Calcutta goes to the polls

The world’s longest-ruling communist government looks likely to be returned to power for another five years in West Bengal. They have been in power for 29 years now — and it looks like there’s no reversing the red tide for now. As a Reuter’s report said: “Communists draw middle-class vote in West Bengal”.

Elections are being held over five days — today was only the third day — other parts of the state will go to the polls on May 2 and 8. But Reuters is already saying the communist-led Left Front coalition of leftist parties is looking forward to a seventh straight term in office in this eastern Indian state of 80 million people. Nearly 50 million are voters and the turnout was as high as 80 per cent on the first two days. I am sure the polling stations saw the same large crowds today when 12 million people were eligible to vote in Calcutta and two neighbouring districts for 76 seats in the 294-seat state assembly.

One reason for such a high turnout must be that people believe in exercising their right to vote.

But though the state has been voting for the communists for such a long time, it does not mean everybody is a communist. There are people who are not seriously interested in politics at all. But many of them may vote for the communists because they have ensured law and order.

And people respect Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the gentlemanly, culturally inclined Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader with a spotless reputation who became chief minister of West Bengal in 2001.

He is a breath of fresh air after Jyoti Basu, the former Marxist chief minister.

Basu, who was chief minister from 1977 to 2001, is one of those leftist aristocrats. He was accepted as a leader, I suspect, partly because he belonged to the communist party in Britain when he went to study law there. Those colonial/Western connections count even among the communists in India. He was born well, married well, and his son did well under his rule even if the rest of the state did not.

West Bengal fell behind other states during the long rule of Basu. But the communists were far better organised than the other parties. They did good work in the villages and controlled the administrative machinery in the state.

Still, they faced a serious challenge in  2001 from a breakaway faction of the Congress party — which was out of power then but now runs the federal government in Delhi.

The communists still won the 2001 elections. That was the last time the state police forces, controlled by the communist state government, guarded the polling booths.

This time federal police forces have been deployed for a fairer election.

But this is an election the communists are expected to win fair and square. Because the new chief has done good work for the state.

Calcutta boasts new shopping malls, new apartment complexes. There are new jobs and investments. Someone visiting Calcutta for the first time may see it is a dusty overcrowded city with little remarkable about it. But we who were born and raised in Calcutta know how much it has changed since the bad old days of Jyoti Basu. That in itself deserves a vote of thanks.