South Asia

Who says communism is dead in Bengal?

  • 12 May 2011
  • From the section South Asia
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Is Mamata Banerjee more communist than the communists she is expected to dislodge?

The rabble-rousing street-fighting Trinamool Congress leader is poised to near-singlehandedly unseat the party which has ruled West Bengal state for 34 years without a break. All exit polls point to a rout when ballots are counted on Friday - anything less will be a major loss of face for polling agencies and journalists.

Supporters of the tireless Ms Banerjee - and vast sections of the media who love her earthy charisma - say she has led a remarkably spartan lifestyle by the standards of Indian politicians. Ms Banerjee lives in a modest two-storey house near a stinking canal in a rundown, lower middle-class Calcutta neighbourhood, and dresses and eats simply.

She has been a "super-inclusive politician", gaining the support of peasants, intellectuals, the urban jobless and the working class - precisely the alliance the communists managed to forge before their hold on power began unravelling a few years ago. During protests over the Tata Nano in 2008, Ms Banerjee struck to her guns, demanding that land acquired for a factory to make the world's cheapest car be returned to farmers. The row forced the Tatas to move production out of West Bengal and make the car elsewhere.

Ms Banerjee's war cry - vote for 'Ma-Mati-Manush' (Mother, Land, People) - is primordial in a way the communists would love. Her aim has been to outdo the communists in their rhetoric and ideology, say analysts.

Trinamool Congress leaders have been pushing her left-wing credentials. One of them openly declared in a TV debate that Ms Banerjee was the "actual communist". A party candidate calls her the "only true Marxist in Bengal now". He blamed the Communist Party for supping with the bourgeoisie, a label which still thrives on the street corners and in the coffee houses of Calcutta. Even Ms Banerjee said on her 200-meeting poll campaign that all communists were not bad, "only some were".

So is Ms Banerjee the "Real Red", as a friend calls her? The dividing line between populism and communism, many say, can sometimes be very thin. The Communist Party might get a temporary burial in West Bengal after the results tomorrow. But is communism dead? Even Ms Banerjee may beg to differ.