The Left and Elections in West Bengal*

May 18th 2011, C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh

This is clearly an important moment in Indian politics. The dust has still not settled in the five states where elections to the state assemblies were held, but their impact is already reverberating across the country. Not just the elections in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry, but even by-election results (as in Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh) may turn out to have national significance for the course of both politics and economic policies at central and state levels.

The two states where Left Front governments were in power have captured the bulk of media attention. And within that, the focus has been on West Bengal, not only because of the importance of Left politics in that state for the Left movement in the country as a whole, but because the Left Front government there had managed to win elections for a record seven consecutive elections. In Kerala, where incumbent governments have been ejected by voters every five years for nearly four decades, the vote was extremely close and the incumbent Left Democratic Front very nearly made it back to power. Indeed the victory of the opposition may well be seen as Pyrrhic because of the likely instability of the future UDF coalition government.

Across the board, it is the Left's loss of state power in West Bengal which is being widely seen as the most devastating and full of portent for the future. Interestingly, this view seems to be shared by both opponents and proponents of organized left parties in the country: that this huge loss shows that the people have decisively rejected the Left Front government, and that the major left parties in the country (such as the CPIM and the CPI) will find it impossible to recover from this massive defeat. In some quarters this is being celebrated; within the Left, there is a sense of desolation and anxiety; in other quarters, more dispassionate observers are concerned about the lack of the moderating power of the Left in preventing a national rightward lurch particularly in economic policies.

Mainstream media responses have contributed to this by talking about ''the death of the Left'' and similar stereotypical responses. But how much of this is actually justified by the voting patterns that have been revealed in the latest elections? There is no question that the Left Front government has been handed a resounding defeat, with most Ministers losing their seats and the seat share of the parties involved in the coalition falling to one-third of the former strength in the Assembly. Chart 1 shows the number of Assembly seats held or implicitly garnered by the Left Front in successive elections since its historic seventh victory in 2006. It is clear that there has been a very significant, even dramatic, decline.

Chart 1  >> Click to Enlarge

But note that the number of seats gained in 2006 represented an extraordinary achievement: 80 per cent of Assembly seats (well over the two-thirds majority) claimed by a government that had already been in power in the state for three decades. This is an achievement unparalleled in independent India, and probably anywhere in the world. It is rare to find a democratically elected government that retains power for a second or third term. When this happens anywhere else in India, the mainstream media are quick to declare it as a victory for good governance, though they have always been much more grudging of Left victories. That the Left Front government in 2006 was able to retain power to garner a record seventh term and even add to its tally of Assembly seats compared to 2001 indicates that it had an appeal among the electorate that was both unprecedented and remarkable.

Some would argue that the sharp decline in the number of seats thereafter suggests that the government then squandered this advantage. Certainly the causes for the decline can and will be analysed threadbare inside and outside the various parties that formed the Left Front government. Many factors must have played roles, of which the poor handling of the policy of land acquisition for industrialisation is the one that is most commonly cited. The proactive coming together of all sorts of disparate and otherwise conflicting political elements at both centre and State level, with the sole aim of dislodging the Left from its bastion, was also definitely important.

But the combination of complacency and exhaustion that can be created by 34 years of uninterrupted rule should not be underplayed either. This combination was evident to many external observers. Of course it was then rudely shocked by the experience of the 2009 general elections. But it may be that the subsequent attempts at political revival among Left supporters were too belated and inadequate to cope with what is only a very natural human desire among the people for political change, even if the nature of that change is unpredictable or problematic.

But does this mean that the people of the state have decisively rejected the politics of the Left? A detailed look at voting shares provides a more nuanced understanding. Chart 2 indicates that even in this latest Assembly election, when the verdict of the electorate appears to be so decisive against the incumbent government, the Left parties still managed to garner more than 41 per cent of the votes. This is still no mean achievement for a government that has been in power for nearly 35 years.

To put this into perspective, it should be noted that most state governments in India are holding on to power on the basis of much smaller vote shares, generally well below 40 per cent. This includes the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh (whose position appears much more tenuous after the Kadapa by-election) and the Congress-NCP coalition government in Maharashtra. This also includes the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar, which is the mainstream media's current favourite and is being portrayed as a model for Mamata Bannerji to follow. It is only because politics in West Bengal (as in Kerala) is much more polarised between two contending groups that the first past the post system does not generate parties that can come to power with relatively small shares of the vote.

Chart 2  >> Click to Enlarge

It may be more surprising that in terms of the actual number of votes polled, the Left Front has significantly improved upon its performance in the 2009 general elections, and has even come close to the number of votes it managed to get in its record-breaking seventh victory in 2006. Chart 3 shows that in this Assembly election, the Left Front managed to attract nearly 1.1 million additional voters compared to 2009. Not only was the Left Front vote in 2011 very close to that in 2006, this increase was almost equal to the extent by which the Left Front had fallen short of the votes of the TMC-Congress combine in 2009.

This helps to explain the optimism that was evident among Left party cadres just before the results were declared. This may partly reflect the disconnect between the parties and the people, as a result of which they did not anticipate the electoral debacle. It can also be partly understood when it is recognised that in fact many more people actually did come out to vote for Left parties than had done so in 2009.

The disconnect partly comes from the fact that the party cadre apparently did not anticipate that many more people would turn out to vote for the opposition. Overall there was a significant increase in the number of votes cast overall between 2009 and 2011, of nearly 4.8 million votes according to the Election Commission's preliminary estimates. This was in part because of a 3.7 million increase in size of the electorate, i.e. new young voters, and in part because voter turnout increased sharply. The difference in this election is really that the opposition combine of Trinamool and Congress parties managed to swing a much larger share of these new voters to vote for change in government.

Chart 3  >> Click to Enlarge

Chart 4 >> Click to Enlarge

Chart 4 shows that of the additional votes cast, the Left Front managed to get less than a quarter, and that nearly three-quarters accrued to the Opposition combine. It is also worth noting that more than half the new voters were women. Firstly, the number of women on electoral rolls increased somewhat more than men; and secondly, more of them voted than before. While the male voting percentage increased from 82.3 per cent to 84.4 per cent, the female turnout went up from 80.3 per cent to 84.5 per cent, exceeding male turnout in a state where traditionally voter turnout amongst women voters has been much less than among men. This is obviously a major aspect that the Left needs to introspect on.

Whatever one may think of the result, there can be no denying that this shows that Indian electoral democracy is among the most vibrant in the world.

Obviously none of this changes the basic reality of this particular state assembly election - that it has involved a major defeat for the Left that may have far-reaching implications. But it can by no means be taken as showing that there is massive dimunition in Left support among the people of West Bengal. Certainly it is not just premature but downright wrong to write off the Left as a major political force. This result too is likely to have a significant bearing on how politics evolves in the state in future.

* This article was originally published in The Businessline, 17 May, 2011.

Print this Page


Site optimised for 800 x 600 and above for Internet Explorer 5 and above