The only thing that seems to hold West Bengal’s ruling Left Front together is the politics of power. The squabbles among the front partners would often make one think that they are bitter enemies. The rancour has only intensified with the scramble for seats for next month’s panchayat elections in the state. This again is an old story. Despite its 25-year reign at the Writers’ Buildings, the front has never worked as a united force at the lower levels. While this may be attributed to fierce battles among the partners for spheres of influence, the bullying tactics of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is clearly at the root of most seat-sharing problems. So incensed was the Revolutionary Socialist Party on the eve of the panchayat polls in 1983 that one of its senior leaders called the CPI(M) a party of “social fascists”. Leaders of another partner, the Forward Bloc, recently charged the Marxists with setting up “little oligarchies” in the villages. It is not difficult to see why the CPI(M) is so unaccommodating to its partners at the local government level. The party has been in power for all these years primarily by virtue of its rural support and would not therefore allow any reduction of that rural base. Secondly, it remains deeply suspicious of some of the partners, with whom its partnership is based more on political expediency than on trust.
But this latest show of left disunity is no precursor to the ruling camp’s disintegration. The disgruntled partners may make localized alliances with the front’s enemies such as the Trinamool Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress to settle scores with the Marxists. It is unlikely, though, that they would publicly respond to the call by the Trinamool Congress chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee, to switch camps. These partners have long been condemned to throwing in their lot with the CPI(M), even if they have little love lost for it. Because of the polarized politics of West Bengal, they have no future outside the front. Their distrust of the Marxists notwithstanding, they have to depend heavily on the former’s organizational might to win elections. But their complaints once again hold the mirror up to the CPI(M)’s ruthless politics. Also, the fraternal fights make a mockery of the slogan of an “improved Left Front” on which the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, led the front to its sixth successive victory in the assembly elections in 2001. If the CPI(M) is so harsh on its friends, it is not difficult to assume what its attitude would be toward its foes. There are other dangers in such partisan wranglings. After all, the panchayati raj is not just about devolution of powers. It is also about deepening of democracy, and one party’s dominance can spoil it.