The world’s longest-ruling, democratically elected communist government has been swept out of power. After 34 years of unbroken rule, the Left Front government in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal has collapsed. A dark, diminutive woman who wears plain cotton saris and no makeup has won by a landslide.
Mamata Banerjee was not even a front-rank leader when she broke away from the Congress to form a splinter party, Trinamool Congress, in January 1998. She wanted to fight the communist-led Left Front, which had been in power in West Bengal since 1977. But the Left Front supported the Congress against the Hindu, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the Indian parliament. So she left the Congress to fight the communists. It was not easy. Her party won only 29 seats in the 2006 West Bengal assembly elections.
But now Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress have won a crushing victory. In alliance with the Congress, they won 225 of the 294 seats. The Left Front won only 63. Others took six.
The Left Front dug its own grave when it stopped supporting the Manmohan Singh government in protest against its nuclear agreement with America.
The Congress then teamed up with Mamata.
She alone had the courage to fight the communists, who dominated the state for 34 years. An entire generation grew up under communist rule. There are police officers and other state government officials who have served under no other political masters. The party office had a say on who served where. The state government – and the communist party – packed the education system with its own appointees. While the college teachers’ retirement age has been raised in other states, in West Bengal they still retire at 60 because the government can then select new teachers for appointment. The West Bengal education system is in a shambles, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, thanks to the Marxists.
(Above: Writers’ Building, seat of government, in Kolkata.)
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who stepped down as chief minister after losing the election, is respected as an honest man and an intellectual. But corruption has set in. A former communist member of parliament’s family has come under investigation for land deals and alleged tax evasion. The previous chief minister, Jyoti Basu’s son emerged as an industrialist under his rule.
Then there is official apathy. Newspapers reported how a young woman rushed to a nearby official’s bungalow for help when her brother was attacked by hooligans at night. But though she stood outside crying for help, the policemen on duty did not even open the gates. Her brother died.
There was a time when someone was killed almost every day, either in clashes between political parties or in attacks by the Maoists – insurgents fighting in the countryside who are not to be confused with the Marxists in the Left Front government.
People living in Kolkata, however, said there was law and order – and women could go about safely at night. Yes, the city was safe, but not some of the nearby towns. The boy was killed, while his sister cried for help, not far from Kolkata.
There has been some progress. New roads, flyovers and townships have come up in and around Kolkata (formerly, Calcutta). More people own cars and property. But people are better off today all over India. Kolkata, in fact, has fallen behind other Indian cities. Back in the 1960s, Kolkata was a commercial capital, second only to Mumbai. Now more investments have poured into Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Fewer international airlines fly to Kolkata. The city has declined in importance under Left Front rule.
The decline shows even in the potholed roads and broken pavements. From the state of the sidewalks and the ill-maintained, crowded, public buses, no one who can avoid them walks the streets or uses public transport. They zip around in cars. And the vehicles speed recklessly. Pedestrians are run over almost every day, usually by buses or trucks. Life has become cheap, unless you are well off. What an irony it happened under communist rule.
The corruption isn’t likely to end, whoever comes to power. The tradition of “baksheesh” or kickbacks is too deeply entrenched. But, hopefully, some of those who had it good under communist rule will be supplanted by new beneficiaries under the new regime. That’s only fair. Give others a chance![mappress mapid=”4″]