The results of the Lok Sabha elections proved far itchier for India's communists than did the scorching May heat in smouldering West Bengal. Not since 1977 had the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front experienced such an electoral debacle in the state. By the time it was all over, the CPI (M) tally plummeted to nine out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal; while the party's left allies – the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) – won just eight seats among them. All the rest went to the opposition: sticky days, indeed.

In the last three years, Bengal has had two elections – the State Assembly polls in 2006 and the recently concluded elections to the national Parliament. In the former 294 seats were up for grabs; in the latter, 42. This time around, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the poster boy for India's Marxists, seemed to have lost the support of the proletariat and the middle class once and for all. Instead, he was devoured by the revolution – from agriculture to industry – that he had been trying to bring about in West Bengal, a state that has long been considered industrially backward compared to other Indian states. It was in the early 1990s that former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu took the first step for industrial revival. But after Bhattacharjee came to power at the end of 2000, after leading the Left Front to victory, he decided to make Bengal's industrial revival his central agenda. The real push eventually came in 2006.

This strategy has now backfired. Under Mamata Banerjee, a rejuvenated Trinamool Congress destroyed the red bastions, winning 19 parliamentary seats all by itself. In addition, Trinamool ally the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) picked up a seat, while the Congress, which likewise contested as a Trinamool ally in West Bengal, won six more. Ultimately, the Trinamool and the Congress together have won nearly 190 out of the 294 seats that comprise the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.

This was precedent indeed. Over the past three decades, the only time that the opposition has ever done well against the CPI (M) was in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. At that point the Congress, riding on a wave of sympathy, won 16 out of the 42 seats. Coming three years after the CPI (M)'s resounding win in the 2006 assembly elections (and two years before the next round of state polls), the recent debacle clearly indicates, if nothing else, a considerable erosion of the Marxist support base in the state.

Today, it seems clear that it was the very land-related issues that catapulted the Bengali communists to power in the first place – in 1977 – that did them in during the recent polls. If it was the land reforms that made the CPI (M) acceptable to the rural masses three decades back, it was the policy of forcible land-acquisition for industries that alienated it from its base this time. Of course, that was not the only obstacle the left was facing. Added to the land issue has been the high-handedness, corruption and arrogance of the Marxist apparatchiks in the panchayat system of local governance; as well as what's known as the Cadre Raj, or the use of coercion to serve individual and party interests. Together, these gave birth to widespread misgivings, alienating the CPI (M) mandarins from the people and leading to suspicions of the credentials of what was once a 'pro-poor' party. The current crisis in Lalgarh, in West Midnapore District, where an Adivasi rebellion has been spearheaded by the Maoists against CPI (M) cadres, is indicative of this discontent. It was only after the intervention of central security forces that some semblance of law and order was restored.

Political anti-acumen
In 2006, Bhattacharjee led the communists to a massive victory, winning 235 out of the state's 294 assembly seats. At that time, he came to power on a raft of promises: creating a new work culture, pushing agricultural growth, creating employment, improving the state's education and health system, and setting the grounds for an industrial resurgence. But while many at the time supported his slogans – of a state leaping from agriculture to industry – little did the rural masses realise that this industrial growth would eventually happen at the cost of forcible acquisition of their lands.

With Bhattacharjee sounding the siren of industrial growth, industrialists and investors quickly made a beeline to Writers' Building, the state secretariat in Calcutta. There, the trouble began. Naturally, the state government now required lands on which the industrialists could set up their new factories; but, it realised, it had no land bank of non-fertile lands for distribution. No problem: euphoric with the sudden flow of investment, the government simply began to acquire lands indiscriminately to hand out to the industry heads.

Resentment began to brew quickly among the people, with the land acquisition as a catapult. Simply put, the three decades of rule and continuous poverty of the rural areas had created a foundation of disillusionment that had been bottled up too long, due to the culture of coercion; this was now seeking outlet. With Mamata Banerjee soon leading a firebrand movement against forcible land acquisition, the situation snowballed into a major crisis. But the chief minister hardly seemed to notice. Still riding high from his 2006 mandate, Bhattacharjee invited Ratan Tata to set up his new Nano factory at Singur, in Hooghly District. For this, the state government forcibly acquired nearly 1000 acres of fertile land. The peasants protested, and Banerjee quickly jumped into the paddy fields.

