August 31, 2011

Cry of the comrades

TNN,  Aug 14, 2011, 04.00AM IST

All hell didn't break loose after the change of guard in West Bengal as the Left had predicted. The sun did shine after May 13 when the comrades found themselves relegated to a poor double-digit figure (62), and the last 10.03 pm metro from Esplanade was packed with men and women like it was the day before.

Banners changed from red to green (the Trinamool's favoured colour), indicating shakeups in the para rickshaw and bus unions. Local party offices that served as nuts and bolts to the "CM to LCM (local committee member)" command structure, running parallel with the administration, found themselves out of sync. And the men and women who ate and drank power for 34 long years in cosy collusion with the local police became targets of Trinamool Congress in select city pockets - from Jadavpur to Beliaghata, Kasba to Sealdah and Maniktala.

Even Left-dominated bodies that used to mobilise consent in favour of the government of the day, carving out ideologically-suitable policies, were suddenly under threat. Elected student representatives in some of the city colleges - Asutosh, St Paul's and Thakurpukur - were forced to resign while some of the nominees in the Left-dominated college governing bodies were unable to enter the institutions.

"The ruling Trinamool Congress occupied one local committee office and 13 branch offices in these areas," says the CPM's Kolkata district secretariat member, Kallol Majumdar. "Seven trade union offices affiliated to Citu have been locked from outside. In some places, party members were threatened and beaten up when they refused to fall in line. Local Trinamool councillors led the attack in St Paul's College, Thakurpukur College, Asutosh College, and forced the SFI union representatives to resign."

Such was the concern that the chancellor of all state universities, governor MK Narayan, in a written directive on June 14 asked varsities to refrain from making fresh selections at all levels and stop nominating people to governing bodies till further orders.

Yet there is no public outrage. People at large do not seem concerned with the much-touted assault on "democracy", a cry coming out loud from a CPM left in the opposition. A substantial number views it as just an attack on the "party-dominated mechanism" that ran roughshod over the state all these years. Worse is the scene in the villages - the traditional political minefields of Bengal - spread over Hooghly, Burdwan, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas. Then there are the three troubled districts of Jangalmahal - West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura - where CPM activists are on the run. Most of the CPM-managed panchayat offices are locked and deserted, even those in an area from where CPM strongman Anil Basu won the 2004 Lok Sabha polls with a record one lakh-plus margin.

According to CPM insiders, if things continue like this, the party will have a tough time fielding candidates in the 2013 panchayat polls. The party's North 24 Parganas leader Amitava Nandi says "supporters are staying outside their home. Their complaints to the police are not being entertained".

CPM leaders in Alimuddin Street, the party's nerve centre, are busy re-energising the party committees down to the unit level of which at least 30% has become defunct. To begin with, the party has planned a series of showdowns in front of the Legislative Assembly and Parliament in August. "We are now holding party committee meetings at various levels, organising protests at local levels. We will hit the streets after the monsoon. Prior to that the party will hold a three-day meet at Alimuddin Street beginning August 20 to identify the issues and chart out our future course," says CPM state secretariat member Gautam Deb.

But that's easier said than done. After such a long stint in power, the Bengal CPM still could not mobilise public opinion on issues like abnormal price rise - this, despite falling field prices of vegetables, even paddy. People do not take the official Left line seriously on these things anymore. "The CPM's legacy of mass movement became blunt long ago with its desperate overtures to continue in power. The party identified some of these factors in 2010 after the Left debacle in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. But we could not engage with the masses. We need to begin from scratch," a senior CPM state committee member said.

Perceptions vary over what course the strategy should now take. For instance, a minor section in Alimuddin Street still hopes to gain by targetting the Mamata Banerjee government, telling people the goodies that the Left Front government handed out. Others, however, want the party to build movements against the "anti-people policies" of the Congress-led UPA government and "expose Mamata Banerjee's double standards."

With the organised movements in factories and tea gardens becoming weak, and the Left students' movement losing its sheen, the CPM is confronted with the phenomenon of identity politics - in the Darjeeling Hills as well as the plains. "We do not expect to regain support in the Hills in the near future. At the same time, our party can't associate itself with Bengali chauvinist organisations such as Amra Bangali in Siliguri. We have to try and address the concerns of all ethnic populations and nationalities such as Nepali, Rajbanshi, Lepcha, Bhutia," says CPM state committee member and former minister Asok Bhattacharya.

Former land and land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Molla feels that the Left movement in Bengal can't revive without broadening its fold. "The Left Front made history. But this formula won't work if we can't expand the Left family and come out of our old practice," he says. In tatters and demoralized, it will take a while before the comrades can come out of the pit they have dug themselves into.

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