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Mea Culpa and the Left

Omkar Goswami

In a lifetime, there are many occasions when you need to say, “I was wrong”. For some, you are only too happy to have been proven wrong. This Lok Sabha election has been one. About six months ago, like many others I believed that the Congress and the BJP together wouldn’t account for 272 seats — and wrote so on more than one instance. That was absurdly wrong. A couple of months ago, I began to think that the Congress may do better than in 2004. In a piece that I wrote recently called ‘The Good and the Ugly’ (BW, 1 May 2009) I had tried to work out various coalition scenarios with the Congress getting 175 seats. Even this has been proved wrong by a margin of 31 seats. I’m told that die-hard Congress supporters and back room boys didn’t expect much better than 175. Mea culpa. No, more correctly, mea maxima culpa. And happily so.

Hats off, then, to the country’s voters who have shown great maturity in favouring a secular, pan-Indian party and a governance that promises to deliver the future; and to Dr. Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for campaigning cleanly, honestly, without negativity and malice, and playing out a strategy that they believed in — that of development, growth and hope.

Stability, decent governance, inclusiveness, development, growth and aspirations for a better tomorrow have defined every significant electoral outcome this time around. It is not just Congress getting 206 seats, or the first occasion since 1971 when a sitting prime minister has come back for a second consecutive term. It is also about Navin Patnaik’s triumph in Orissa for the third time, Nitish Kumar’s wins in Bihar and YSR’s victory in Andhra Pradesh. And the Left’s rout in West Bengal, which is the second part of this piece.

As readers of this column will vouch, I no fan of the Left. I’ve long believed that the CPI(M) is well past its ‘sell-by’ date; and that the CPI is an even more absurd entity whose vocal power and sound-byte presence has been utterly disproportionate to its electoral performance. Like many thousands in India, I am delighted that these stubbornly backward looking antediluvian creatures have got their comeuppance; and that Comrade Prakash Karat is finally being forced to introspect.

Having said this, I wouldn’t put all the blame for CPI(M) getting just 16 seats compared to 43 in 2004 on Comrade Karat and his obstinacy. Let’s take the case of West Bengal, the party’s bastion for 30 years, where the CPI(M) managed to win just 12 seats. The fact is that people were fed up with the party. Fed up with years of non-delivery, despite all manner of tall claims regarding the growth and prosperity of rural Bengal. Fed up with the arrogance of three decades of power. Fed up with the high-handedness of the government and the brutishness of the cadre, made so apparent at Nandigram. Fed up with the complete lack of hope.

When Rajiv Gandhi spoke in Calcutta of the economic backwardness of West Bengal, the CPI(M) and the Bengalis were up in arms — their pride hurt by a non-Bengali daring to critique their imagined greatness. That’s history. Today, West Bengal is bereft of hope. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women have no avenue for employment. Industry has ceased to exist. The great agrarian revolution is a fantasy — and has done little to lift the plight of most districts. Places like Durgapur, Asansol, Medinipur, Bardhaman, Krishnanagar and Murshidabad are like ghost towns, with no job opportunities whatsoever.

The telling fact about West Bengal is that most of its districts are no different from those in Bihar. If one were to look at a household’s command over assets and amenities, the best rural district in West Bengal in 2001 (Hugli of Singur fame) didn’t even figure in the top third. And 14 of the 17 districts were at the bottom half, with six in the bottom quartile. Take any meaningful economic, social or educational indicator, and you will see how far behind West Bengal is compared to the states in the north, west and south of India. It is this hopelessness with CPI(M)’s governance — and the anger at its arrogance — that has led to the rout. Yes, Comrade Karat has helped. But I would venture that CPI(M) would have lost in a big way even if Comrade Karat were more mature.

The fact is that CPI(M) has nothing to propose in terms of creating a better future. The challenge for Congress and the Trinamool is to offer hope through sensible governance. Congress can. Mamata Banerjee must learn how to. The time has come for her to transform from being a successful street fighter to a real leader. If that were to happen, then CPI(M) may finally be history.

Published: Business World, May 2009


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