West Bengal: An invigorated Left seeks to make a comeback
A resurgent Left in West Bengal has managed to revive its grassroots base and regain the confidence of the voting public
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Rupak Ghosh (name changed) was only 15 when he was picked up by the police for allegedly having links with Naxalite groups and detained with no formal charges pressed or any trial for 43 days in 1970. West Bengal was under President’s Rule at that time after the fall of the second United Front government.
The police would come into any neighbourhood and randomly detain young men, who, they thought, could be Naxalites or sympathisers. Ghosh lived with his parents, three elder brothers and two younger sisters in Beliaghata in East Calcutta. It was in Beliaghata that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sat on a hunger strike towards the end of British rule.
The Beliaghata of the 1970s was known more as a hotbed of Naxal insurgency and fake encounters. Several young men were killed in those encounters and their bodies dumped in Subhas Sarovar, close to the area. Fortunately for Ghosh, his name was not added to the list of those killed but those 43 days in prison changed his life forever.
Since then, he has been actively involved with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — CPI(M). He helped build up the party’s fledgling organisation in the area that became its political bastion for many years, before its electoral defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections.
Fast forward five years to the Assembly elections of 2016. Rajib Biswas is the candidate for the Left-Congress alliance against Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman Paresh Pal. Ghosh is back in familiar territory once again, organising electoral rallies and writing festoons and programmes. “I was moulded by that experience (of being put in jail). Whatever I do, I do it because of my love for the party,” the former government employee said.
Just a few months after the 34-year-long rule of the Left Front collapsed in 2011, hundreds of thousands of mid-level party workers switched sides to join the ruling dispensation of the Trinamool. Even a former CPI(M) candidate from Mamata Banerjee’s Bhowanipore constituency switched sides. Commenting on the trend, a senior member of the party said in a closed-door meeting in 2012: “When the foundation of a building weakens, it takes the whole building down with it, no matter how strong the upper levels are. The same thing happened to the CPI(M)’s organisation.”
Ghosh echoed his comment. He said: “Over the last five years, the party cadres completely lost their fighting spirit — this spirit differentiates any regimented Communist organisation from a Rightwing force. But now we see party cadre and members actively creating barricades against the atrocities of the Trinamool, its syndicate and goonda raj once again.”
At the time of writing this report, five of the six phases of polling have been completed in West Bengal and a glance through any newspaper bears testament to the CPI(M) and the Left Front’s resistance and resurgence against the Trinamool’s “vote loot and rigging” as party cadre call it —be it in Mangalkot in Burdwan district or among the tribal-dominated outskirts of Salt Lake near Kolkata. In most of these instances, women led the charge.
“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,” Che Guevara wrote in his diary. While it would be foolish to equate the CPI(M) with the revolutionary ideals of Cuba’s favourite adopted son, most of the cadre that have remained in the party since 2011 are driven by a feeling of passion for the laal jhanda (red flag). Many of them don’t understand the dialectic or classical Marxist theory, the intellectual debates in AK Gopalan Bhavan in New Delhi or Muzaffar Ahmed Bhavan in Kolkata. But the love for the party is ingrained in their psyche.
‘Having rid itself of the excess lumpen flab and degenerate elements who had entrenched around the party during the three decades of incumbency, a leaner and ideologically motivated Left Front has been successful in reclaiming the grassroots connect and regaining the people’s confidence’
Take Rajib Mistry, for example. According to a report in The Telegraph on April 26, "Noor Ali Mistry was keen to become the CPI(M)’s polling agent and had mobilised a crowd for several rallies in his village. Suspected TMC goons hacked him to death. Hours after he had finished the last rites, 22-year-old Rajib Mistry took his father’s place at booth No. 56 in Mahishgodi High School in Haroa, North 24-Parganas. Determined not to allow any false votes or rigging, Rajib left the booth only once — to have his lunch of chapatti and jaggery..."
Another report in the same newspaper on April 22 goes like this: “Domkol is no stranger to violence but none in the Murshidabad subdivision could answer when a 15-year-old girl kept asking while running: ‘Aamaar abba kothai? Aamaar abba kothai?’ (Where is my father? Where is my father?) Tuhina Khatoon’s father, Tahidul Islam, 40, lay lifeless, blood oozing from his mouth, the image of the first poll-day victim in the ongoing Assembly elections playing on television screens. Bombs were hurled at Tahidul, a CPI(M) worker, who lost his balance and fell. He was then hacked to death by alleged Trinamool activists.”
Undeterred, people from the area and the district — a traditional bastion of the Left and Congress where the TMC is still a fledgling force — came out in large numbers to vote. This kind of fearlessness during the Naxal insurgency and Siddhartha Shankar Ray government’s State-sponsored violence between 1972 and 1977 has entered folklore in West Bengal. The defiance would draw an aura around the CPI(M) and discussions in tea-stalls and office kiosks about the resurrection of the CPI(M) now harp on similar sentiments towards the party.
