THE SIGNS on the walls of Barrackpore, north of Calcutta, will not prepare you for what you’ll find inside. For the last 32 years, the sickle and the star have been firmly stamped across this town, embedded in its psyche. Red flags are everywhere — tea stalls, tree branches and far into the paddy fields. Yet, everywhere you go, the air is charged with cries of “Porivorton Chai” (We want change) — an electric phrase coined by Bengali intellectuals who once supported the CPI(M) but are now driving a political awakening in Kolkata. It was in Barrackpore that the Sepoy Mutiny began in 1857. Today, another kind of uprising is stirring.
Forty kilometres away in the CPI(M) headquarters on Alimuddin street, Biman Bose, Chairman of the Left Front, West Bengal, is grappling with a porivorton he has never known. In its worst performance since it came to power in 1977, the Left won only 15 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, 20 down from 2004. Suddenly, questionnaires are being rushed to all party district units to be circulated among workers. “The experience of those at the bottom is very important,” Bose told TEHELKA. Suddenly, the CPI(M) is reaching out. Perhaps the party knows it is the ruptures between the party and the people it claims to represent — farmers, unions, Bengal’s aam admi — that ignited such an unprecedented defeat.
Perhaps not. “It was a combination of national and state factors,” Bose says. “People were unable to grasp the concept of a Third Front. Trinamool Congress’ victory has been mainly due to the Congress alliance. People did not want the BJP to gain at the Centre. They saw the possibility of a stable government.”
Blindness to ground realities has marked the Left Front’s response to the election results. The Sachar Committee report, which “shows CPI(M) has done nothing for Muslims in Bengal,” the Rizwanur case and Nandigram only tipped a cauldron already simmering with the sense of being let down.
Blindness to ground reality has marked the Left Front’s response to the election results
Azgar Ali, 35, a rickshaw puller epitomises this sense of betrayal. “Every month, CPI(M) men come to collect chanda from me” he says. “I pay to avoid conflict,” he says. Ali nodded when asked to vote for red. Others participated in party rallies and campaigned for CPI(M)’s sitting MP Mohammed Salim. Yet, at the voting booth last month, they all picked TMC.
IF YOU travel into Barrackpore’s interiors, you begin to understand the uprising. Here, there are old faultlines, articulated by common voters — “the Rs 2 rice we get with our BPL card is inedible, and the ration card only gets us rice at Rs 22, which is the market rate. We are fed up.” And there are new faultlines deepened by the tremors from Nandigram and Singur — “the price of potatoes went from Rs 8 per kilo to Rs 17 because the Singur potato fields have been taken over.” Economists may have other explanations, but this is the voter’s perception.
The majority of six lakh voters in the Barrackpore parliamentary constituency have always voted for the Left. Barrackpore’s sitting MP, Tarit Topdar has been elected to the Lok Sabha the last six times; the 46 percent Muslim population has mostly swung in favour of CPI(M). All that changed last month. Topdar lost to Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) Dinesh Trivedi, a former Rajya Sabha Congress MP contesting Lok Sabha polls after spending 10 years in the US, an MBA degree and a pilot’s license. TMC swept this red bastion for the first time with a majority of over four lakh votes. “I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest,” Trivedi exclaimed.
The turn of events in Barrackpore have been replicated in many parts of Bengal where even TMC and Congress leaders did not expect to win — Dum Dum, Krishnagar, Mathurapur, Barsat, and Jadavpur (the Chief Minister’s constituency), all falling within what is traditionally defined as the CPI(M) stronghold. And Mamata Banerjee is not the only reason. Mamata has only come to represent what the Left was originally meant to be — the voice of the underdog, the conscience keeper. The more the Left woos Bengal’s urban middle class, the more it alienates its original supporters.
Nandigram, Singur, Lalgarh — are not the reason the masses voted against CPI(M), but they gave many the courage for defiance, to form people’s movements against their own Nandigram, their own Singur — protests against arrogant strong-arm tactics and undemocratic brute force.
The government had given them a three-month notice to move since the bazaar was to be replaced by a swanky shopping mall. They had the option of moving to another make-shift market and paying Rs 780 per square foot for underground basement space at the new complex. They asked for documents as assurance that if they moved they’d get space at the alternative market; if they paid they would get the dingy basement. No such assurance was forthcoming. They refused to budge and formed a Bazaar Bachao Committee that has delayed the mall and continues to fight a case in Calcutta High court. When Singur happened, they empathised, identified, understood that they are not alone.
In Delhi, it may be hard to imagine the impact the razing down of one market can have. But as you travel further into Seelampur village, theories circulating in the capital, such as the failed Third Front, the Indo-US nuclear deal, the TMC-Congress alliance, the supposed leadership crisis within the CPI(M) top brass, become tales from a land far away.
