The Bully State

Battling for the future of West Bengal

The Bharatiya Janata Party protested in Kolkata in October 2014 after an attack on its supporters in the district of Birbhum. Political violence has risen in West Bengal since the Trinamool Congress was elected to power in the state in 2011. BCCL
The Bharatiya Janata Party protested in Kolkata in October 2014 after an attack on its supporters in the district of Birbhum. Political violence has risen in West Bengal since the Trinamool Congress was elected to power in the state in 2011. BCCL
01 April, 2016

AS OUR CAR RACED ALONG A ROAD flanked by fish farms—bheris, in Bengali—we passed gangs of young men scattered all along the way. They stepped into the middle of the road, flagging down trucks, tempos and autorickshaws to demand money—ostensibly to celebrate Saraswati Puja, which was just days away, on 8 February. “They decide the chanda”—donation—“and you simply have to pay up,” Umesh Singh, the driver ferrying me from Kolkata to the town of Basirhat, in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, told me. “There is no bargaining with them.” Our car, however, went on unimpeded, because Singh had stuck onto the windshield a sign with “Press” scrawled boldly across it.

Basirhat lies about a three-hour drive east of Kolkata, near the Bangladesh border. Our journey there was taking us through territory dominated by the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, which ascended to power in West Bengal with a staggering victory in the state-assembly election in 2011, ending 34 years of uninterrupted rule by the Left Front, an alliance of leftist parties dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The roadside chandas, Singh told me, were not novelties of TMC rule, having also been a regular feature of the Left Front years. “Extortions by local clubs in towns and villages on such religious occasions happened even then,” he explained. “The difference now is the higher level of aggression.”

The chandas were just one sign of a thread that binds the present and the past in West Bengal: a stubborn political culture of lawlessness and violence. None of the places we passed were outside the control of the state, and yet young men were allowed to extort money from drivers at will. Such brazenness, as any resident of West Bengal will tell you, comes from an understanding between activists on the ground and politicians in the seats of electoral power: that the former receive patronage and be allowed to defy the law, in return for stamping out any opposition and thus protecting the ruling party’s power. This dynamic was established by the Left Front, and played a big role in the alliance staying in power for as long as it did. But despite the Left Front’s suppression of challengers, in 2011 an electorate tired of economic and political stagnation was seduced by the TMC’s promise of poriborton, or transformation, and gave the party 184 of 294 seats in the state assembly, reducing the Left Front’s total to a dismal 62. Through the TMC’s rise, its supporters had themselves endured countless attacks from supporters of the Left Front, and many in West Bengal had hoped that the change of regime would bring an end to the lawlessness and political suppression. Here before us, however, was evidence that there had been no such thing.

There were other indications of the persistence of old ways, too. As we drove, I saw many large billboards advertising sand, stones and bricks. In conversations in Kolkata and elsewhere, I had been told that, across the state, the trades in these—and also many other parts of the local economy—are controlled by syndicates with intimate ties to the ruling party. Much of the syndicates’ dealings are illegal, but they, like the roadside extortionists, are also granted immunity—usually in exchange for a share of their profits. To keep competition out, the syndicates often use the same tactics, and the same personnel, as the ruling powers. All of this was a holdover from Left Front rule too.

Basirhat, I knew, was no exception to any of these trends. But the town and its surroundings were exceptional in at least one regard. Basirhat shares its name with the sub-district it lies in, which is divided into two state-assembly constituencies. Like much of West Bengal, for decades the area voted mostly for the Left Front, until it broke from that habit in recent years. In 2011, one constituency, Basirhat Uttar, elected a TMC candidate. The second constituency, Basirhat Dakshin, which contains Basirhat town, stuck by the Left Front, but even that did not last, and in a 2014 by-election its voters narrowly elected a candidate from the Bharatiya Janata Party over one from the TMC. In a state where the Hindutva party had long struggled to make any impact, Basirhat Dakshin became the first constituency to put a BJP candidate in the assembly in a decade and a half.

Which is why I was headed there. Basirhat, like all of West Bengal, was preparing for a fresh assembly election, due to take place in six phases spanning early April and early May. Pre-poll projections foresaw another strong result for the TMC, but the election would certainly not be a one-horse race. There were two other major contenders. First, there was the CPI(M), once again heading the Left Front and hoping to correct the group’s decline—in an unofficial alliance, for this election, with the Indian National Congress, which mustered only 42 assembly seats in 2011. Second, there was the BJP, with high momentum and expectations behind it following its rise to national power in 2014, looking to establish itself as the main opposition to the TMC. The TMC had much at stake too: after failing to bring about the wholesale poriborton it had promised in 2011, it now faced the first big popular test of its rule. I wanted a sense of how each of the major players might fare at the poll, and Basirhat, as the site of the BJP’s greatest recent success in West Bengal, offered a window onto the fortunes of the Hindu right. Basirhat was, of course, not my only destination. In early February, I travelled to several parts of West Bengal, to also see how the CPI(M)-led alliance was faring, how the TMC exercises its current hold over the state, and whether that hold might be challenged.

