out.
These are the results at the lowest level, the gram panchayat, where the effects of land acquisition would be felt most sharply.
At the next level, the panchayat samiti, of the total 94, the Left Front had won 64 in 2003, while the opposition had 30 (Congress 8, TMC 3, BJP 1, independents 18). This time around, the Left Front increased its tally marginally, to 65, while the opposition got 29 (Congress 6, TMC 9, BJP 1, independents 13). In other words, once again, the independents tended to get squeezed out, while the TMC gained 6 seats over its previous tally of 3.
In Purba Medinipur (where Nandigram itself falls), of the 6 seats, the Left Front and TMC had 3 each in 2003. This changed to 4-2. The Left Front wrested one seat from the TMC. In Hooghly, site of Singur, which has 2 seats, the Left Front had both in 2003. This time, it lost one to the TMC.
At the next level, the zilla parishad, of the total 24, the Left Front had 22 and the opposition 2 in 2003. This time around, the Left Front slipped to 19, while the opposition got 5. This difference of 3 is accounted for by Howrah, which is really an extension of Kolkata and where the Left Front lost both the seats it held earlier, and by South 24 Parganas, where the Left Front lost one of the four it held the last time.
In urban areas, the Left Front lost some of its edge. In the municipal elections, of 104 wards that went to poll this time, the Left Front won 62 and the opposition 42. This has to be compared to 72 and 32 the last time around.
The TMC wrested the Panskura municipality from the Left Front. This was the one result the media went to town with. Why? Because this was supposed to show that the Left Front, the CPI (M) in particular, was losing ground in West Bengal, especially because of people’s anger over land acquisitions. Some reports made it appear as if Panskura borders Nandigram.
This is nonsense. Neither does Panskura border Nandigram (it is at the other end of the district), nor have the rural areas voted against the left. In fact, in Panskura, the anti-left forces ganged up to give Mamata Banerjee her dream mahajot, grand alliance. In areas where she had campaigned most vociferously, however, she lost. To reiterate what has been shown above, in Singur, in Nandigram and in Salanpur, people have voted left.
The relative reverses suffered by the left have been in urban areas, not rural. Logically, it should have been the other way around. If farmers’ lands were being expropriated forcibly to set up industries that would benefit urban consumers, as was the opposition charge, then surely the villages should have voted for the opposition and the urban areas for the left.
Mamata Banerjee, incorrigible as she is, has made the usual shrill noises about the CPI (M)’s “strong-arm tactics.” This is nothing new. She has made the exact same noises in each and every election she has lost, barring the 2006 Assembly election, which the Election Commission watched over like a hawk. Even the Congress on the one hand and the news media on the other, no friends of the CPI (M), no longer makes this accusation. To be sure, some Maoists continue to shriek about CPI (M) intimidation, which seems a bit rich, given their own predilection to wanton violence.
The left response to the election results has been more mature. Jyoti Basu, who had said he was “a little worried” about the elections, expressed “relief” after the result. Biman Bose, chairperson of the Left Front, said, “It is too early to interpret the results as a mandate for or against industrialisation.” The implication is that the real verdict will come next year, when the scheduled panchayat elections will take place all over the state.
A number of prominent intellectuals and activists have been unhappy with the CPI (M) over Singur and Nandigram. In our analysis of the political economy of the crisis, Vijay Prashad and I argued that these events must “give us pause.” (http://www.counterpunch.org/prashad05232007.html). We had further stated that “the Left Front must be judged, and it must face as much materialist critique as possible.”
The same must apply to critics of the left. There is no question, as Vijay Prashad and I argued, that the critics of the left “could play a good, critical role in West Bengal, pushing from the left, criticizing and learning.” However, this pushing, criticizing and learning can only happen if we, intellectuals and activists, learn to confront hard realities and listen to the people.
The Left Front had sought the mandate of the people in the last Assembly elections (in 2006), on the plank of re-industrialization, employment-generation and development. In elections where its every step was closely scrutinized by a hostile Election Commission, through a campaign that was absolutely violence-free, with a massive voter turnout, the Left Front won a massive mandate, increasing its tally from two-third of the state Assembly to three-fourth. Even Mamata Banerjee had to admit that the elections were free and fair.
The recent elections, though they did not cover the entire state, were still a massive exercise in popular democracy. The elections were remarkably violence-free. The voting percentage was 85%. The Left Front won 64% of the village-level gram panchayats, 69% of the block-level panchayat samitis, 79% of the district-level zilla parishads, and 59% of the urban municipal wards.
The message was not lost on Mamata Banerjee. When Jyoti Basu invited her on June 4, Mamata Banerjee, who had thus far spurned repeated offers for talks from the government, rushed to meet him the same day.
For the critics of the left, the recent elections hold out one important message: notwithstanding whatever problems there may be around issues of displacement, compensation and rehabilitation, the question of employment generation is a real one for the rural poor in West Bengal. They see the Left Front as addressing that question. More importantly, they see the opposition as blocking employment-generation. The alliance of the far left with the far right, under the leadership of the opportunist TMC and Mamata Banerjee, has not won admirers in West Bengal.
Those who do not see this elementary fact and rally behind this alliance will continue to be alienated from the reality of West Bengal. They will deliver great sound bytes to hungry mediapersons, they will continue to clog up the blogosphere with their tirades, but they will fail to carry the people with them in the one battle that truly matters: the battle of the hustings. Maoists, in particular, must ask themselves: what have they achieved apart from strengthening Mamata Banerjee’s hands, while not making any gains themselves?
The critics of the left can contribute purposefully to the larger debate around alternatives available to a state government within a larger national policy regime that continues to be, despite all pressure, neo-liberal. Or they can rave and rant.
Sudhanva Deshpande is editor with LeftWord Books (www.leftword.com), and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, New Delhi (www.jananatyamanch.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org