When Buddha Did Not Smile: Monobina Gupta

This is a guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA

Buddhadeb with Tata building as backdrop, courtesy Calcuttans.com
Buddhadeb with a laterally inverted Tata as backdrop, courtesy Calcuttans.com

As the true magnitude of the West Bengal election results sank in, a sulking Buddhadeb responded, stonewalling the media as if to say that had it not been for them the Party would have romped home victorious! Here is a conversation reported in The Telegraph (May 18,2009). The reporters in Writer’s Building asked the Chief Minister:

Is it true that you have offered to resign?

No reply.

Will you step down as chief minister owning moral responsibility for the party’s debacle?

No reply.

Why didn’t you go to Delhi to attend the CPM politburo meeting?

No reply.

Silence has rarely been so eloquent in the corridors of Writers’ Buildings as when a grim-faced Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee walked out at 1.30 pm for lunch at home.
Faced with a volley of questions whether he had offered to resign, the Bengal chief minister left without replying. The Telegraph had reported that the chief minister had offered to resign but CPM boss Prakash Karat had been trying to make him change his mind.

This is not the first time Bhattacharjee has faced tricky questions but he usually deflects them by saying “I don’t reply to questions flung at me from the corridors’’.
But this afternoon, he opted for silence.

16th of May 2009 was a day of unmitigated disaster for the CPI-M as it stood stark and bare, stripped of its arrogance at one stroke. Or did it? As the election results started pouring in, the Party’s angst grew by the minute. Slammed with a total rout in the state it has ruled without a credible opposition over three decades, the CPI-M slipped into total shock. The Left Front’s total tally in West Bengal crashed from 35 in 2004 to 15.  In the other Left stronghold Kerala the voters punished an endlessly squabbling CPI-M leadership, pulling the Left Democratic Front down from 18 to 5 seats. By noon the party was wobbling, having lost more than half of its 2004 tally. In 2004 with 63 MPs the Left Front was the third largest bloc in the Lok Sabha. Now it slipped to the eighth position with a bunch of 24 MPs.

Suddenly all the campaign-time muscle flexing by the top leadership, particularly the CPI-M general secretary, seemed empty political acrobatics. According to the ‘script’ the Left Front was supposed to have emerged the coveted king makers who would set a high price for lending their support. Instead the CPI-M offices suddenly went quiet. On Alimuddin Street a hush descended as the stunning defeat yanked the ground from under the CPI-M’s feet. The last time the ruling Left coalition had lagged behind its rival was two decades ago in the 1984 elections, held amidst a wave of sympathy for the Congress, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.  In 2009 no sympathy wave was crisscrossing West Bengal; rather, a storm of anger was raging through its length and breadth. Anger, steadily mounting since 2006, had built up like a dam waiting to break through. No longer with its ear to the ground the CPI-M had expected the elections to throw up a tough fight but not a rout by a stretch; a brittle contest but definitely not a Waterloo.

Decades of over confidence, arrogance and a contemptuous dismissal of Mamata Banerjee’s leadership had blinkered the Party’s vision; it could not feel the depth and extent of the tremors leading to the upheaval. Or if it did it, the Party showed little recognition of the danger that lay in wait.  The results showed up the leadership in Delhi and in West Bengal in a dismal light. Prakash Karat, the man instrumental in pulling out support to the Manmohan Singh government a few months before the general elections, seemed like a clumsy political strategist, a far cry from his predecessor Harkishen Singh Surjeet, a past master at this game. The Congress rode to power with 201 seats, the highest any single party has notched up in 25 years, leaving a despondent BJP straggling behind. The third front Karat was relentlessly harping on had nothing tangible to offer. And within 72 hours Mayawati and Deve Gowda, the two key players of a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative, were offering unconditional support to the UPA government!

With defeat blazing on the walls CPI-M leaders one by one appeared on television channels wearing contrived smiles. But as the full impact struck forced pleasantries disappeared. The desperate act of putting up a cohesive, brave front was dispensed with. The Bengal unit raised an accusing finger at the top office of the Party, that of general secretary Prakash Karat. A clamour of criticism rose and for once no efforts were made to drive the dirt underground. From the sudden slackening of discipline, a loosening of the tongue, it was clear the Party had been stabbed where it hurt most: West Bengal had finally moved into the electorally ‘vulnerable zone’.  Not knowing how to accept such a sweeping defeat gracefully the CPI-M clung to misleading statements, pretending that Nandigram-Singur had never happened. On the eve of the results, bragging nonchalance the CPI-M leaders had declared they were used to sitting in opposition and unlike any other political formation, that the CPI-M was a cohesive Party, not prone to falling apart under adverse electoral impact.