Basirhat witnessed many serious clashes between rival cadres in 2014, as it voted in the general election and then in a by-election to the West Bengal state assembly. SUBHENDU GHOSH/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

On all these questions, I soon learnt, the most crucial factor today is that, as a chai-wallah near Basirhat put it, “everyone is an autonomous hooligan here.”

THE LEFT FRONT REIGN made a deep mark on West Bengal. The alliance came to power in 1977, following a period of great national turmoil. India was just emerging from the Emergency, declared in 1975 by the national government under Indira Gandhi and her Congress. It was a time of unprecedented political suppression, including in West Bengal—where, under president’s rule in 1971 and then a state Congress government elected in 1972, security forces executed a massive, violent campaign to root out a radical Naxalite movement. That state government was voted out on the back of widespread resistance to the Congress’s authoritarian ways, and the Left Front took over, with the CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu as chief minister, promising a new way forward.

The Left Front’s rise owed a lot to the organisational strength of its component parties. While the alliance’s leadership was drawn heavily from the educated middle classes, particularly of Kolkata, it also had a network of cadres across West Bengal that took in many disadvantaged people—Adivasis, workers, sharecroppers—drawn by the promise of radical reform. Once in power, the Left Front initiated land reforms, established minimum wages, and took other steps to empower marginalised Bengalis—often relying on its cadres on the ground to implement its policies. Strict hierarchies and stringent membership requirements among the alliance’s parties ensured that their cadres, even as their numbers grew, retained discipline and ideological dedication.

Over time, this began to change. Not all parts of the Left Front’s programme for West Bengal succeeded, and it gradually became clear that plans for economic growth and industrialisation, and hence for jobs for a large poor population, were failing. With little other opportunity for uplift, during the 1980s many started looking to politics as a way of pursuing their own interests rather than societal ones. Membership in the alliance’s parties became, in practice, easier to come by. The Left Front also proved intolerant of dissent, and its cadres began violently suppressing any opposition. Violence became a leitmotif of West Bengal politics, and cadres became increasingly important in guaranteeing the alliance’s re-election every five years.

By the 1990s, many frustrated idealistic cadres were choosing not to renew their party membership, or to just become inactive. This was propelled further by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which raised concerns about the Marxist-Leninist project that the Left Front leadership did little to assuage. As ideological cadres retreated, they ceded ever more power to unscrupulous, and even openly criminal, ones. Through the early 2000s, the Left Front government stumbled on, using violence to stifle growing resentment of its economic failures and heavy-handedness.

Mamata Banerjee led the TMC to victory in 2011 with a promise of a new style of government and politics. Today, her power depends heavily on many of the same tactics and people that propped up her predecessors. BCCL

That vicious cycle wore on, and things reached breaking point in the 2011 poll. Voters chose the TMC not so much because it offered an ideological alternative—the party does not espouse a clear ideology at all—but more because it was a viable opponent to the Left Front. But the TMC’s win created two crucial vacuums. First, in a state where the Left Front’s cadres had become almost synonymous with power, the TMC lacked a corps of comparable size and organisation to replace them. Second, these cadres, so dependent on patronage, were left without a patron. The two sides found a natural solution: large numbers of cadres switched over to the TMC.

By then, the very meaning of “cadre” in West Bengal had changed. Once, the term, used collectively, denoted a formal, relatively small and ideologically motivated group. Now, it stood for a giant, amorphous mass of people, driven mostly by opportunism and greed, and answering mostly to ground-level leaders with fluid political loyalties.

As I travelled through the state, many of those I interviewed echoed what Umesh Singh had told me: that the violence in West Bengal has only gotten worse. The TMC, under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, rules West Bengal today much as the Left Front did before it, relying on cadre muscle to stifle opposition.

According to police records, there were 586 instances of political violence, not counting clashes between student groups, in the first five months of the TMC’s reign alone, leaving around 900 activists injured and 27 dead. The latest numbers, for 2014, record 343 political riots in that year, with 508 casualties. There are indications that the TMC will try to use its cadres to its advantage in the coming poll. The election commission has announced that all polling in West Bengal will be overseen by central security forces, rather than ones from the state—a sign of the centre’s concern over unchecked intimidation of voters. During a television appearance last month, Banerjee reminded voters that central forces will depart soon after the election, leaving them once again dependent on the TMC for security. This was widely read as a veiled threat, and prompted the CPI(M) to file a complaint against the TMC with the election commission.

For all these similarities in the cadre’s functioning, however, there is now also a key difference. Earlier, the Left Front’s strong hierarchy had allowed the alliance to maintain a good degree of control over the cadre. With the TMC, a weak party organisation has allowed the cadre freer reign, setting off a rash of bloody feuds between rival factions nominally on the same side, particularly as they fight for control over economic resources. This has added significantly to the incidence of violence.

