Communists ousted in Indian election

Voters in India's politically important Bengal state have taken revenge on politicians they viewed as corrupt and voted in a populist leader.

Trinamool Congress Party supporters, covered in green paint to show their party allegiance, celebrate outside the residence of the leader Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata yesterday, after she crushed the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) at elections, taking 200 seats to the latter's 70. Jayanta Shaw / AFP
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KOLKATA, INDIA // The world's longest-serving democratically elected Communist government came to an end yesterday with a crushing defeat for India's Marxists in the West Bengal state elections.

The Left Front government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), has ruled the state uninterrupted for 34 years, but has recently faced a surge of popular anger at the stagnation of the economy and a series of violent attacks on villagers.

The results showed a huge swing to the Trinamool Congress Party, led by the populist figure of Mamata Banerjee and allied to the ruling Congress party in New Delhi. It took 200 seats compared with the CPI (M)'s 70.

Ms Banerjee addressed an ecstatic crowd - many of them splattered with green paint to show their party colours - outside her Kolkata home. She said: "This is the victory of the democracy, it is the victory of the people. This is a second independence day for Bengal."

Results were also announced in three other state elections yesterday.

There was more bad news for the CPI (M), whose government in Kerala narrowly lost out to the Congress party.

The most damaging result for the central government was in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress-allied Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party was almost wiped out by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in a vote that was widely seen as a referendum on recent corruption scandals. A member of the DMK, the former telecoms minister A Raja, has been charged with underselling mobile phone licences at a cost of US$39 billion (Dh143.13bn) to the exchequer. He is currently in jail awaiting trial.

In the north-eastern state of Assam, the incumbent Congress party swept to a resounding victory, which Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister, credited to his success in containing numerous separatist insurgencies that have plagued the state for more than 20 years.

But it was the result in West Bengal that has the widest implications for India. Much of the Communist defeat has been blamed on two infamous incidents in the towns of Nandigram and Singur between 2006 and 2008, where government attempts to acquire land for the construction of chemical plants and a Tata car-maker factory met strong resistance from local villagers.

In December 2006, members of the CPI (M) were accused of raping and burning to death a teenage girl involved in the agitation at Singur. Three months later, 14 people were killed at Nandigram when police opened fire on protesters.

The towns quickly became symbolic across India for the growing rural resistance to industrialisation, and Ms Banerjee skilfully positioned herself as a champion of the movements.

It was a dramatic fall from grace for the Marxists, who had carefully cultivated a reputation as the defenders of the poor and oppressed. For decades, the party rode a wave of popular adoration for the radical land reforms it introduced shortly after coming to power in 1977. Under a policy known as Operation Barga, the government distributed thousands of acres of surplus farmland to landless peasants, breaking the grip of feudal landowners and creating a new class of propertied peasants. The party combined this with a widespread decentralisation of power to village councils and the introduction of new agricultural techniques - particularly a high-yield form of rice known as "boro".

"The impact of all these measures was witnessed in later years, particularly during the period from the mid-1980s to 1990s, when the state recorded the highest rate of growth of agricultural production in the country and rural poverty diminished dramatically," said Buddhadeb Ghosh, a former civil servant and now senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences in Kolkata.

But after the initial rush, the reform movement began to stagnate.

"By the time it was elected for the second term, the Left seemed to have exhausted all its ideas," said Mr Ghosh. "From 1982 onwards, its major aim was to stay in power."

There were further problems to come when India began liberalising its economy in the early 1990s.

"The opening up of trade meant an end to subsidies from the central government on things like fertiliser and diesel," said Abhirup Sarkar, a professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. "It also led to increasing competition from foreign markets like Thailand."

By the turn of the century, 14 per cent of those who had been given land under Operation Barga had abandoned it in search of employment elsewhere. But there were few opportunities to be found.

A combination of militant trade unions, unscrupulous employment practices and efforts by the federal government to undermine its Communist opponents had led to a steady decline in West Bengal's industrial sector.

Since the 1980s, it is estimated that 56,000 factories have closed across the state, forcing hundreds of thousands into precarious occupations as rickshaw pullers, cleaners and other unregulated parts of the informal sector.

While the state's GDP has continued to tick along just below the national average - buoyed by a modest IT sector that employs only a small section of highly educated graduates - it has been overtaken by the southern states where the bulk of India's recent services boom has been focused. West Bengal has also amassed huge debts, estimated at close to US$44 billion (Dh162bn) at the end of last year.

Underlying many of the government's failures were disastrous attempts to reform the social character of the state, particularly through education. "The party abolished English from the curriculum of primary classes and tried to replace the popular textbooks by books written by academics loyal to the party," Mr Ghosh said.

"Its textbook projects were criticised as an attempt to brainwash children with Communist ideas."

Although these measures were later abandoned, the CPI (M) became a victim of its own success in politicising and organising its members. CPI (M) cadres and unions infiltrated almost every sphere of political and social life. Loyalty to the party became more important than merit and qualifications, with adverse implications for everything from theatre groups to its once-renowned universities, and even the health sector.

"Eighty per cent of the pharmaceutical market in West Bengal consists of unscientific, irrational and even banned drug formulations," said Jana Swap, the joint secretary of the Health Services Association, an advocacy group in Kolkata. "But because the drug companies do deals with the doctors' unions, and because they are affiliated to the party, the government doesn't do anything about it."

Many are sceptical that the Trinamool Congress will be able to reverse the state's decline, despite Ms Banerjee's promise to "make Kolkata look like London very soon". But there is hope that an end to partisan politics will at least free the state from the stifling control of party loyalists.

"Trinamool has its partisans like anyone," said Prof Sarkar.

"But I expect better governance, not because it's more efficient but because its organisation can never be as powerful as the Communists were."