But that was exactly how it panned out. Strange statements poured out of Alimuddin Street. Without the slightest qualm, Biman Bose, Left Front chairperson, laid the blame squarely at A K Gopalan Bhawan, more specifically on the doorstep of Karat’s office. The cue came from Somnath Chatterjee, the expelled leader, when he said that the ‘narcissistic’ central leadership needed to behave in a more mature fashion. Chatterjee seemed to square up with Karat who had summarily expelled him.

There was little doubt that Karat had made a mess with his inflexible ‘no support to a Congress-led government’ chant, his efforts to gather around him a motley group of people who shared little or nothing in common barring the lure of power. In fact the origin of that mess dated back to the time when the CPI-M withdrew support to the UPA government protesting the Indo-US Civil Nuclear deal after having stood by the coalition four and a half years. Unlike what Karat later tried to make out, it was not the Congress’ neo-liberal policies that prompted the decision. After all Buddhadeb was pursuing the same policies and much more violently, with undiminished blessings from his general secretary and politburo. At the heart of that decisive Nuclear Deal row seemed to be a clash of egos. The CPI-M general secretary made it an issue of brinkmanship between him and Manmohan Singh; maybe that was where Chatterjee’s ‘narcissistic’ bit came from. Karat dragged his Party, a reluctant West Bengal unit down an uncertain if not suicidal path even as Jyoti Basu cautioned restraint. Interestingly the Nuclear Deal that had impelled the CPI-M to such a drastic move never figured prominently in the 2009 general election campaign!

The decision to vote against the UPA government had a cascading effect on West Bengal. Teaming up with the Congress, Mamata Banerjee turned the heat on the ruling CPI-M. For once, the Left Front was forced to deal with a formidable opposition. Had the alliance not come about, people of West Bengal, angry and fed up with the establishment, may once more have been left high and dry-nursing their failed hopes of a possible change. If the CPI-M had escaped the drubbing it would have only been by sheer default. But the leaders in West Bengal would not be caught saying so; instead they shot off remarks playing down Nandigram-Singur and passing the buck to A K Gopalan Bhawan. Suddenly the Left Front’s nemesis seemed to have been an incoherent third-front, not its own arrogance and misrule. Losing the elections heavyweight MPs hit out at Karat, reviving the old Bengal Vs Centre debate.

The names on that list of losers spoke volumes about the people’s lack of confidence in the CPI-M and the Left Front.  Hannan Mollah, who has been winning the Uluberia seat since 1977 lost, as did Tarit Topdar, six-time MP from Barrckpore, Roopchand Pal, six-time MP from Hoogly which includes Singur assembly segment, Amitabha Nandi, CPI-M’s state committee member and two-time MP from Dum Dum. Kabir Sumon, the mesmerizing singer and Trinamool Congress candidate from Jadavpur, written off as a political featherweight defeated CPI-M’s Sujon Chakraborty The CPI-M’s muscle man in Tamluk, Lakshman Seth, the eye of the Nandigram storm lost. So did Mohammad Salim, the Party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha from Calcutta North. Salim was banking on Muslim votes. The results indicated that Muslims, a traditional support base for the Left, had shifted loyalties to the opposition. After all who could forget the CPI-M’s brazen handling of the Rizwanur Rehman case- the Party’s murky collusion with Calcutta’s top cops, three of whom have been indicted by court; or the data supplied by the Sachar Committee on the status of Muslims? With a 25.2 per cent Muslim population, the Left Front government over 32 years had provided just 2.1 per cent of government jobs to Muslims. West Bengal had the worst record of all Indian states in this respect. With 9.1 per cent Muslims Gujarat’s government employees include 5.4 per cent Muslims.

The 2009 elections provided the burgeoning mass of the betrayed and the disillusioned with an opportunity to retaliate effectively through the ballot box. It had to have taken more than withdrawal of support to the UPA and incoherence of a non-existent third-front to throw up such a resounding defeat.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and is working on a book on the Left and contempoary Bengal politics.

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