The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- West Bengal continues to be the psephologist's despair

West Bengal continues to be the despair of psephologists. Look how well-mannered the other states, which went to the polls along with West Bengal, are. They have obediently conformed to the law of anti-incumbency that the psephologists are fond of: in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, howsoever reluctantly, has given way to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; in Kerala, the United Democratic Front has scampered to vacate the government premises for the Left Democratic Front; even in Assam, the Congress, which ruled during the past five years, has received a severe drubbing. Wretched West Bengal, however, has refused to fall in line.

This misbehaviour on West Bengal's part has been the running complaint for the past couple of decades. Of course, it is not that this Indian state is sui generis. In Singapore, the same party has formed the administration for the past 40 years; periodic democratic elections have failed to dislodge it, and we also know that in Mexico, for eight decades, come elections, go elections, the same regime held on to power. Those inside West Bengal and outside who dislike this state of affairs have raised Cain. The psephologists too have been sure that some hanky-panky must be involved, otherwise the results could not have been so monotonously the same. Ponderous editorials in newspapers have expressed similar concerns.

The major initiative taken by the Election Commission this year with regard to the assembly polls in West Bengal is obviously in response to this collective disquiet. It took altogether unprecedented measures to improve surveillance over the poll process. Voting was staggered over five widely-dispersed dates. Paramilitary personnel were imported from the rest of the country. There was a massive mobilization of observers at different levels, drawn from the pool of serving government officials all over the country. The vigil enforced during the campaign and on the polling dates deserves to be described as belonging to the Z-category.

And yet, confound it all, the Left Front has romped home victorious for the seventh time in succession, even as everybody, including the rabble of opposition parties, agrees that the elections have been scrupulously free and fair. For the moment, along with the opposition parties, the psephologists as well as leader writers are stunned into silence.

True, the Left Front victory is most impressive, but by no stretch can it be called without a parallel. The accompanying table is enlightening. As in this year, in the elections in 1977, 1982 and 1991 too, the total tally for the Left Front exceeded 230, and, correspondingly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to enjoy more than an absolute majority on its own. As a matter of fact, in the elections in 1987, the scale of the Left Front's triumph was even more spectacular; it captured, that year, 251 out of the 294 seats in the state assembly; the CPI(M) got as many as 187.

Even so, given the state of expectations which preceded the polls, this year's results should evoke both a quantum of surprise and some retrospection. The millions who constitute the electorate in West Bengal are not exactly morons. They had no choice; any credible alternative to the Left Front was simply not available to them.

The lady who presides over the major anti-left political formation has been watched by the people in the state for a fairly long period. She is an excellent rabble-rouser, but she is clearly unable to think or execute any coherent programme for either the administration or the development of the state. She is, besides, much too temperamental. The Congress is in no better shape. The president of a district unit of the party, who is an MP to boot, sets up candidates in two constituencies in his district to contest against the party's official nominees. Such is the state of affairs in the party that he cannot be disciplined. He, in fact, shares the dais with the all-India party president during the poll campaign, and nobody dares to even mildly reprimand him.

In contrast, the Left Front, a combination of a number of parties, has stayed together for nearly 30 years, and has carried out a remarkable transformation of the agrarian scene through land reforms and activization of the three-tier panchayat system. In the urban sector, because of the efforts of the state administration, the power situation is much better than in most other states, which has attracted enquiries from potential investors with substantial capital assets. Given the overwhelmingly rustic antecedents of the party which is the major constituent of the government, it is sometimes unsure of the agenda to adopt at the next stage on both the agricultural and industrial fronts. Farm productivity has tended to taper off, land reforms, extended irrigation and decentralized administration have done their bit.

The Left Front must either take up the challenge of cooperative agriculture to raise productivity further, or get lost in the confusing terrain of persuading the peasantry to surrender their land to the envoys of crass speculation. It is dreaming of launching an industrial transformation, but with the load of close to seven million jobless people in West Bengal, the state must retain control over the framework of industrial planning and not leave things to entrepreneurs whose background is in developing capital-intensive, labour-economizing enterprises. Perhaps an alternative with better prospects would be to cajole the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre to instruct the public financial institutions directly under the control of the Centre to allot vastly increased funds with which the state government could, either on its own, or jointly with private parties, start new industrial ventures, small, medium, as well as large.

The Left Front programme can certainly be improved upon. But at least it presented a programme. The opposition had none. They have received their just deserts. But the size of the Left Front victory would conceivably not have inched towards the 1987 proportions if the Election Commission, by its discriminatory over-zealousness in conducting the elections in West Bengal, did not raise the hackles of the electorate. In 1987, West Bengal voted massively for the Left Front and against the Congress because of a faux pas committed by Rajiv Gandhi. He, who was the incumbent prime minister only because he happened to be his mother's son, had the cheek to suggest that Jyoti Basu was unfit to continue to function as chief minister and should be retired. Such audacity the West Bengal electorate was not prepared to take lying down. This year, the manner the EC has gone about had created an impression that it considered the people of West Bengal to be a suspect species. This induced the Left Front cadre and volunteers to lift their efforts to a fever pitch. Perhaps this also contributed to the close to seven per cent increase over 2001 in the number of people who have voted this time. They voted with their feet against the innuendoes dropped by the commission.

The opposition parties in West Bengal, does it not follow, instead of thanking the commission, should blame it for the debacle' They could, however, prefer to draw inspiration from another source. Some years ago, a letter to the editor on the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly did not mince words: to ensure free and fair elections in West Bengal, it was not enough to import poll personnel, poll observers and paramilitary security guards from elsewhere, one must also import voters from other states.

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