Alongside this, I learnt, many are disappointed at the TMC’s failure to deliver the changes it promised. Unemployment and poverty remain high, and administration and law enforcement weak. The frustration is offset to a degree by a series of populist programmes—monthly allowances to unemployed youth, annual scholarships for poor girls, schemes offering subsidised foodgrain and free bicycles. But there is, unmistakably, deep disillusionment with the status quo—including among West Bengal’s minorities, who wield sizeable electoral influence.

This all adds up to mean that the TMC’s position in West Bengal is more precarious than it appears from the electoral numbers. With the BJP’s challenge still nascent and the CPI(M)-led coalition on the back foot, the ruling party will likely benefit from the lack of a serious opponent in the coming poll. In the longer run, however, there is as yet no clear view of a stable new political order in West Bengal, and the avenues to power, whether through the cadre or through the popular will, are open to challengers.

In 1977, the Left Front assumed power, with the CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu as chief minister. The alliance went on to rule West Bengal for 34 consecutive years. SAIBAL DAS/THE INDIA TODAY GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

IN BASIRHAT, WE MADE OUR WAY THROUGH narrow streets clogged with honking traffic to the municipality of Taki. There, I was to meet Prithwis Bose—a long-time resident of the area, and, as a labour-rights activist, a close observer of its politics. Of the once ubiquitous Left Front presence here, all I saw along the way were a few scattered red flags emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

When the BJP won the Basirhat Dakshin seat in the 2014 by-election, following the death of the CPI(M) incumbent, it was a remarkable achievement. Before that, the last time the Hindutva party had any representation in the West Bengal state assembly was in 1999, and its victory here was even more striking since over half of Basirhat Dakshin’s residents are Muslim.

But Bose, in his spartan office, told me that the BJP win was easily explained. In 2014, voters’ choices had not been decided by communal allegiances. “It would be wrong to say that people here voted for Hindutva,” Bose explained, though there is definitely dormant Hindutva sentiment among Hindus. The “main electoral concern was to end the criminal activities that go on in this area,” he said. “The voters did not like either of the candidates fielded by the Left and the TMC.” The best remaining choice was the BJP candidate—Samik Bhattacharya, a three-time general secretary of the party in the state.

Criminality is a serious concern in the Basirhat area. In the 2014 by-poll, the area witnessed plenty of political violence, particularly with TMC supporters attacking rival campaigns and activists. But Basirhat is also notorious as a centre in an illicit trade in cattle, which are brought here from across north India to be ferried across the porous nearby border into Bangladesh. Bose told me this had been going on since the Left Front years, and several others said that the smuggling had increased following the TMC’s ascendency in 2011—suggesting links between the smugglers and local politicians and administrators. In 2014, Bhattacharya had made the smuggling a big campaign issue.

Besides leveraging local discontent with criminality, the BJP, in the 2014 by-poll, already had serious electoral momentum behind it, after its successful campaign to secure national power. In the Lok Sabha election that year, just months before the by-poll, the party had secured 17 percent of the vote share in West Bengal—its best showing in the state to date. After the by-poll win, many pointed to the fresh success as evidence of an inevitable BJP rise. Speaking to the Indian Express at the time, Bhattacharya, the area’s new MLA, said, “this win indicates the political trend in Bengal—the BJP is fast emerging as the main opposition political party. It now officially enters the precincts of the assembly and will make more inroads in 2016.”

But the BJP’s trajectory in the state since then has not been as unequivocal as Bhattacharya predicted. Many I spoke to within the BJP’s West Bengal unit fear the party missed an opportunity to really make an impact in the state. A senior BJP leader I met in Kolkata, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that while the party had great impetus after the 2014 general election, “we have lost that momentum.” Several BJP leaders in the state told me that, to their consternation, there has been increased interference in their work from the party’s central leadership in Delhi. Late last year, the BJP’s national leadership chose to replace the serving head of the party’s state unit, Rahul Sinha, with a newcomer, Dilip Ghosh. Sinha, considered a relative moderate, is a long-time BJP man, who had led the state unit since 2012 and oversaw the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. Ghosh, in comparison, is a Hindutva hardliner, who, until his party appointment in West Bengal, was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organisation. He had experience leading RSS work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but had little leadership experience in the work of the party. The senior BJP leader told me unequivocally that “leaders from Delhi are trying to micro-manage Bengal.” Currently, he said, “the party’s central leader Siddharth Nath Singh”—a national secretary of the BJP, who currently handles West Bengal affairs on behalf of the party’s national leadership—“is pitting his faction, led by Rahul Sinha, against the new team led by Dilip Ghosh.”

“The BJP organisation in Bengal is weak,” Shishir Bajoria, a prominent industrialist who was close to the CPI(M) during its years in power but switched sides to the BJP in 2014, admitted to me in Kolkata. “Dilip-da brings with him huge organisational skills, which the party needs in Bengal. But then he was brought in at the deep end—in December—and remember, he has never fought elections before.”

