[Reader-list] News from West Bengal elections 2006

Tapas Ray t.ray at vsnl.com
Thu Apr 27 14:38:45 IST 2006

Dear all,

Calcutta is voting today in the five-phase West Bengal Assembly elections, 
and I cast my vote first thing in the morning. This election has been billed 
in the media as unprecedented on account of the Election Commission's tough 
approach and parallels have been drawn with the last Bihar election which 
unseated Lallu Prasad Yadav, so some of you living outside West Bengal may 
be interested in getting a glimpse of it. Since Ramaswamy has already given 
you some information, I thought I might jump in with my two-bit.

It was a pleasure today to see that the streets around the booth were not 
full of noisy, exuberant "party boys" as before and the situation inside 
seemed orderly as well. Less than a year ago, while casting my vote in the 
municipal elections, I had seen an agent inside the booth openly order 
polling officials not to check the identities of voters too closely, so as 
to "save time". The other agents, who were presumably representing rival 
candidates, said nothing. The officials complied.

After coming out of the booth, I had complained about this to two leading 
figures in the CPI-M unit of my locality, making it clear that I did not 
know which party/candidate the agent concerned was representing. However, 
these gentlemen had sprung to his defence, saying that indeed if identities
were to be checked meticulously, voting would go on for far too long.

It was good to see one of these gentlemen stand in queue with the rest of us 
today. I want to make it clear that I have nothing personal against him - in 
fact, I am grateful to him for having saved me from being beaten up by some 
goons one day many years ago, when he and I happened to be travelling in the 
same bus (by coincidence) and a nasty situation developed.

Having said that, I would like to make a few points regarding Ramaswamy's 

> Now the party is realising that this section has become redundant. They 
> cannot do anything on
> election day. It is the people who will vote you in or out, so one better 
> work for and with the
> people.
> As the criminal-lumpen section is redundant and thus unnecessary, they can 
> also be dispensed with,
> and the deep toll taken by this nexus can be cast out.

I think it is too early to say the above. For one thing, there is no 
guarantee that elections will be held in the same manner as today in future, 
hence these criminal-lumpen elements may be needed later. Moreover, they are 
needed not only on voting day but throughout the year, to maintain the 
party's "hold" on people. This hold is not always ovious in relatively 
affluent neighbourhoods like mine, but comes out of the closet at times. An 
example may be appropriate here.

A little over two years ago, I was put in charge of a branch campus of a 
college that is being set up in my neighbourhood. The building was being 
constructed by a contractor, and we (the college authorities) had nothing to 
do with the procurement of building material. However, at one stage, a local 
CPI-M "boy" who supplies building material to builders, started visiting the 
site and pestering us to force the contractor to buy sand, stone chips and 
timber from him. (We were to learn, later, that he had also started using 
the construction site for pleasure at night.)

He said "the party" (CPI-M) had asked him to "look after" our campus. I 
called the local municipal councillor (of the CPI-M) to report the matter. 
She said he was misusing her party's name, promised to tell him to stay away 
from us and advised me to report the matter to the Chairman of the 
municipality (also of the CPI-M), which I did. For good measure, I called a 
senior functionary of the CPI-M local committee (commonly known as LC in 
West Bengal), who also said that his party's name was being misused but 
added, somewhat surprisingly, that I should tell the "boy" that we would 
help him get the supply contract if he could get a writen recommendation to 
that effect from him (this functionary). When I flatly rejected this 
suggestion, he backed down. The "boy" came one day, touched my feet to my 
embarrassment, and apologised. While he did not come again, at least in my 
presence, he kept sending his associates, some of whom have made trouble now 
and then and we have had to lodge complaints with the police more than once.

> Something else has also emerged quite strongly. The real struggle is 
> within the CPM, between the old > guard and the new generation, the latter 
> led by Buddhadev Bhattacharya. The old guard and the CPM
> led by Jyoti Basu till 2000 (and with continuing but waning influence) - 
> is basically an enemy of
> the people and of pro-poor development, an utter bankrupt, incompetent, 
> corrupt.  And Buddhadev is
> an enemy of this. Even if one is totally against all his current 
> policies - e.g. land of poor
> farmers for foreign real estate developers, out and out embrace of 
> "capitalism", he has to be seen
> as someone doing something, anything, rather than nothing.

There may or may not be a real struggle in the party. It is probably too 
early to tell. However, if there is, it is not new and the old guard cannot 
be lumped together as corrupt. The late Benoy Chowdhuri, who was Minister 
for Land and Land Reforms, was a shining example of honesty and integrity, 
and had openly castigated his own government (then led by Jyoti Basu) for 

I would like to make the point that by giving too much importance to these 
so-called "inner-party struggles", we may be falling into a trap which the 
CPI-M wants us to fall into - to reduce politics to "inner-party struggle" 
rather than a multi-party struggle, with the rationale that the people's
aspirations can and will be met through struggles *within* the CPI-M as the 
party of the working people rather than through multiparty democracy. This 
has been the line in countries where "socialism" has won for some time.

There is a parallel with China here in West Bengal - economic 
liberalisation. I think the present Left Front Government's capital and 
foreign investment friendly policies need to be seen together with the
image of internal reforms being projected by the CPI-M to ralise that the 
intention may be to have total one-party political control (in a limited 
sense, of course, given that West bengal is within the Indian multiparty 
system) with economic liberalisation and unfettered capitalist development. 
A poor man's China, if you will.

> With the civil society and intelligentsia of the state completely > 
> compromised, co-opted and
> bankrupt,

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a (then) Soviet diplomat in 
Calcutta when the USSR was about to collapse. I forget the exact topic of 
our discussion, but do remember his response to something I had said, 
wondering why the people of the USSR did not behave in a way that seemed
logical to me. He had said that being in India, it would be difficult for me 
to understand the psychology of people in the USSR, because they had 
acquired a different mentality altogether due to Soviet rule, and political 
behaviour that was natural in democratic societies, did not come naturally 
to them. I think the same thing has happened in West Bengal, though 
naturally to a much smaller degree. Therefore, one of the main tasks for Mr 
Buddhadev Bhttacharya - assuming that he will be Chief Minister again - will 
be to change the political atmosphere by bringing back a democratic 
environment, and thus initiate a reversal of the psychological degeneration 
that has set in among large sections of the people, the intelligentsia 
included. This reversal will take time, but it's important to start it. It 
remains to be seen whether he has a taste for such thoroughgoing change.

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