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Siege & scramble to regroup

Calcutta, May 6: As the general election reaches its penultimate stage tomorrow, the Left Front enters the most crucial phase in arguably the “toughest” Lok Sabha test it has faced since 1977 that will determine not just the new configuration in New Delhi but also the trajectory of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government for the remaining part of its term.

Of the 17 seats in the heart of Bengal going to the polls tomorrow, the Left Front had won 14 in 2004 and retained its hegemony in the 2006 Assembly elections. That was then.

Today, this region has become the central battlefield of Election 2009 for it contains the two iconic zones of conflict — Singur and Nandigram — that have radically transformed the terms of debate in the state and imbued this election with so much suspense and uncertainty.

The CPM is on a relatively strong wicket in Hooghly (which contains the Singur segment) and is fighting a tough battle in Tamluk (where Nandigram falls) but both sides know that Singur and Nandigram have a symbolic — and substantive — significance that go far beyond their geographical boundaries. The tremors from these two sites were felt in the panchayat polls last May, inflicting huge cracks on the Left’s rural bastions across this belt.

That unprecedented victory gave an adrenaline rush to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress that shows no signs of abating. The alliance between Trinamul and the Congress, which provides the fulcrum for the gathering of all anti-Left Front forces in the state, has only added to the loud and exuberant optimism of their ranks — heard in every tea shop and village lane — that the “poribartoner hawa” (the winds of change) is set to turn into a gale.

But as the electoral process enters its last lap — the final phase is on next Wednesday — the story of this election is not just about the raucous siege of the red fort; it is as much about the quiet and determined strategy to retain it.

Even the most virulent critics of the Left Front concede that the sense of demoralisation that had gripped the CPM ranks over the past couple of years has dissipated over the last few weeks and an initially defensive attitude has been replaced by an assertive counter-offensive.

A number of factors seems to have contributed to this change in mood. The most important of these is the cementing of “Left unity” in this election. Everywhere we go, CPM district and local-level leaders admit that the “shocking” panchayat results were definitely a result of the alienation of the rural poor, small and middle peasant from the party that had taken place for a complex set of reasons in which Nandigram and Singur played a role.

But they also insist that the complete lack of Left unity last summer contributed in a big way to the debacle. It is not yet clear how far the party’s “rectification” efforts have been able to repair the cracks on its edifice. But when it comes to Left Front unity, the scene is completely different from what it was a year ago.

More than formal Left Front unity though, the vociferous Opposition campaign has succeeded in galvanising the Left’s rank and file as well as its disgruntled fellow travellers to a degree that has been rarely seen before. This is particularly true of the older generation of Leftists who had become disenchanted with “the right deviationist tendencies” that had cropped up in the party over the last decade or so.

“I have seen how much the party has changed over time,” rued Shraboni Roy (name changed) in Katwa. Yet, the thought of Trinamul replacing the Left filled her with a sense of dread. And so, though she has kept aloof from the CPM for the past many years, she is determined not just to vote but also informally canvass for the party this time.

Her 24-year-old son is even more critical of the Left Front and has shunned the SFI through his college days. But he too confesses that “if the alternative to the Left is going to be an anti-Left formation, I have no choice but to back the CPM.”

These are not stray voices. As we criss-cross villages and small towns of central Bengal and listen to furious political arguments that are the staple of every adda at every street corner, it becomes clear that this is not a one-sided battle at all. The voices against the Left may be louder to begin with, but the counter-current is also getting strong.

The CPM leadership’s decision to run a “highly political campaign” focusing on the need for a “third alternative” at the Centre, on the party’s “anti-imperialist” credentials that guided the decision on the nuclear deal, and most of all on the need to industrialise Bengal in the long-term interests of the state’s peasantry is being implemented, we discover, by its cadres everywhere.

According to district leaders, the “third alternative” has had an electrifying effect on the party’s morale — “the Opposition is talking about change, but so are we. We want to change the complexion of the central government. And this is a Lok Sabha, not an Assembly, election” is a frequent refrain.

Equally powerful is the campaign that Mamata represents chaos more than change. The pro-Nano villagers of Singur are not the only ones to decry the “destructive” politics of the Trinamul icon. That change for the sake of change may not be a good thing is slowly gathering ground in many other parts of the state.

Yet, notwithstanding the “positive” factors that have improved the morale of the cadres, Left leaders know that tomorrow’s vote is as tough as it gets. “Miracles do not happen in Bengal — not for them, not for us. We have to get over 50 per cent of the vote in every seat in order to win this time, and that’s not easy in the present situation,” an insider said.

Although this is not an Assembly election, the Left parties’ final Lok Sabha tally, they know, will have a bearing on the state government. As one CPM activist put it, “Since July 2006 (when the first Singur agitation began), we have not had a single ‘normal’ day. Our difficulties peaked during the panchayat elections but we think that the turbulent phase is petering out and these elections will mark its end.”

Although he refuses to spell it out, the general feeling is that if the Left Front does reasonably well, the government — having learnt its lessons — will coordinate much more closely with the party but go ahead with its “development” agenda that has been on hold for quite some time.

Otherwise, the wounds left by Singur and Nandigram will continue to fester and hobble the party and the Buddhadeb administration till 2011, and then some.

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