Said Ghosh: “The alliance with the Congress has paid dividends. It has made party cadres and activists realise that they are not alone in the battle to re-establish democracy in Bengal. People can vote for whoever they think will do that and our target is to mobilise the votes.”
Once decimated in rural West Bengal, its traditional support belt, the CPI(M) has seen a huge resurgence in its fortunes since the turn of the year. Rallies and gatherings are choc-a-block full, graffiti bearing the hammer-sickle-star are being seen in areas where the Trinamool has established its dominance, polling agents are taking their places in the booths in the face of ruling party violence.
Moreover, the emergence of a strong youth base has also helped the CPI(M) gather much-needed momentum. Three former and present Students’ Federation of India (SFI) leaders are contesting the elections — Shatarup Ghosh from Kasba (where he lost in 2011), Madhuja Sen Roy from Tollygunge and Kaustav Chatterjee from Behala (West). Their rallies and street-corner meetings are drawing a large number of young faces who had deserted the party once. These youngsters are taking charge of campaign rallies, social media campaigns and holding their own against more experienced politicians on television debates.
Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s rally in support of Madhuja, Shatarup and Sujan Chakraborty (candidate from Jadavpur and former SFI leader) drew thousands of youngsters. The 19-km-long route took three hours to traverse, such was the huge turnout.
CPI(M) leaders couldn’t help but flash wide grins following the magnificent success of the rally. They feel that the tide is finally turning in their favour.
Debraya Mukhopadhyay, a CPI(M) activist, wrote on his post in Bodhi Commons: “More recently, the BPMO Jatha organised by the Left Front from a mass-organisation platform, which targeted having rallies and protest marches in each and every booth of the state, has been a tremendous success. The people, afraid of displaying dissent and earning the ire of the TMC government, rallied in unprecedented numbers when they saw the red-flag rallies in their localities. Having rid itself of the excess lumpen flab and degenerate elements who had entrenched around the party during the three decades of incumbency and stagnation (most opportunist elements have switched allegiance to TMC in the four years since 2011), a leaner and ideologically motivated Left Front has lately been tremendously successful in reclaiming the grassroots connect and regaining the people’s confidence.”
Soumya Chattopadhyay, former president of the SFI unit of Asutosh College, believes that a more flexible CPI(M) has scripted the turnaround for the party. “Pablo Picasso was once asked by reporters why he would choose communism over other ideologies. Picasso, as we know, was never into direct politics but he spontaneously replied that he preferred communism because he wanted to be a ‘better human being’! The youth of Bengal, who were rigorously pushed to believe how badly the CPI(M) had done in 34 years (70 per cent were not born during this time) have witnessed the Trinamool’s atrocities over the past five years. And it is very essential for them to believe what they actually see and not lament about what they haven’t. The rigidity of the CPI(M) has shifted a bit, which is important to adjust with the time, if it has to survive. This was unheard of in the late 2000s in the party and they have learnt from their mistakes,” said Chattopadhyay.
Much of the credit for the resurgence in West Bengal belongs to new CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra. Having come up from the ranks from the local committee and panchayat levels, he is well-versed on the nuances of cadre mobilisation. He has brought back the regimentation that separated the Left from other political entities in the country — much of which had broken down during Biman Basu’s tenure as state secretary before and after the fall in 2011.
“Mishra has managed to instil a sense of belonging and fearlessness among the lower rung of the party. He has led every agitation — Nabanna abhiyan, Lalbazar abhiyan — from the front. He has visited village after village and gave party workers confidence in the leadership,” said Rohan Dutta, a party worker from north Kolkata.
Debraya agrees with this evaluation. “Mishra has changed the attitude of the party and its activists — from playing the victim to taking more pro-active control. He has set a ‘come what may, we are winning’ tone,” he said.
Much of the party’s appeal to the youth also rests on Surjya Kanta Mishra. “Mishra’s appointment was a generational shift for the party. From holding rallies to visiting terrorised villages, his presence acted as a morale booster. Places such as Birbhum where Trinamool strongman Anubrata Mondal has created a hostile atmosphere, suddenly saw the CPI(M) emerge from the shadows and hold rallies and meetings. The defeated CPI(M) had turned into an ‘Opposition,” said Bihan Sengupta, a DYFI member.
A strong Opposition is the need of the hour for West Bengal. A strong Left Front and Left movement led by its biggest mascot in West Bengal —the CPI(M) — is necessary in the face of constant attacks from the Hindutva brigade. Political observers are certain that the resurgence of the CPI(M) in its traditional stronghold can spell good news for the future of the country.