In India, communists ousted in 2 of 4 state elections

The elections in four Indian states were read as something of a 'midterm' referendum, highlighting mounting concerns over corruption and lagging development.

AP Photo
Trinamool Congress party leader Mamata Banerjee speaks to the supporters outside her residence in Kolkata, India, May 13. Counting of votes began Friday in India's fourth most-populous state of West Bengal, where India's ruling Congress and its ally Trinamool Congress were predicted to unseat a Communist-led government that has held power for 34 years.

Indian election results Friday showed renewed strength for the central government’s ruling coalition, but also highlighted mounting voter concerns over corruption and uneven development.

Allies of the ruling Congress government won regional elections in West Bengal, Kerala, and Assam, but lost in Tamil Nadu amid a major corruption scandal there and a popular anticorruption sentiment sweeping the nation. The 140 million voters from these four states – out of 29 states nationwide – represent one-fifth of India's voting population.

These state elections came several years between national elections and are read partly as a “midterm” referendum on the national government. But state politics have their own dynamics, and the mixed results suggest national corruption scandals swirling around the Congress party were not enough to trump other concerns, including lagging development.

The Congress party narrowly retained power in Assam, and also ousted the communist parties in West Bengal and Kerala that opposed some of the Congress government’s market reforms. The communists have ruled West Bengal since 1977, a period in which the region lagged behind much of the dynamic growth seen in other parts of the nation. In Tamil Nadu, however, the ruling Congress party lost power to the AIADMK party (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam).

Land rights issues hurt communist party

While pilloried for its poor economic record, the communist government in West Bengal stirred up some of its fiercest criticism several years ago when it tried to bring development to the state. The automobile maker Tata wanted to locate a factory there that would build the Nano, the $2,200 pint-sized car.

To make the project happen, the West Bengal government acquired land from farmers to turn over to Tata. However, the farmers protested the deal and eventually forced Tata to pull out. Land acquisition remains contentious in India and has held back the country’s economic progress.

Part of the problem is that land is divided into tiny plots, each of which provides a way of life and vital social security to a family. Once land is consolidated, its value immediately rises with the sum much greater than its parts since large chunks of land are scarce. Dispossessed farmers, many who have few skills beyond farming, see the sudden rise in their land’s original value and feel cheated with their compensation and bullied by government and big businesses.

The national government has been working on a land acquisition reform act, but it was shelved until after these elections. The legislation is expected to be taken up this summer.

The Tata land acquisition became a political liability for the communists, suggesting that while Bengalis want more development they favor a more inclusive approach.

Anti-incumbency mood

The communists also suffered from an anti-incumbency mood in the country, driven partly by a young generation unimpressed with the country’s political leadership. Earlier this year, corruption became the No. 1 concern among Indians for the first time since the current government took power in 2004, according to pollster Yashwant Deshmukh. He says much of the energy behind the movement comes from the youth.

These young people grew up in high-growth India, a country no longer stuck in the Third World but angling for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The corruption that has long been a part of the Indian political scene did not fit the emerging self-image of the nation.

The contradiction burst into public discussion with last year’s Commonwealth Games. The government hyped the Games as India’s chance to showcase its newfound strength on the world stage. However, corruption and poor planning marred the preparations, leading to an embarrassing scramble to finish venues on time and shoddy workmanship.

(Editor's note: The headline on this story was changed after publication.)

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