KOLKATA: A small rural village some 170 kms from here was yesterday a focal point for journalists covering the final stage of regional assembly elections that are expected later this week to end 34 years of often-brutal rule by the Communist-led Left Front government in the state of West Bengal. [MAY 13: See COMMUNIST DEFEAT ]
Four months ago, armed cadres (activists) from the main communist party, the CPI(M), shot and killed nine people during a mass demonstration in the village against young men being taken away to be taught how to handle guns. (Some of the shots were fired from the roof of the local CPI(M) leader’s large house – right.)
The journalists – I was one of them – were there, in Netai village, to check that there was no sign of unrest before polling takes place in the area tomorrow. Paramilitary forces patrolled the roads and nearby densely wooded countryside, known locally as jungle, and the area was tense with little of the noisy electioneering that has been happening elsewhere in West Bengal.
Netai is near Lalgarh, a town in West Midnapoor district that became famous in 2009 when it was occupied by armed Maoist Naxalite rebels. The Naxalites had taken over the area from CPI(M) cadres and were then themselves ousted by security forces. The Indian government had till then had done little to halt the Naxalite advance, which had spread across a third of India’s remote and forested areas; but it suddenly became concerned that the rebels had conquered a semi-urban area so close to Kolkata.
Since then, there have been repeated armed clashes between the different groups, and with violent gangs belonging to the Trinamool Congress (TMC), West Bengal’s main opposition party that will almost certainly be running the West Bengal government by the end of this week.
The mass demonstration staged by the villagers of Netai against theCPI(M) illustrates how tired the people of the state are of being squeezed between the warring forces. Campaigning for the Congress Party in the state two weeks ago, India’s home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the CPI(M) had “encouraged its cadres to acquire arms and spread violence” and had created a “killing field”.
People are equally tired of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government which, after some pace-making land reforms 30 years ago, has become a cruel self-serving and corrupt administration that ignores the developmental needs of the people.
“We want peace and an end to terror,” I was told two years ago when I visited the state during India’s general election. Yesterday, a villager in Netai told me: “We have no proper drinking water, no deep well and the health centre does not function.” The local primary school was inadequate. Netai is in a prosperous multi-crop agricultural area but with a dusty un-made dirt road linking it to Lalgarh and inadequate basic amenities, the people cannot progress.
This is typical of the lack of development in villages across West Bengal. The electorate first showed their opposition to the CPI(M) and its aggressive ballot rigging in India’s 2009 general election when, for the first time in 30 years, they voted heavily for the TMC and the national Congress Party.
The election count takes place on Friday May 13, and the Left Front is expected to be routed after high voter turn-outs of over 80%. The forecast is that it will collapse from 235 seats in the 294-seat assembly to below 100 and possibly to below 70. [May 10: Exit polls published this evening support these forecasts]
That would be a devastating blow for India’s Left, which is also expected to do badly in assembly elections in Kerala, its only other power base.
But no-one I spoke to in West Bengal over the weekend expected much better performance from the TMC, whose fiery leader, Mamata Banerjee (see poster, right, by Netai memorial)is known more for her sharp temper and egotistical control of the party than for being able or willing to focus on basic development issues. She is currently India’s railways minister, a job she has largely ignored because of her focus on West Bengal politics
In 2008, she led opposition to a $35m Tata Motors car plant at Singur near Kolkata, saying she was saving poor people’s agricultural land being used for industry. That proved a good political slogan which has helped her build up her winning political base, but it did nothing for development and Tata is now making its (not very successful) tiny Nano car in Gujarat. A year earlier, a battle between the Left Front and TMC for control of another area at Nandigram led to a proposed chemicals special economic zone moving elsewhere.
West Bengal urgently needs industrial development to adjust its agricultural-skewed economy so, assuming she wins, Banerjee will need to find a way of sanctioning new industry projects without upsetting the rural poor.
She could do this by deftly providing villages like Netai with the basic amenities they lack, while implementing compensation packages that adequately secure a future for those who have to move to make way for industry.
She won’t find governing easy. To begin with, her supporters are expected to wreak vengeance on CPI(M) cadres for past violence, and some observers forecast a killing spree that Mamata might decide should run its course. Then her policies will be opposed by the CPI(M) politicians and by the many bureaucrats who have enjoyed a lazy lucrative life over the past 30 years.
No-one is forecasting a sudden change for the good after the election results are announced, but at least there will be change – and that for the people of West Bengal is a step forward.