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India: Elections And The Maoists In West Bengal – Analysis

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By Nihar Nayak

There is much anxiety among political parties in West Bengal (WB) with Assembly polls scheduled in six phases, beginning April 18, 2011. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front, which won a comprehensive victory in the last Assembly elections five years ago, is clearly under pressure. It has a great deal to worry about: the growing popularity of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its alliance with the Congress, the Maoist endorsement of TMC’s policies, and its own poor performance in the 2008 local bodies’ elections and the 2009 Parliament elections. Unnerved, the Left Front has decided to go slow on its industrial policy and started campaigning against the issues of corruption and political sleaze in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre, in which the TMC is a partner. It is also seeking to expose the TMC for its links with the Maoists.

The TMC, on its part, has been apprehensive about the rise in prices of essential commodities and corruption scandals in the UPA, exposure of its links with the Maoists, and the partial success of continuing anti-Maoist operations in the south-western Districts of WB by the Left Front Government.

Pre-poll surveys suggest that the TMC has an edge in the forthcoming elections, and may secure the largest number of seats in the Assembly, helped by the crisis of leadership within the Left Front and its overall loss of popularity due to its industrial policy. Jyoti Basu, now deceased, had a stature far bigger than Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. By contrast, Mamata Banerjee of the TMC has emerged as a populist leader and she has successfully capitalised on the broad opposition to the Government’s land acquisition policy, which seeks to promote industrial growth in the State. Indeed, the State has witnessed two protracted popular protests over this issue, at Nandigram and Singur, which considerably eroded the Left’s vote-bank among the minorities and the deprived sections. Nandigram in East Midnapore District turned violent in January 2007 over land acquisition for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). At least 35 people were killed in intermittent violence between activists of the CPI-M and the TMC-backed farmers of the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh (Land Acquisition Opposition) Committee (BUPC). As a result, the TMC won all 10 Gram Panchayat (village level local self-Government institution,GP) in the Nandigram I Block, where the SEZ was planned, in 2008. In December 2006, the Singur Krishi Jamin Raksha (Singur Agricultural Land Protection) Committee opposed to the land acquisition by the WB Government for the Tata Nano project at Singur in the Hooghly District. The CPI-Maoist and TMC backed the farmers. Significantly, the TMC won control over 15 out of 16 GPs in the Singur block in the 2008 Local Bodies’ election. In addition, the parties within the Left Front appear to have lost significant public confidence as allegations of corruption, high-handedness and factionalism dominate the political scene. Even Chief Minister Bhattacharya has had to tamely acknowledge the incidence of corruption in his party.

In the 2008 Local Bodies’ election, the TMC also won crucial seats in the East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas Districts, which have a large number of Assembly constituencies. Again, in the 2009 Parliament elections, TMC cornered 19 out of the total of 42 seats in the State. If these results are any guide, TMC is likely to emerge as the largest party in the elections, even without support from the Congress and the Maoists. However, if it enters into a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, the alliance may secure an absolute majority, though prospects of a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and TMC are deteriorating, particularly because of Mamata’s insistence that her party will field candidates from a majority of seats, which the Congress is unlikely to concede.

India
India

The favourable climate notwithstanding, TMC may find it difficult to take on the might of the Left Front all by itself. There is an established pattern in West Bengal with each party adopting coercive tactics during elections, to drive out its political rivals from their constituencies. As Assembly polls draw nearer, the Left Front has already started targeting opposition parties in its strongholds. The Netai case is a point of reference in this context. Media reports indicated that the armed cadres of CPI-M killed some eight persons, suspecting them to be TMC supporters, at Netai village near Lalgarh on January 07, 2011. More than 120 political workers have been killed in frequent clashes between the members of the Left Front, TMC and CPI-Maoist in the last fifteen months.

According to SATP data, West Bengal accounted for 328 of the total of 425 civilian fatalities in Maoist-related violence in 2010. Total fatalities in the State were 425, out of a national total of 1,180 in 2010, making West Bengal the worst affected State in terms of violence for the first time since the resurgence of the movement in 1980. One report indicated that over 80 persons were killed by the Maoists in the Lalgarh area alone, in 2008-09, including at least 70 cadres and sympathisers of the CPI-M, activists of the Jharkhand Party (Naren) and Election Commission personnel.

West Bengal: Maoist related incidents and fatalities 2008-2011
Year
Civilians
Security Forces (SFs)
Terrorists
Total
2008
19
4
1
24
2009
134
15
9
158
2010
328
36
61
425
2011*
27
1
3
31
Total
508
56
74
638
*Data update till March 20, 2011.
Sources: South Asia Terrorism Portal

[The Annual Report 2010-11 of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) provides lower estimates of fatalities, but confirms the general trend. According to the MHA, West Bengal witnessed 256 Maoist-related fatalities, out of a total of 1,003 in the nine States worst affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in 2010. West Bengal ranked second among States on LWE- related fatalities on this account. In 2009, the State had been ranked third in the LWE-related fatalities.]