Even in the midst of these massive uprisings, Bhattacharjee seemed oblivious to the eventual political ramifications. Indeed, even before the Singur agitation could die down, the chief minister had already moved again. This time the focus was Nandigram, in East Midnapore, where the state government wanted to allow the Indonesia-based Salem Group set up a chemical hub over 14,500 acres of land. As in Singur, Nandigram erupted, with villagers cutting off road access to prevent the entry of government officials. Banerjee again joined the agitation, and succeeded in giving it a national dimension.

Instead of retracting and soothing the frayed nerves of the peasants, however, Bhattacharjee sent in police and cadres. In Nandigram on 14 March 2007, a pitched battle broke out between the latter and the villagers that ultimately left 14 people dead. Public protests now broke out throughout the state, with intellectuals taking to the streets of Calcutta. Worse still, the left's allies condemned the state government's actions. Bhattacharjee was embarrassed, and quickly announced that no land would be taken in Nandigram. One lesson did finally seem to have sunk in.

Meanwhile, Singur continued to burn, and peasants continued to agitate furiously. Banerjee announced that no Nano would roll out from Singur factories unless lands were first given back to the peasants who did not want to be part of the government plan. Caught in the middle of the political crossfire between Bhattacharjee and Banerjee, Ratan Tata packed off from Singur in 2008. Local communities savoured their victory over the state apparatus – particularly over Bhattacharjee and his industries minister, Nirupam Sen.

Naturally, that was a terrible time for Bhattacharjee. He was not only up against a strong opposition leader in Mamata Banerjee, but was also facing flak from his left allies and even a strong section of his own party comrades in the state secretariat. His only solace was the unstinting support from politburo colleagues, particularly CPI (M) General-Secretary Prakash Karat and West Bengal State Secretary Biman Bose. But the damage had already been done. The two land-related agitations at Singur and Nandigram, in 2006 and 2007, were to seal the collective fate of the CPI (M) and Bhattacharjee. The rural masses had lost faith in the 'pro-poor' party – as was reflected in the early-2008 panchayat polls, during which the CPI (M) suffered jolts in East Midnapore, South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Uttar Dinajpur, Murhisdabad and Malda. For anyone paying attention, the panchayat results, coming a year before the Parliament polls, showed that the writing was very much on the wall.

Forget the base
If the forcible land acquisition had not been enough, another revelation seemed to weaken the CPI (M)'s command over the Muslim vote. Muslims make up more than a quarter of the state population, and had long been a crucial vote-bank for the party. But the Rajinder Sachar Committee report of November 2006, which studied the condition of Muslims throughout the country, was damning, concluding that over the last three decades very little had been done for the minorities by the communists in Bengal. The Muslims reacted strongly, and some of the imams in Bengal began to call for the community to leave the CPI (M) for the Trinamool in the parliamentary polls. This was to prove to be a particularly lethal blow, given that south West Bengal has 31 Lok Sabha seats compared to north West Bengal's 11 seats – with the Muslims forming a considerable chunk of the population in the former. (Overall, the Muslims constituted some 19 percent voters in the state.)

Other bedrock constituencies have also been rocked. Since 1977, the Bengali opposition – the Congress and the Trinamool – has remained largely comprised of urban political parties. The communists, with their strong presence in the rural belt (which has almost 260 of the 294 Assembly seats), had remained unassailable. But it is this constituency of the left's that has been tottering, and into which Banerjee has been able to make inroads throughout the state. Since the Lok Sabha debacle has come two years before the assembly elections in Bengal (due in 2011), this is being read as an ominous sign for the communists.

Finally, there are also a few pertinent similarities between left defeats in West Bengal and other Indian states during the 2009 elections. It is said that the withdrawal of the left's support from the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre in 2007 – over the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal – damaged its image among urban voters both in West Bengal and Kerala. If Bengali communists had their land-acquisition problem, the infighting and corruption charges against the party bigwigs seem to have seriously affected the fortunes of the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. The tussle between Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and the Secretary P Vijayan divided the party and frustrated the voters. The result? The LDF suffered a serious blow at the hands of the Congress-led coalition, the United Democratic Front (UDF). The Marxists, who won 18 parliamentary seats during the 2004 Lok Sabha election in Kerala, could manage to win only four seats this time around.

Still, in the aftermath of the historic 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it is the Bengal phenomenon that is most worrying for the Indian left. It is this formerly Marxist state, after all, that is the first slated to go to assembly polls, two years hence.

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Himal Southasian