| Another time, another place
Politics, Mao Zedong said, is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed. But propaganda is the life-blood of both war and politics. West Bengal’s ruling Marxists may win another battle in next month’s panchayat polls, but they seem to have already lost the propaganda war.
This is how it has happened. The curtain went up on the polls this time with Mamata Banerjee raising a din that her party candidates could not file nominations for 20,000 out of the 58,000-odd panchayat seats because of the Marxist “terror”. It is not the first time one heard of the “Red terror” in Bengal ; it has been the refrain of opposition politics since the first assembly polls under left rule in 1982. Since 1997, when she broke away from the Congress and floated her Trinamool Congress, Banerjee has made it her theme song.
But her protest made it look very different this time — if opposition candidates were prevented from contesting more than one-third of the seats, democracy in the state must be terminally sick. Such is the nature of propaganda, in war as in politics, that the most obvious questions are not even asked, let alone answered. How did she know about the 20,000 seats at a time when the nomination process was still on and when even the state election commission had no way of getting any final tally'
Sure enough, as the tally was eventually available, the number of seats won uncontested, mostly by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was close to 6,000. Banerjee still maintains that her party was prevented from contesting nearly 23,000 seats. The Congress, on the other hand, says it could not find candidates for 33,000 seats. Whatever the truth behind these numbers, its propaganda value far outstrips cold statistics. There is much truth in what she and other opposition leaders say about the CPI(M) terrorizing its opponents — and in some areas, even its allies in the Left Front — to retain its rural vote-bank. But it is not the whole truth about her party’s failure to stand up to the Marxists.
But the Marxist propaganda was the real loser. The CPI(M)’s state unit secretary, Anil Biswas, set the guideline for all other party leaders to follow. If the Trinamool Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine could not file nominations in certain areas, it was because they could not find even two people — the candidate and another person to second the candidature — to support it for each seat there. They cited two reasons for this — the organizational weakness of the Trinamool Congress and its unpopularity with the people in areas where it had once broken into the Red bastions with the help of arms and hired killers, as in parts of Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura.
It is true that the Trinamool Congress matched the Marxists’ strong-arm tactics in these areas in the panchayat polls of 1998. The people in some of these areas bitterly recall the Trinamool Congress’s “terror” in those days. It is also true that the organizational weakness of the Trinamool Congress, particularly in the villages, is its major problem. Unlike the CPI(M), whose peasant wing in Bengal has over one and a half crore members, none of the opposition parties has a peasant front worth the name.
But that is hardly the whole — or even the most important — truth. Born only in 1997, the Trinamool Congress had an even poorer organization during the 1998 elections when it put up far more candidates and won a remarkably large number of seats for a first-timer. Big chunks of traditional Congress voteshares were transferred to it, although the Congress’s rural organization too has long been in tatters. Even the CPI(M)’s own review of the 1998 elections admitted an 8 per cent fall in its vote-share. With whatever organizational strength they had, the opposition parties together won 42 per cent of the gram panchayats last time.
Compared to the 6,000 seats that have been won uncontested this time, there were no contests for only 750-odd seats in 1998. This was primarily because of the Trinamool suddenly bursting onto the scene. And, the strength of this new challenge to the left is further underscored by the fact that in the previous rural polls in 1993, the number of uncontested wins was a little over 1,900. The rise of the Trinamool Congress actually filled the vacuum in the anti-CPI(M) space even in the remote villages. So the CPI(M) leaders’ argument of the Trinamool Congress not being able to field nominees because of its organizational weakness actually spins the truth out of face.
The real difference from the last polls relates to the larger political context. The three years between 1998 and 2000 were the Trinamool Congress’s best of times so far. It was new, aggressive and rode the crest of a new hope for the anti-CPI(M) masses. The panchayat polls that year came only months after the parliamentary polls which catapulted the BJP to power in New Delhi for the first time. Banerjee’s mass appeal and her alliance with the new party in power at the Centre made the Trinamool Congress look like not just a strong challenger but also a possible winner against the Marxists. Her good fortunes and high hopes continued in 1999, when the BJP was returned to power again and then to 2000, when the party wrested the Calcutta municipal corporation from the left for the first time in 15 years.
The change came in March, 2001 when she suddenly quit the Union ministry, demanding the resignation of the defence minister, George Fernandes, over the Tehelka exposure. The bad times that began with her subsequent parting of ways with the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance climaxed in the crushing defeat that the Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance suffered in the 2001 assembly elections. Returning to the NDA gave her little back — not even a ministry as yet, but took away more from her fast-eroding political credibility.
These panchayat polls have thus come in the worst of times for Banerjee. Her enemy, the CPI(M), is back in power. Once betrayed, her friend, the BJP, cannot trust her as before, even if its own weakness in Bengal forces it to live with her. Her own party is without an immediate goal and has thus lost much of its earlier sheen. To cap it all, the Congress seems to be slowly re-emerging from the ruins, slowly crawling back into her political space. It would be silly to write her off; but it could be safely predicted that these panchayat elections would have seen her fortunes go down even further - with or without the CPI(M)’s “terror”.
But her weakness emboldened the CPI(M) to overreach itself. A ruling party usually behaves like this out of panic or in the face of a challenge that it feels incapable of meeting in democratic ways. It would be simplistic to assume that the Marxists’ rural support base is so badly threatened that they can hope to retain it only through the use of force. It is more likely that power has so corrupted a section of the party that it would stop at nothing to stifle even a weak challenge.