Communist defeat and land disputes dominate Indian politics
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 – http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/Tagged in: corruption, India, India state elections, politics, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal
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