To get a sense of what this augurs for Basirhat, I arranged to speak with Samik Bhattacharya, at a cafe in Kolkata. The bespectacled 49-year-old no longer exuded the confidence he had shown the press after his 2014 by-poll triumph. The party was clearly struggling organisationally, and Bhattacharya had not delivered on key pledges made to his constituents. In Basirhat, Bose told me that Bhattacharya “has failed to end cattle smuggling—a promise he made to the people here. And they can be unforgiving of that failure.” Bhattacharya, when I asked about this, claimed he had achieved partial success, and then emphasised the continuing failure of rival parties. Dragging on a cigarette, he intoned what many others within and outside the BJP had already told me: it has taken the TMC just five years to replicate the sins of the Left Front over 34 years. Of the opposition, he said, “the people have tested, tried and rejected the CPI(M),” and “the Congress has no hopes of revival.” This left the BJP as “the only credible alternative in this situation.” The popular mood, he claimed, was already turning away from Mamata Banerjee.

When it came to the BJP’s actual programme, Bhattacharya turned the conversation away from the promises of better governance and development that were the hallmarks of BJP campaigning in 2014. Instead, he turned the conversation to another theme—communalism. He did not hesitate to describe Muslims in deeply negative terms—even though they accounted for over half of his constituents—and kept alluding to “extra-territorial elements.” “You walk into Basirhat,” he told me, and “you think you have entered Afghanistan.” He also played up a supposed threat from Muslim extremism, and as evidence cited recent events in the district of Malda. There, in January, violence erupted between Muslims and activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu majoritarian party with ties to the RSS, after an ABHM activist in Lucknow allegedly insulted the prophet Muhammad. The BJP’s campaign strategy, it appeared from Bhattacharya’s rhetoric, was now focussed as much on stoking polarisation and fear as on offering hope of a political alternative.

The BJP has historically struggled to make an impact in West Bengal. In this year’s election, it hopes to establish itself as the main opposition to the TMC. INDRANIL BHOUMIK/MINT/GETTY IMAGES

I found Bhattacharya’s tone emblematic of that of many others I spoke to in the BJP, and also in the RSS. With them, I kept hearing of supposed “Muslim radicalisation,” and also of “Muslim appeasement” by the TMC in the pursuit of votes. Several people accused the ruling government of failing to act firmly against Muslims in Malda during the January violence. Many also pointed to a blast at a private house in Khagragarh, in the district of Bardhaman, in October 2014. Investigators subsequently revealed that it was being used for making crude bombs by members of an extremist group opposed to the Awami League government in Bangladesh. BJP leaders have repeatedly suggested that the TMC had links to the extremists, and that the state government went soft on a police officer who, they believe, destroyed confiscated explosives. Bajoria, the industrialist, told me that the TMC government “was covering up evidence.”

At Keshav Bhavan, the RSS headquarters in Kolkata, I met Jishnu Bose, the organisation’s general secretary for West Bengal. He told me that “people in the villages of border districts”—Malda, Murshidabad, and North and South 24 Parganas, all of which have high Muslim populations—“feel this state is turning into West Bangladesh.” Bose described the RSS’s efforts to mobilise Hindus against the supposed Muslim threat. The organisation, he said, has been establishing new shakhas, or local branches, across the state. “Since January 2013,” he said, “the number of our shakhas in Bengal has shot up, from 850 to 1,500.” This has worked to the BJP’s advantage. In Basirhat, for instance, though many former Left Front cadres have gravitated to the BJP since 2014, the party can also call upon RSS activists to help in its work.

It is not just Muslims that the Hindutva outfits are projecting as the enemy. Bose, speaking in early February, told me of the importance of identifying and countering all “anti-national” elements, in West Bengal and across the country, and made it clear that the RSS planned to make this a central issue in the coming state election campaign. Only days later, police in Delhi began hunting for a handful of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University whom an RSS-affiliated student group had accused of sedition, setting off a country-wide frenzy over supposedly “anti-national” behavior.

Bose, and others I met at Keshav Bhavan, were upbeat about the Hindu right’s future in West Bengal, regardless of the outcome of the state election. Several people told me the RSS works on “long-term projects,” and Bose emphasised that gaining immediate power is not the RSS’s primary goal. For him, the more important thing was the political climate, and there he was convinced that West Bengal had reached a turning point.

He pointed to how the Left Front, despite its widespread use of violence, had long drawn legitimacy by maintaining a veneer of intellectualism and respectability. The TMC, he said, had no such thing. And the leftist tradition, for all its distortions, gave young people an ideology to hold on to, but now the Left Front was declining, and the TMC could offer no alternative. This, he reasoned, was a vacuum that the BJP could fill. Bose did not explicitly mention communal polarisation, but here again the climate in West Bengal seems to be turning in the RSS’s favour. According to police records, instances of communal violence in West Bengal have soared since the TMC took power—from 40 incidents in 2011 to over 100 in 2013 and 2014.

