Saturday, May 16, 2009

[UPDATED 5/17/09] Indian Election Flash: West Bengal

I wrote recently that an electoral wake-up call for the Left Front in West Bengal would be good for the progressive political space in India. As it turns out, West Bengal's voters appear to have delivered far more than a wake-up call in the parliamentary elections: although results aren't official yet, the Left Front appears set to record its worst Lok Sabha performance in decades, with (according to NDTV) the core constituent party -- the CPI(M) -- on course to record its worst performance since its very first election. In the wake of Nandigram and Singur, the wheel has certainly turned: today it is the CPI(M) that is associated with the cause of urban, pro-private enterprise voters, and the Trinamool Congress that has taken up cudgels on behalf of the small farmers the CPI(M) first took for granted, then brutally tried to shunt aside in Nandigram and Singur. The ripple effects have ranged far and wide, beyond those two districts (the fact that the anti-CPI(M) vote wasn't split between the Congress and Trinamool this time around surely helped), and the CPI(M) will know it is in for the fight of its life as far as the 2011 state assembly elections are concerned. The party machinery remains formidable, and it has recovered from setbacks before, so the two Congress parties would be well-advised not to celebrate prematurely, but come 2011, the CPI(M) will surely face its toughest test yet. The interesting question in the run-up to those elections is what lessons the Left Front will draw from its 2009 electoral disaster (nationwide, it is on course to win fewer than half the seats it won in 2004), and whether the Nandigram/Singur aftermath has permanently tarnished its chances of going back to its pro-rural poor stance. I suspect not beyond the two directly affected districts, but only time will tell. But one thing is clear: if the Left Front is to hold on in West Bengal two years from now, another ideological contortion is called for. That should make the members of the party's Politburo happy; whether it gladdens the heart of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the foremost capitalist among the comrades, is another matter. Already there are rumors that the knives might be out in the politburo for "Brand Buddha" -- the Left's post-election maneuvers promises to be more exciting than anything in its election campaign.

May 17 UPDATE: It would, however, be premature to write the Left Front's obituary in West Bengal. While the Trinamool Congress increased its voter-share from a little over 21% in 2004 (see here, pg. 126; the party's abbreviation is "AITC") to over 31% in 2009 (select "West Bengal" in the drop-down menu here), a stunning 50% shift, that is still less dramatic than its seat gain, from 1 in 2004 to 19 this time around (and that vote-share was almost certainly helped by the fact that the Congress and Trinamool pooled their resources in the 2009 elections). And the Left Front remains the political formation with the largest vote-share (although the point made above, about Trinamool and the Congress joining forces, could be read to mean that the Left's premier position is artificial: the combined vote-share of Trinamool and the Congress was quite close to that of the Left in 2009; select "West Bengal" in the dropdown menu here).

No comments: