Discontent heats W. Bengal vote

Key rural support for Communists shows signs of eroding as May 10 election approaches.

Abir Biswas has seen the truckloads of flag-waving Communist supporters trundle through his village, followed by convoys of V.I.P.s and carloads of reporters. He has seen the smile on his mother's face, a smile of gratitude for Communist policies that have distributed land to the poor, improved the roads, and brought electricity to her simple West Bengal farming town.

But Abir Biswas does not share his mother's enthusiasm. For him, 24 years of Communist-run government in West Bengal has meant a continuation of the decay that has beset this once-proud state for decades.

"This government hasn't satisfied my dreams," says the young commerce major at a local college. "Industry was here, but now it's gone, and I'm having trouble getting a job. I want a change."

For a quarter of a century, the state government led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) could count on the support of rural voters across West Bengal, a group that made up 75 percent of the state's population. But if opinion polls are any gauge, Communist support is eroding rapidly as a May 10 vote looms.

The roots of voter discontent go deep, into Bengal's bedrock sense of its cultural place in the world. And while leftist officials and supporters have begun to change their tactics and rhetoric, promising foreign investment and more compliant trade unions, it is clear that West Bengal's voters are relishing their first tight election race in a generation.

"This is what the Left didn't reckon with," says Rudrangshu Mukherjee, editorial editor of the Telegraph, the leading newspaper in Kolkata (as Calcutta now calls itself). "If you give rights and land to a family of sharecroppers, they'll be grateful to you. But the sharecropper's son, he is no longer thinking of himself as a sharecropper's son. His expectations are higher, and there is no opportunity to meet them."

Into this harvest, ripe with discontent, comes a highly popular, but unpredictable opposition leader - Mamata Banerjee.

Part street fighter, part schoolmarm, Ms. Banerjee has been a fixture of the anti-leftist political scene for a decade as head of the state Congress party. In 1996, she broke away from Congress to form her own Trinamool (literally "grassroots") Congress Party.

Building on a firm base of urban middle-class voters weary of the government's tight focus on class-war issues like land reform, Banerjee has pushed far into an area that the Communists have long considered their bastion: rural Bengal. Her ideology is almost indistinguishable from the Communists, however, with promises to create 500,000 jobs in Bengal and to improve urban and rural education.

What will mark the difference between a Trinamool and a Communist government, she says at a recent rally of 6,000 supporters in the southern town of Baruipur, is honesty. "It is time for a change," she declares. "The Communists have injured me in several years of politics. Their police goons have injured my back, my hands, but still I am on the job, because I have the desire in life to remove the CPI-M from West Bengal."

Her fighting rhetoric has been mirrored by occasional pre-election violence across the state in the past six months. In Bengali districts like Midnapore and Keshpur, for instance, dozens of Trinamool supporters have been killed in the past six months by criminals with alleged ties to the CPI-M. But thuggery is not restricted to the left, police say. Last week in Keshpur, 54 armed Trinamool supporters were arrested after "firing indiscriminately" at a pro-leftist village.

The Communists are campaigning on their list of achievements, such as redistribution of land to the peasants, improvement of sewers and electrical systems in Kolkata's harshest slums, and introduction of free education from K to 12, along with the creation of colleges of engineering, medicine and information technology.

And when it comes to creating jobs and attracting foreign investment, Communist leaders are singing a tune that would make Wall Street capitalists swoon. Indeed, while Trinamool talks of creating half a million new jobs, the Communists are talking of cutting regulations, reining in labor unions, and shutting down "sick" state-run factories.

"We have told our workers, we have to improve productivity and improve quality, otherwise we can't survive," says Buddhadev Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI-M, speaking in an interview at his headquarters in Kolkata.

He acknowledges that his party largely ignored the decline of urban industries, while southern cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad prospered, attracting and creating major computer software firms. "We are late starters ... in attracting foreign investment, but we are trying our level best."

For Arindam Roy, a farmer's son, such talk gets his vote. "The Communists help the people," he says at a CPI-M rally of 7,000 voters in Bongaon.

But for some Bengali up-and-comers, the Communists' embrace of the free market comes a little too late. At a student canteen at Kolkata's prestigious Presidency College, Zaad Mahmud, a political science student and firm CPI-M supporter, admits that Kolkata and Bengal have declined over the past century and says the left could have done more to stop it. "When we went abroad we used to brag about Kolkata," he says. "But to speak of everything was good in the old days is wrong. There was good in culture and literature, but there was also slavery in rural areas. There was education for the elite, but there was also famine. At least that has stopped."

While this election may be a harbinger of future economic times, some of the cultural elite say it could also determine whether Bengal takes the forefront or coasts on past glories. "When the British came as colonizers that was the worst of times for India and the best of times for Kolkata," says Mrinal Sen, a top film director. "The problem is that we started dropping names like Rabindranath Tagore (the Nobel winning poet) and Satyajit Ray (the modern film director), as if that would be good enough. As if I am the extension of that great name, even if I am doing nothing."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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