Among BJP leaders, however, I found optimism in short supply, and grievances piling up. I heard theories that, on top of its mismanagement of the state unit, the party’s national leadership was hurting its prospects in West Bengal by hesitating to attack the state’s ruling party—particularly by not prosecuting the TMC leader Mukul Roy, who has been accused of involvement in a ponzi scam that allegedly benefitted his party. The senior BJP leader in Kolkata told me that Narendra Modi hopes to placate Mamata Banerjee, with an eye on a potential BJP-TMC alliance in time for the 2019 general election. Looking ahead to the state election, the BJP leader wasn’t optimistic. Already, he was assigning guilt for a possible disappointment. “The blame for failing to perform in the coming poll, if that is the case,” he said, “should fall on Narendra Modi, and Arun Jaitley”—the finance minister, and one of Modi’s key lieutenants.

THE CITY OF HALDIA LIES roughly 125 kilometres south of Kolkata by road, in the district of Purba Medinipur. Haldia is home to a large port, stretched out along the Hooghly River, and is also a major industrial hub, with giant petroleum plants and chemical works. In a state with a long history of frustrated attempts at industrialisation, this makes Haldia an anomaly—which could, on first sight, make it seem a site of a Left Front success. It is not. Instead, the story of Haldia and its surrounding area is a reminder of many of the failings that finally brought the Left Front down.

Haldia has a particularly rich history of leftist politics. Through the latter decades of the twentieth century, as industrialisation here progressed, Haldia became home to numerous strong trade unions, which consistently supported the Left Front. By 2011, however, many of the problems of Left Front rule—corruption, cronyism and violent intimidation—had undermined the ruling regime’s popularity here, too. Haldia elected a TMC candidate to the state assembly, as did each of Purba Medinipur’s 16 other constituencies.

Since then, the region had seen a high number of defections by former Left Front supporters, from across the alliance’s hierarchy, to other parties. I was in Haldia to meet some of those defectors—to try and gauge their motivations and priorities, and also to see just how deep the rot went in the Left Front.

Perhaps the figure whose story best encapsulates Haldia’s recent trajectory is Lakshman Seth. As a member of the CPI(M), starting in the early 1980s Seth served three terms as a legislator in the West Bengal assembly, and then three terms as a member of the Lok Sabha, until 2009. He was also, for many years, the CPI(M)’s strongman in this area, to whom the local cadre owed its loyalty. Nowadays, however, he runs a political outfit of his own—the Bharat Nirman Party, which is considered an electoral non-entity, but still commands influence here.

In the years of Haldia’s rise, Seth headed the Haldia Development Board, and was the chairman of a large local NGO. He faced numerous accusations of corruption during this time, including claims that he used his position on the development board to sell under-priced land to his NGO, and that he staffed the NGO with CPI(M) cronies. Still, Seth remained massively popular, and the CPI(M) studiously ignored all suspicions against him for many years.

But things went awry in 2007. South of Haldia, across a tributary of the Hooghly, lies the rural area of Nandigram. There, on 14 March of that year, the Left Front government ordered hundreds of policemen to break up protests by villagers opposing the forced acquisition of their land to create a Special Economic Zone. At least 14 people were killed, setting off outrage across the state. This came on the heels of similar violence in Singur, near Kolkata, where the government had tried to seize land for a Tata Motors factory, also causing massive resistance and controversy. Both incidents proved pivotal in discrediting the Left Front.

Seth, along with the state’s CPI(M) chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, came under fire for his suspected role in the Nandigram violence. To contain the damage, the CPI(M) tried, clumsily, to distance itself from the decision to seize the disputed land, and, eventually, the party pinned the blame for it on Seth. Relations between Seth and the CPI(M) quickly soured, but it was only in 2014 that he was finally expelled from the party.

In 2007, the state government’s coercive efforts to seize land from villagers in Nandigram set off massive resistance and protests, and severely undermined the legitimacy of Left Front rule. REUTERS/PARTH SANYAL

I met Seth in his spacious office, looking out onto the sprawling grounds of a medical college his NGO runs in the centre of Haldia. Dressed in a white shirt and black jacket, and sitting across from me at a large table, he looked every bit a businessman. Over green tea, he vented freely against the CPI(M). “Rather than criticise its own actions” over Nandigram, he said, “the leadership shifted the blame fully on me.” He was brazenly unrepentant about the use of violence against the protestors. “Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should have started the police operation much earlier,” he told me. “A contingent of 200 policemen was waiting and ready to get started. Our chief minister was a coward.”

In a style often associated with Hindutva groups, Seth escalated his attack on his former party. “The people in CPI(M) are not nationalist-minded,” he said. “They neither celebrate fifteenth August”—Independence Day—“nor twenty-sixth January”—Republic Day. And, he added, “They don’t allow their cadres to follow religious or social practices.” He also heaped praises on Banerjee. “She is doing good work in the panchayat areas, concentrating on social welfare, education, food security,” he told me. His only grievances against the TMC were for the ruling government not “creating an investment-friendly atmosphere,” and for “taking a strong position against land acquisition.”