It is believed that the Maoists’ unilateral clandestine support to the TMC could work as a deterrent against the armed cadres of the Left Front. Although TMC denies having any such links, the Maoists recently pledged support to the party on the condition that Mamata Banerjee withdraws from the UPA Government at the Centre. Recognizing the problem created by armed cadres of political parties in West Bengal, and expressing his unhappiness about the public order situation in the State, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, on March 1, 2011, indicated that 10,000 para-military forces would be provided to the State during the Assembly elections.

Presently, there are six battalions – three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), one Border Security Force (BSF), and two India Reserve Battalions (IRB) – of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) deployed in West Bengal. Two battalions of CRPF and one of the BSF have been deployed in Lalgarh and adjoining areas of West Midnapur, Purulia and Bankura Districts for anti-Naxal (LWE) operations.

Before the 2010 Bihar Assembly elections, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) claimed that violence in general and Maoist attacks in particular during polling had been reduced due to heavy deployment of CPMFs, and this is the model the Centre seeks to replicate through the six phased election process in WB. Given the intra and inter-party rivalries in WB over the past two years, however, the Union Government anticipates more violence here, and it remains to be seen whether the deployment of additional Force will suffice to contain this.

There are apprehensions that the polarization of political forces in the State, and the possible disruptive intervention of the Maoists in the election process may lead to the creation of virtual war zones, particularly in south Bengal, which elects 160 members in an Assembly of 294. The Maoist stronghold is adjacent to this region. The People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, their front organization has ‘village committees’ in over 250 villages in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore Districts, and is expected to directly confront the armed cadres of the Left Front. They also have the ability to influence voters in this region. The Maoist strategy of raising a militia and driving out Left Front supporters may prove extremely useful for the TMC.

The Maoist support to the TMC is purely tactical, and bodes ill for the future of WB. Presently, each needs the other to fight their common enemy— the Left Front. The Maoists’ political and military campaign against the Left Front may bring political dividends for the TMC, but it is also expected to help, revive, expand and consolidate the Maoist political base in the State. The TMC would be the preferred party in power for the Maoists, given their entrenched differences with the Congress and Left Front. The ninth congress of the CPI-Maoist thus resolved, on February 1, 2007, that the party would extend all kinds of support to the protests against the industrialization and the displacement issues, which had also been taken up by TMC. On May 3, 2007, the CPI-Maoist declared that it would oppose the ‘treacherous plan’ to create SEZs and the massive displacement of people. It also decided to convert social and economic issues into political ones, and extend support to like-minded groups for political benefit. The resolutions were a close echo of the TMC’s political campaigns against the Left Front. According to Ananda Bazar Patrika, on October 4, 2009, Maoist leader Kishanji hailed Mamata Banerjee as their preferred choice for the next Chief Minister of WB. In 2009, the Maoists declared that their main aim was to “break the shackles” that the ruling CPI-M had imposed on the people.

The Maoists had adopted a comparable strategy in Andhra Pradesh against the Telugu Desam Party, during the 2004 elections, and other parties had benefited. In the present case, the Maoists can be expected to extract a price for their covert support to TMC’s success, in terms of concessions that help them consolidate their position after the elections. This may boost Maoist operations in other areas as well. West Bengal is the gateway for the Maoists for the procurement of arms and ammunition from, and to forge links with insurgent groups of the North East. It has contributed immensely to the intellectual debate within the Maoist fold. Maoists in West Bengal have already established their city committees (equal to Divisional Committees in rural areas) with cells consisting of 3 to 7 ‘full time professional revolutionaries’ in Kolkata. In the long term, the CPI-Maoist wants to establish a ‘liberated zone’ in the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal. The Maoists have already started political awareness programmes amongst the people in the region, taking advantage of the existing contradictions in the State.

One of the biggest challenges for the TMC would be to neutralize the Left Front campaign over its ‘alliance’ with the Maoists. The Left parties have urged the Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election, apprehending that TMC-Maoist ‘connivance’ could affect their poll-prospects.

The TMC, however, is in a dilemma after the Maoists’ made their support conditional on the TMC’s withdrawal from the UPA Government at the Centre. On February 23, 2011, moreover, the Maoists also asked TMC to clearly spell out its policies on release of political prisoners, action against ‘oppressive’ Police officers and return of ‘illegally’ acquired land by Multi-national Corporations (MNCs). In a taste of things to come, the Maoists have already begun to extract their pound of flesh for the support they promise the TMC during the election.

Nihar Nayak
Associate Fellow, IDSA, published at SATP

SATP

SATP

SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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