Communist defeat and land disputes dominate Indian politics

John Elliott

Mamata wins WB May 1111 275x300 Communist defeat and land disputes dominate Indian politicsIt’s been a great few days for hyper-activity in Indian politics, but whether it will lead to much improvement in the way that different parts of the country are ungoverned is hard to say.

The headline event of the week was supposed to have been today’s state election results, in which West Bengal’s communist-led Left Front has been decisively ousted from power after 34 continuous years of mostly undistinguished rule. Tamil Nadu’s regional DMK party, which has been using India’s telecom and other ministries as a multi-million dollar ATM machine for much of the past decade, was swept from power, and there were mixed results elsewhere.

However, the week’s scene-stealer was Rahul Gandhi, the 40-year old heir apparent to the leadership of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty and the Congress Party, and to the prime minister’s job. He jumped on a motorbike at 3.30am on Thursday morning and rode to Greater Noida, a satellite city on the edge of Delhi, where he joined villagers in a “sit in” protest against land acquisition until he was briefly arrested some 20 hours later.

His jaunt switched public attention from the election results to next year’s assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where Noida is located. Gandhi is staking his as-yet unproven political abilities on restoring the Congress Party’s poor standing in UP, and to do that he needs to rival Mayawati, the current Dalit (“untouchable” in the caste system) chief minister, as the champion of the poor and under-privileged.

Together these events have brought Mayawati and two other regional women leaders into the spotlight – all temperamental, controversial and determined. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee (above), leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that she broke away from the Gandhi’s’ Congress in 1997, achieved the overwhelming victory that was widely expected, winning 227 of the  assembly’s 294 seats and reducing the Left Front from 235 to just 62.

In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha Jayaram, leader of the regional AIADMK, swept the DMK from power with her biggest ever victory, winning 202 assembly seats against the DMK’s 32. Jayalalitha has had an extravagantly self-indulgent and corrupt reputation when she has been chief minister twice in the past (1991-96 and 2001-06), but she has run effective administrations. She has also not indulged in such extensive nepotism and plundering of the central government coffers as the family and associates of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the outgoing chief minister, when they have been India’s ministers for telecommunications, environment, shipping and other departments.

The events have also underlined the importance of India’s most urgent and inflammatory social and political issue – the use of agricultural land for industrial and other projects. Banerjee built her political platform in West Bengal opposing land being used for a Tata Motors factory at Singur and a chemical complex at Nandigram.

The villagers’ protest that Rahul Gandhi joined is over the price they and others are receiving for land that will be used for private sector townships to be built near new UP highways.

India’s coalition government, presided over by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, last year failed to move ahead with new legislation to set down basic land acquisition and compensation rules for projects. So while Gandhi was aiming his protest at Mayawati and her UP state government, he was in reality protesting against his government’s failure to move ahead with the new laws.

Overall, the Congress Party has not come out well from today’s election results. It is in alliance with Banerjee in West Bengal and she will offer its assembly members posts in her government, but she will demand a consequential greater representation in the national government’s cabinet and will not be an easy partner. In Tamil Nadu, Congress was in alliance with the crushed DMK. In two other states’ elections, an alliance of parties it leads in Kerala won by a far smaller margin than it should have achieved, and only in Assam did it do well.

The focus will now be on how Banerjee, a populist street fighter with no real administrative experience, runs West Bengal. It is an agriculturally rich state where there has been growth of software and other service industries, but infrastructure and other investment is urgently needed. The rural poor, who have been largely ignored for years by the Left Front,  need development of basic services and an end to violent clashes between the Left and TMC gangs.

“This is a new independence day for West Bengal….it is not for me – it is a mission of the people,” Mamata, as she is generally known, said tonight. Let’s see.

A slightly longer version of this article appears on John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog –

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  • Justin P. George

    It’s not accurate to say that Mamata will be emboldened by this victory. If anything, the federal government may not have been strengthened, but it certainly will not be weakened by these results. For one Mamata needs the financial and political backing of the federal coalition given the kind of mess West Bengal is in. Far being demanding, Mamata may become more accomodative. Another factor in the Congress’s favour is that Tamil Nadu’s DMK party and its MPs will not whimper till the next national elections given the party’s hopeless performance.

    In effect, the federal government can breath easier with Mamata focusing on West Bengal and the DMK on surviving.

  • Rit Nanda

    Overall a fairly accurate account of the political scene in India. But having taken a keen interest in the West Bengal polls, I think you are wrong in saying that Mamata will use her party’s ‘Trinamool Congress (TMC)’ lead over ally Congress for insisting on a greater proportion of power at the Centre.

    TMC, or for that matter DMK, are essentially regional parties that represent West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively. While DMK fussed over their allocation when the Cabinet was formed after the 2009 Lok Sabha (National Parliament) Elections, TMC focussed solely on winning this regional election and was happy with a single portfolio of Railways. 

    Now that the victory has been achieved, the question to be asked is of governance. Mamata is a street-fighter who, in my personal opinion, has limited administrative capabilities. Much of the success or failure of this government will depend on juggling the demands of the farmers vis-a-vis the industries. The real work would have to be done by people like Amit Mitra (Secretary General, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI)) and Manish Gupta (formerly a top bureaucrat of the state), who defeated the incumbent state Finance and Chief Ministers respectively. Mamata will, however, be the Chief Minister and be the face of the government.

    The loss of DMK is also a good riddance after their MP, Mr. A Raja, denuded the national exchequer to the tune of $40 Billion. That they had won two consecutive elections in the state of Tamil Nadu was due to the fact that Jayalalitha got her alliances wrong in the last polls.

    Regional elections have never garnered so much attention nationally before. Three governments have fallen (in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) while one has been swept back to power by record margin (Assam). The underlying factor in all victories is good governance which represents a coming-of-age of the Indian democracy which earlier voted to power based on caste and religious considerations.

    The biggest loser in these elections were the BJP and the Left Front as neither fared well while the biggest gainers were TMC and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. The biggest issue, as you have pointed out, was the land acquisition and how to achieve a balance between agriculture and industry. And the biggest success was the Election Commission of India, who conducted free and fair elections which witnessed record turnout in all the states.

  • Pulak Mukherjee

     Yes its one of the misrule of Left Front but there are many other factors which are being disliked by people of Bengal answered by Maa Mati Manush in a decent democratic way.   

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