To hear another example of how old Left Front loyalists are realigning their positions, I spoke over the phone to Anjan Kumar Mukherjee. As a young man, Mukherjee had been an activist in the Naxalite movement, and was imprisoned during the Emergency. Later, he served as the secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a component of the Left Front, in Bardhaman. In June 2014, however, following the BJP’s victory in the national election, Mukherjee switched over to the Hindutva outfit, and he now works with the party’s state unit.

Mukherjee’s views and language, like Seth’s, bore little trace of his earlier politics. “The Left is no longer relevant in India—we haven’t been able to convince the people with our ideology,” the 60-year-old said. “If it was the slogan of revolution that inspired me in 1969, what fires my imagination today is Modi-ji’s slogan, sabka saath, sabka vikas”—unity and development for all. Then, he swerved squarely into the rhetoric of Hindu majoritarianism. Hindus, he told me, “want to be liberal, and yet have been reduced to the status of a minority community. … Communists have tried to brainwash the people into believing that the BJP is a communal party.”

Besides Seth, I also arranged to meet with other former activists of the Left Front in Haldia, from lower down in the alliance’s hierarchy. In 2012, in a seeming reversal of its decline, the Left Front had managed to secure a majority on Haldia’s municipal board, with 15 of 26 seats. But the following year, five of the Left Front councillors had defected to the TMC, handing it control over the body. In the heart of Haldia, in the office of a TMC leader and local businessman, I sat down to speak with three of these councillors.

The three men—Gopal Das, Bikash Jana and Sukdev Doloi—all spoke of how they were initially drawn to the Left Front because of the work its parties did among ordinary people. Das and Jana had both spent over two decades with the CPI(M), while Doloi, a relative newcomer, had joined the smaller Communist Party of India six years ago.

Haldia is an industrial city, where a formation claiming to speak for the proletariat would be expected to have some advantage. But even here, the Left Front appears to have very little traction. SANJIT DAS/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

Das recalled his time as a Left Front cadre in the area. For many years, he said Seth’s word had been “the law” in this area, and much of his work was conducted under the strongman. “We sold the maximum number of Ganashakti,” he said, referring to the CPI(M)’s mouthpiece. “It was a no-holds-barred policy that we followed. We would fix jobs for people, and force them in return to regularly buy the paper.” In his view, the party leadership had made an error in expelling Seth. “It was the money we collected from Haldia that kept the party headquarters running,” he told me.

Das said that while he had stayed with the party through the years, his disillusionment with it had begun long ago, as he watched a democratic culture give way to “rule by fiats.” Jana, who has been on the Haldia municipal council for over two decades, voiced a similar criticism of the CPI(M), saying that in recent years it had become more and more “arrogant and disconnected from the people.” Both men, like Seth, now lauded Mamata Banerjee’s work. “She appears to be more leftist than the original Left,” Jana told me.

Doloi, however, offered a different explanation for his change of allegiance: coercion, rather than any change of conviction. “The day the municipal election results came, my father and brother were picked up by the police and had to spend a week in jail,” he told me. “I had to get them out on bail. My whole family was being implicated in false cases. My family had no security till I switched sides.” Doloi had several grievances with his new party. When he approached a TMC MP regarding the harassment of his family at the hands of local cadre, Doloi complained, the man had not done enough to help. “I don’t think the TMC is functioning properly,” he said, pointing to rampant factionalism that had “everyone in every mohalla aspiring to be a leader.”

All three men seemed to have put their past allegiances firmly behind them. Even Doloi, for all his complaints, had no desire to renew his old connections. None of them expressed any hope of a comeback for the Left Front.

Earlier, when I visited the CPI(M)’s state headquarters in Kolkata, Mohammed Salim, a party politburo member and a member of the Lok Sabha, had tried to play down the tide of defections following the Left Front’s electoral defeat, insisting it was not as rampant as it had been made out to be. What I saw in Haldia, however, belied his view. Even in this industrial and agricultural area, where a formation claiming to speak for the proletariat would be expected to have some advantage, the Left Front appears to have very little traction remaining.

Salim had pointed to the CPI(M)’s alliance with the Congress as a sign of a concerted challenge to the current government, and said it would counter “the current perception of Mamata Banerjee’s invincibility.” Yet only a few years ago, such a tie-up would have been out of the question. The two parties have a deeply acrimonious history, particularly in West Bengal. Before 1977, the CPI(M) suffered greatly from the oppression of the ruling Congress government; in the last election, just five years ago, the Congress had sided openly with the TMC against the Left Front. The current alliance, between two floundering parties, seems motivated more by desperate compulsion than real conviction or hope. While the alliance may pay off in the districts of north Bengal, where the Congress and the CPI(M) still wield some influence, it is unlikely to seriously dent the TMC’s ambitions in the state as a whole.

