The Left Front has ruled West Bengal without a break for over a quarter of a century. It came to power in 1977, and has never lost an election since. It has sent a substantial number of members to the Lok Sabha, and a fair number to the Rajya Sabha. There is no reason to doubt that in the elections to come to the state assembly, it will once again get an absolute majority; the only point of interest will be the margin by which it wins, and which party, among those in the opposition, gets more seats ó the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Trinamool Congress or the old, weatherbeaten Congress.
These results will surprise nobody who has had anything to do with the state. Unlike Kerala, where the Left Democratic Front has periodically lost to the Congress, the question of the Left Front losing to any party is not one which anybody will seriously debate. The reason is, of course, partly the Congress itself. It is a tatty, outdated organization, with a number of aspirants to being the West Bengal state Congress committee chief, but no one to lead ó a number of generals without an army. It is vitiated because it, like its counterparts in other states, is nothing more than an appendage of the Dynasty, of Sonia Gandhi and the Family. That may work in other states ó though clearly it isnít working in more and more of them ó but it isnít something that will ever be taken seriously in West Bengal. The Family is a sort of curiosity in the state, like an exotic creature in the Calcutta zoo. People may come to see one or more members of it speak at meetings but it means nothing more than a visit to the zoo does.
The Trinamool Congress has self-destructed, thanks to the doings of its creator, Mamata Banerjee. In the National Democratic Alliance one moment, out the next, in again, out again, in with conditions ó not the sort of behaviour that inspires a great deal of confidence. Her own lieutenants have at one time or the other revolted ó Ajit Panja did, and then came back; Sudip Bandopadhyay did and at this moment I donít know whether heís coming back or staying out. Emotion rather than reason is what this party seems to be founded on, and that having been realized by the voters, they are wary.
The BJP seemed at one time to be making a small beginning, and if the NDA can hold together, with or without the Trinamool Congress (preferably without), it may offer the only viable alternative to the Left Front, however distasteful the BJPís antecedents and ideological moorings may be. I say this because the NDA may tap into something that has been obscured by the communist rhetoric of the Left Front ó the fact that fully a third of the stateís population belong to the castes designated as Dalit, or scheduled and backward castes. Caste, you may say, matters little in this state; at the moment thatís probably right, but what may happen in the years ahead is something else again.
However, the point is, at the moment, not very relevant. What is the major factor behind the Left Front being the unassailable political organization it is' It is precisely because it is just that ó a political organization. It is well organized, it has, by and large, inner discipline, and it has a scheme of ensuring its political dominance that is most suited to the state. This scheme has, as its basis, the herding of people into groups, associations and unions. They could be nagarik samitis, or panchayats, or puja samitis, and they could be such giant structures of power like the coordination committee or Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
The front has shrewdly based itself on one factor that it knows will change only slightly ó the widespread unemployment in the state. This has provided it with the material it needs for its ďcadresĒ and for the toughs who back up ideology and political positions with force. If one doesnít accept the one, the other will make sure one does. Among the employed it has made sure that at the clerical level the coordination committee is everything ó anyone appointed to a clerical post has to join unless, of course, he or she joins a rival smaller group. Most join the coordination committeeís various constituent units; even if they donít, they have to join some other organization. That is the point. Individuals cannot exist, either unemployed or employed, except as members of an organization.
The success of the front in the rural areas and in most towns except Calcutta is because of this factor. Calcutta is possibly an exception because its media ó press and television ó have not become units of the Left Front. That means that other opinions can be and are expressed; and that means, in turn, that other opinions can be expressed when it comes to voting. This phenomenon may well spread, gradually, in areas where the media reach is considerable, and where it isnít in the hands of the front. It also depends on how accurately the media reflect the opinion of people generally, individual opinions that continue to exist in the otherwise Orwellian situation in the state.
Let me hasten to say that what the front does in West Bengal is no different from what other parties do in other states. Laloo Prasad Yadav has long been practising his brand of control of public opinion in Bihar; he may not have succeeded as well as the Left Front has in West Bengal, because he isnít by nature a very organized man, but heís shrewd enough to be able to get by, to get the extent of control he needs and can make sure he will get it.
Other states simply arenít as organized politically. One may have a dominant trade union or group of unions, like Maharashtra, but then they do not have that kind of hold on, say, the sugar barons, who control and manipulate opinion and votes. Muscle power doesnít work, because itís with the sugar barons in their region, as it is with the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and Pune. Tamil Nadu is another totally different kettle of fish; the anxiety there isnít to build organizations, but the images of leaders, J. Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi. They follow leaders, and that is why Karunanidhi is trying so hard to groom his son, M.K. Stalin ó he knows age is against him, and a new leader has to be projected to his followers. Ideology has no place here. Leadership and the charisma of leaders are all.
But to come back to the Left Front. Given its political control in the state, it is really ironical that it should be one of the most vocal supporters of the parliamentary democratic system in the country. Freedom of expression, of movement and ideas are issues that galvanize its members in parliament; indeed, in a recent television programme where he was speaking to school children, the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said that they had had to revise their stand on many things, including their ideological stand. Rigid socialistic ideas have given way to more pragmatic approaches, and he pointed to China as an example of how a society organized on totally socialist lines can accept new, seemingly contradictory ideas in order to achieve economic prosperity.
This new realpolitik may be seen today as a necessity by the front, but its hold over political organizations is not going to lessen because of that. It means that elections are what they make them ó an exercise to be gone through with loyal members of the coordination committee forming the polling parties and the ďcadresĒ and the toughs making sure that the voting goes the way they want it to. True, they donít succeed everywhere. But where they donít thereís inevitably violence of some kind, so that dissident groups realize that dissidence comes at a fairly heavy price.
Itís difficult to see what alternatives there are to this. Perhaps none, right now. But no organization stays the way it is for too long; inevitably decay, in the form of squabbles and factions, will emerge and the organizations begin to crumble. It will be interesting to see what then takes the place of this formidable organization.