Populist threatens to end Bengal's Communist era

Associated Press
In this photo taken April 27, 2011, an Indian Muslim voter waits outside a polling station during West Bengal state assembly elections at Sherpur, 52 kilometers (32.5 miles) south from Kolkata, India. Even as the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe turned to capitalism, the Communist Party has held onto power here. But after 34 years, the state of West Bengal may be about to get a makeover. The state's poverty-weary population, hungry for change, has been captivated by populist firebrand Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress Party as they campaigned in state elections. (AP Photo/Sucheta Das)
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A statue of Vladimir Lenin draped in rose garlands looms over West Bengal's capital, circled by hammer-and-sickle flags hanging limp in the tropical damp. But the longtime Communist state in east India may be about to get a makeover.

West Bengal's poverty-weary people, hungry for change, have been captivated during recent elections by populist firebrand Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party is predicted to unseat the Communist Party of India-Marxist for the first time in 34 years when voting results are announced Friday.

The Communists have been blamed for turning West Bengal into a land of labor strikes, industrial stagnancy and agricultural malaise, where India's cultural capital of Kolkata is crumbling and all progress but the creep of the jungle has stalled.

The Communists admit they have made some spectacular policy gaffes. For years, the party maintained a ban on computers in banks for fear they would take away jobs. And it eliminated English classes in schools — a humiliation for Kolkata, the city once called Calcutta that was home to the British Raj from 1772 to 1911, Nobel laureates Mother Teresa and poet Rabindranath Tagore, and internationally acclaimed novelists and film directors.

"We are conscious of our weaknesses, the lackadaisical approach, the arrogance," Mohammed Salim, a party leader, said. "We are learning from our mistakes."

But for many Bengalis, the time for soul-searching is over, and the Communist contrition comes too late. Kolkata today is a far cry from the sculptured gardens, marbled memorials and university campuses the British colonial rulers left in 1947.

Many Bengalis today feel ill-prepared for the 21st century and are fed up with a Communist-led administration beset by corruption and industrial strikes tacitly approved under the Communists' pro-worker policies.

In 2006, the entrenched Communists seized 235 of the 294 state assembly seats and tried to revive industry with a plan for Tata Motors to build its ultra-cheap Nano car in West Bengal.

But Banerjee helped stymie the plan by mounting violent protests against what she called arbitrary and forced land acquisitions by the government to secure land for the Tata factory. Once a small-time campaigner, Banerjee's popularity soared after she was beaten up while leading one such protest. Tata took its factory to another state.

Banerjee's simple white sari, rubber flip-flops and angry denunciations have helped make her an instant friend of the poor, who throng to her rallies in colorful campaign caps and affectionally refer to her as "Didi," or big sister.

What she is now promising West Bengal's 91 million people sounds otherworldly: five-star resorts along the mangrove-tangled coast, a second Switzerland at the foot of the Himalayas and development to turn decaying Kolkata into the London of the East.

She insists industry will be a priority — an apparent effort to calm investors after her protests drove Tata away. In her current job as national railways minister, she has showered the state with project funds and pledged to build factories, industrial parks and rails stations here.

"For the first time, I am inspired by politics. Bengal needs change," said Kolkata garbage forager Janeswar Bera, 64. "Didi wears sandals, she lives a simple life. She is like us."

But the 56-year-old Banerjee, who boasts of her poetry and paintings, also raised eyebrows by reportedly selling nearly 100 of her crude canvasses for more than $200,000 in just four days last month. Many were bought by wealthy businessmen, who insisted they were not trying to buy influence with the political front-runner. Her campaign, in cooperation with the nationally governing Congress Party, has also drawn Communist ire for using expensive helicopters to ferry big-shot politicians to remote rallies.

The Communists say their Left Front bloc will win the vote regardless, like the seven before, thanks to a strength that draws as much from India's own political legacy as from Karl Marx.

"Since we first won in 1977, the opposition has been harping on the Leftists going out," said Salim, the party leader. "The people know better. The future of India is not safe without the Left."

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed strong socialist leanings that were written into the Constitution and reflected in programs promising work and education to the poor. His daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was staunchly pro-Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In earlier days in West Bengal, the Communists — who also run southern Kerala state — had delighted many by distributing land to the poor and providing the underprivileged a kind of social dignity they had never experienced.

"The land people received wasn't much, but it had a fabulous psychological effect," said economist Abhirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Institute.

The traditionally atheist Communists are also credited with nurturing communal peace — no small feat in a country divided by clan loyalties, caste divisions and religious animosities.

"Hindus and Muslims live here together with no religious bias and no riots. I worry there may be violence again if the Communists are voted out," said a Muslim shopkeeper in majority-Hindu Kolkata.

But in lieu of communal violence, there have been hundreds of political killings on both sides — especially as the economy foundered.

Agriculture suffered when national market reforms brought international competition, and industry crumbled amid a Communist-fostered culture of labor strikes. West Bengal's share in Indian manufacturing fell from 13 percent in the 1980s to just above 2 percent today, but it was still home to 60 to 80 percent of India's strikes between 2007 and 2009, the economist Sarkar said.

Society, meanwhile, became politicized with party workers swapping favors for support: taxi licenses for votes or bank loans to campaigners.

"The Communists are probably the least corrupt party nationally," said Suman Chattopadhyay, editor of Bengal's local newspaper "Ek Din," or "One Day." ''But in West Bengal, absolute power corrupted absolutely."

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