I ARRIVED IN SURI after a five-hour train ride north from Kolkata. This sleepy town is the headquarters of Birbhum, an Adivasi-dominated district with a history of resistance that dates backs at least as far as a famous 1855 insurrection against British rule. The area has rich deposits of minerals, but, as in most such places across India, that wealth has meant exploitation rather than prosperity for a large share of the area’s inhabitants.

Birbhum is particularly notorious for its abundance of stone quarries and crushing sites, where many Adivasis work in terrible conditions.

Those conditions are unchanged since the days under the Left Front, which did little of note to help or protect Birbhum’s workers, or to provide basic needs such as water, education and health to impoverished residents. In 2011, Birbhum’s mostly Adivasi voters jumped at the opportunity to break away from the Left Front: the CPI(M)’s seat tally from the district’s 11 seats dropped from eight to two, and the TMC’s rose from zero to six. Adivasis elsewhere in West Bengal—as well as Muslims, the state’s other large minority group—did the same. (According to the 2011 census, Hindus form 70 percent of West Bengal’s population, with Muslims forming 27 percent. Adivasis, who have varied religious affiliations, form just under 6 percent put together.) This proved crucial to the fall of the Left Front, which had traditionally relied upon minority votes.

In Birbhum, I wanted to see how West Bengal’s Adivasis view the TMC now, on the eve of a fresh election. That question ties in closely with the matter of which way the minority vote in West Bengal will go, which, in turn, will play a large role in determining who forms the state’s next government. According to poll records, Muslims play a decisive electoral role in close to a hundred of West Bengal’s 294 assembly constituencies.

Adivasis, meanwhile, vote for candidates in 16 constituencies reserved solely for them, and boast large numbers in at least a quarter of the state’s 20 districts.

This is why Mamata Banerjee has gone to some length to project herself as a champion of the minorities, and particularly of Muslims—which adds fuel to the fire of the BJP’s accusations of “Muslim appeasement.”

Suvojit Bagchi, the Kolkata bureau chief of The Hindu, told me that “Banerjee’s electoral calculation … is simple: keep the Muslim vote intact, and the opposition fragmented.” In Kolkata, huge billboards show pictures of Banerjee in a headscarf, offering namaz. In November, she addressed over 100,000 Muslims at a rally organised by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a large Muslim body. She has also bowed to popular Muslim sentiment in ignoring calls to allow the author Taslima Nasreen—exiled from Bangladesh for writing a novel deemed anti-Islamic, and expelled from Kolkata by the Left Front in 2007—to return to West Bengal.

In November, Mamata Banerjee addressed a rally of over 100,000 Muslims, as part of efforts to project herself as a champion of the Muslim community. SAIKAT PAUL/PACIFIC PRESS/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES

But the TMC, like the Left Front, has not taken any substantive steps to improve the Muslim community’s abysmal socio-economic condition. In a recent report, titled Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal, the economist Amartya Sen wrote that West Bengal’s Muslims have a literacy rate 7 percent lower than the state average, and that they “are disproportionately poorer and more deprived in terms of living conditions.” In West Bengal politics, Muslims have historically been little more than pawns in the game to gain power, to be remembered only when the next election comes around.

In Birbhum, Adivasi residents told me that the same is true of politicians’ approach to them. “Yes, we all voted for the TMC in 2011,” Sunil Soren said. “But Mamata Banerjee did not fulfil a single commitment she made.” Soren is a schoolteacher in Suri, and a prominent figure in the Gaonta, an Adivasi-rights organisation active across Birbhum and neighbouring Bardhman. He listed a series of the TMC’s failures: the local Santhali language has not been introduced as a medium of school instruction; not enough Adivasi teachers have been recruited; not enough hostels have been built for Adivasi girls. Soren also complained that the culture of political violence has worsened. “CPI(M) cadres, who intimidated the common people then, have now switched to the TMC,” he told me. “Right now, Birbhum is trapped in a bloody war fought by the TMC’s rival factions.”

The town of Nanoor, 45 kilometres from Suri, is a hotbed of this intra-TMC violence. Here, a feud is playing out between two armed gangs—one loyal to the TMC’s district president, and another to his rival. On the evening before I visited Nanoor, a TMC activist was killed in the town. “It has become impossible to sleep peacefully,” Sukal Mardi, a local resident, told me. “There is either the sound of gunshots, or some commotion in the dead of the night.”

“Our hearts have always been with the Left parties, but the Adivasis wanted to give the TMC a chance,” Mardi told me. He also said that the expected transformation in economic and political life had not materialised after the election. Now, he said, particularly among older Adivasis, some voters were inclined to return to the Left Front fold. Others seem to be looking elsewhere altogether. “Today, the CPI(M) is seeking our votes, just like the TMC did in 2011,” Soren told me. This time, he said, the community was thinking of fielding its own candidates from the Gaonta.