Pradeep Khelo, 35, was a CPI(M) partyworker for 10 years. “I liked them because they worked for the people.” Now, he’s furious. Not only has the government razed the Chandarpukur bazaar, but also, the road inside his village lies broken and incomplete. The central government sent Rs 1 crore , he says; the CPI(M) contractors took the money, and yet the road is unfinished. “We understood the CPI(M) does not have the right intentions,” he says. So Khelo and 50 others who worked to garner support for CPI(M) in 2004 decided to switch to TMC this year. Almost all the 1,420 voters in Seelampur village decided to collectively vote for change — “Let us see what TMC does in the next five years. If they don’t deliver, we will vote them out.”
Such is the voters’ passion — it’s as if this is their only weapon, they will wield it with full force, and they believe it works. In 2009, it has. Suddenly, politicians are being judged on the promise of bijli, sadak, paani and more. “We were told Muslims will get Rs 100 per month for our children’s education,” says rickshaw puller Ali. “We paid Rs 120 for forms, but nothing happened. I did not vote for the CPI(M) again.”
Suddenly, the wheels of accountability seem to be in rapid motion. For years, these wheels have not been allowed to work, “but this time we made sure there was no vote-rigging,” says TMC MP Dinesh Trivedi. “I contested in a very scientific manner. I videotaped my campaign with my cameras.”
Locals say there were double the usual CRPF and BSF men at each voting booth, “so we could vote for whom we wanted.” In Kolkata, TMC and Congress leaders swear that this level of security has been one of the major reasons why a true verdict has emerged.
But outside the safety of the polling stations, fear runs deep and wide — “what if our fields, our markets are next to be destroyed?” Fear is the one word that captures the predominant feeling the Red rule has begun to instill amongst Bengal’s locals. Fear of dissent, of being beaten, of livelihood being snatched away.
In the neighbouring constituency of Dum Dum, another CPI(M) stronghold, there is now a sense of relief. “We were in a cage, now we feel free,” says Bablu Das, 32, local garment store worker. “The CPI(M) men would force me to leave work and attend their rallies. I never wanted to go, but I had no choice.”
That is why Dilip Rai, 48, whispers when he says he did not vote for CPI(M). Rai has been part of CPI(M)’s rickshaw pullers union for the last 30 years. During the campaign, “the union men made me take them around for hours on my rickshaw, but never paid me a penny.” On the contrary, he has to pay them Rs 60 every month. Rai is afraid to leave the union since they’ll take his rickshaw away. The Rs 10,000 deposit Rai paid for the rickshaw was not to the government but to the local party office.
It is through such trade unions and professional associations that CPI(M) has permeated every sphere of life in Bengal. Though the associations are independent bodies, the presidents are usually CPI(M) leaders — the presidents of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) and West Bengal Democratic Women’s Association are both members of CPI(M)’s highest executive body — the Central Committee. But within these old structures too, the fault lines are deepening.
“This is the gan sangathan [a people’s union] the CPI(M) has always relied on,” says Pradeep Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s Congress president. “The CPI(M) thought they can manage the Nandigram and Singur crises by using their farmer unions (Krishak Sabha), but it did not work. This sangathan is cracking because people are disillusioned with the CPI(M) moving away from its own propoor policies.”
Subroto Das, 52, a clothes shop owner in Barrackpore, has been a CPI(M) party worker since 1977 because of its pro-people ideology. “I’m sad we lost, but it seems voters are getting distanced.”
ASK BARRACKPORE’s six-time MP Tarit Topdar about this sense of disillusionment, and he flares up. “How do I know you are not planted by our opposition or by US imperialist forces?” But beneath this outburst, it is easy to see his despair. He sits in a small office in Barrackpore, blowing out cigarette smoke with a heavy sigh. Topdar says. “We protected the people’s interest for four years, but could not take credit because of the break (between UPA and the Left).”
Ask whether there has been any rethink on CPI(M)’s industrialisation policy, and he offers: “Industrialisation is a pro-people move. One steel plant in Sunderbans has changed the culture of the entire district. You will not find the traditional tribal symbols anywhere.” This disdain towards the culture people are rooted in and what they hold most dear is perhaps why Buddhadeb’s brand of development has not worked in Bengal, and perhaps why the Red fortress is crumbling. All Topdar will admit: “There is need for introspection.”
Suddenly, the CPI(M) is being judged on the promise of bijli, sadak, paani and more
He knows the 2011 assembly polls are looming ahead. The Left Politburo tried to save face by calling the drop in votes “a few percentage points,” but the arithmetic spells doom.
In the last assembly elections, CPI(M) got 235 of the 294 seats. Based on the Lok Sabha election results, if state elections were done now, CPI(M) would get 42 of 294 seats, West Bengal Opposition leader Partho Banerjee told TEHELKA. This is why his party is pushing for early polls.
And this is why Topdar is leaving his cabin on a hot evening in Barrackpore, to walk around his constituency and meet those who voted him out. At the end of the road, a microphone is booming messages from the Bazaar Bachao Committee. They are meeting at the spot where the Chandarpukur market once stood.
Perhaps if Tarit Topdar walks far enough, there will be new insights.