When I telephoned Soren a fortnight before the election, he told me that the Gaonta was fielding candidates in all 11 constituencies in Birbhum—with Soren contesting the seat from Suri himself—and in five of the 25 constituencies in Bardhaman. “The CPI(M) tried to thrash out an understanding with us,” he said, “but the terms did not suit us.” Soren told me that various Adivasi groups were fielding their own candidates across West Bengal, but, regrettably, they hadn’t come together to project a united platform.

But while Adivasis seem ready to look for alternative electoral representation, West Bengal’s Muslims remain generally loyal to the TMC. This was recently underlined when Abdur Razzak Mollah, one of the state’s most important Muslim leaders, joined the TMC. Mollah came to prominence as a peasant leader with the CPI(M), represented the constituency of Canning Purba in the state assembly from 1977 to 2011, and also served as a land minister under the Left Front. In 2007, in the midst of the Nandigram controversy, he broke from the party line and publically criticised Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. His strong political base among Muslims meant the party hesitated to punish him, and in the 2011 vote he was one of the few Left Front candidates to retain his seat. But in 2014, he was unceremoniously dumped by the CPI(M) leadership for unspecified “anti-party activities.” Now, as a TMC candidate, he will represent his new party in the constituency of Bhangar, in South 24 Parganas.

Given West Bengal’s history of political violence, there is concern that state forces alone will not do enough to protect voters. The election commission has announced that the upcoming poll will be overseen by central security forces. AP PHOTO

The BJP’s strategy of communal polarisation is likely to have a major effect on whether Muslim votes coalesce behind the TMC. In the short term, that strategy plays into the TMC’s hands, but just how a communalisation of politics will play out in the long term is yet unclear. West Bengal’s minorities historically stood behind the Left Front in good part because it stifled communalism, as part of an ideological stance that rejected overt categories of caste, ethnic and religious identity. Under Left Front rule, the state remained free from communal pogroms for more than three decades, even during flashpoints such as the controversial demolition of the Babri Masjid. But communalism has a deep history in this region, which saw brutal communal killings during Partition and in the decades before Left Front rule. The BJP is gambling that communal sentiment merely went latent among West Bengal’s majority Hindu population in the last decades, and that it can now be revived. If that project succeeds, the consequences for the state’s minorities could be dire.

I HAD ALSO TRAVELLED THROUGH West Bengal before the 2011 election, speaking to a variety of people about their motivations and expectations. The mood then was infectiously upbeat, and it was tempting to believe, as many did, that a complete political transformation was imminent. Through the late years of Left Front rule, the resistance movements in Singur and Nandigram, and another against a massive, indiscriminate security operation against Naxalite rebels in Adivasi areas, dragged thousands of people out of decades-long apathy and hopelessness. The politicians and cadres had long monopolised almost all political space, but now citizens from all walks of life—peasants, labourers, students and intellectuals—began dissenting and demonstrating, demanding an end to lawlessness, corruption, economic stagnation and the suppression of dissent. The TMC placed itself at the forefront of the protests, and the party was invested with popular hopes.

On this journey, just five years later, often it felt as if that remarkable moment had never been. Everywhere I went, the pre-poll mood was one of cynicism, as most voters steeled themselves to pick the leaders they found least unpleasant, rather than the ones they really trusted. Added to that hopelessness was a heavy dose of fear, as the cadre once again ran rampant. Most ordinary people had retreated from politics.

Just a few weeks before the first phase of voting was to begin, a series of videos were leaked to the media, showing several top TMC leaders accepting cash in return for favours to a fictitious company. The entire opposition—the Left Front, the Congress and the BJP—all began baying for investigations and resignations, hoping to weaken the TMC as much as possible. Amid all the noise, however, many Bengalis seemed to just shrug their shoulders and move on. The whole script was sickeningly familiar, and only confirmed their despair.

Given West Bengal’s history of political violence, there is concern that state forces alone will not do enough to protect voters. The election commission has announced that the upcoming poll will be overseen by central security forces DIBYANSHU SARKAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Fundamentally, West Bengal’s perverse political culture has carried on uninterrupted over the last five years. In this election and beyond, the TMC, now beholden to the old political culture, is unlikely to change it. Among the opposition too, no party or formation looks likely to have the strength to even try. Yet until the old ways go, regardless of who wins electorally, the people of West Bengal only stand to lose.

While in Haldia, I met M Lakshmipati Rao, a former worker and a resident of the area for more than four decades. Rao used to work at Haldia’s port, and joined the CPI(M) in 1977. He rose through the party, becoming a part of its local committee and joining a party-led union of port workers. In 2010, after being kicked off the local committee, he left the CPI(M) in disgust. “I saw the party degenerate before my own eyes,” he told me. Now, he keeps politics at arm’s length. In the coming election, he said, after all West Bengal has been through, he saw no cause for optimism.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Abdur Razzak Mollah as the general secretary of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind in West Bengal. The Caravan regrets the error.