The Marxists may believe that they can finesse public opinion with their periodic sulks against the Manmohan Singh government even while they dine in splendour to celebrate four years of joint rule. But the people are not that easily fooled. They know the difference between talk and action. They know that artificial froth costs nothing, while the price of food they buy in the market is rising each day.There is a television game called "Double Jeopardy" built around the rather depressing thought that the answer to a problem might be a problem in itself. India's Marxists have just discovered that this game could spill over into reality.
Moralists have long condemned those politicians who enjoy power without responsibility. The CPI(M) is now discovering the pain of having responsibility without power. That is probably closer to a triple jeopardy.
If ever there was a double jeopardy in politics, then the hammering they have just received across West Bengal in the panchayat elections is a gloomy, or glowering, example. From control of 2,303 village panchayats in 2003, the CPI (M)-led Left Front has stumbled to 1,633; the Mamata Banerjee-led disunited Opposition ascended from 917 to 1,463. Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress won more than three-fourths of the village councils.
Two facts stand out in the Bengal results: Mamata won villages that she had not even bothered to campaign in; and the most decisive shift away from the Left was the Muslim vote which it has wooed so consistently with its absolutist opposition to the BJP. The upsurge against the Left in Bengal is therefore greater than these results indicate. If this pattern holds then the Left could lose more than 15 seats in the next general elections.
And it is no longer sufficient to go red each time you see saffron in order to pocket Muslim votes. Muslims want more, including bread and education. As the Sachar Committee's report proved, during more than three decades in power the Left has given neither to Bengal's Muslims. It has certainly provided security to the community, but that is not enough. You cannot take land with impunity from the Bengali Muslim peasant and yet frighten him into voting for you. That era is over. The tectonic shift in the Muslim vote has cut the ground from under the CPI(M)'s Fortress Bengal.
There are many reasons why the Muslims did not revolt against the Left Front before. The leadership of Jyoti Basu was both charismatic and reassuring. Basu knew the language that would communicate with the people, even if in practical terms (that is, bread and education) he did not do very much. He shepherded the community through its most vulnerable phase, 1970s and 1980s, with the kind of concern that the sentimental might even confuse with affection. It was psychologically impossible for Muslims to leave the CPI(M) as long as Jyoti Basu was at the helm. His successor, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, was another matter. Buddhadev had been insensitive to Muslim sentiment even when a minister in Basu's Cabinet. Muslims might have accepted his lectures on the aazan and madrasas if he had begun to address their bread-and-education concerns. Instead, the lectures came with the most appalling usurpation of land in Singur and Nandigram. Muslims were among the worst affected.
There is a phenomenon that is being shrouded by the shift of the Muslim vote towards Mamata Banerjee. In the 1960s, as Bengal's Muslims abandoned the Congress, many of them first went to marginal parties, including outfits led by the clergy. In the elections of the late 1960s, parties that were variations of the Muslim League set up candidates and got a reasonable chunk of the vote. The CPI(M), under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, weaned the Muslims towards the Left and eliminated such parties. They have returned to Bengal politics.
A little before the panchayat elections, Jyoti Basu made a casual remark that was not so casual: it was time for another Front, he suggested. The CPI(M)'s partners are displaying signs of fatigue. But an alliance with CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc may be a smaller problem than the Left's dalliance with the Congress in Delhi. The Marxists may believe that they can finesse public opinion with their periodic sulks against the Manmohan Singh government even while they dine in splendour to celebrate four years of joint rule. But the people are not that easily fooled. They know the difference between talk and action. They know that artificial froth costs nothing, while the price of food they buy in the market is rising each day. Blaming the rest of world doesn't really help: oil prices shot up to unprecedented levels in 1973 as well, but it did not help Mrs Indira Gandhi when she blamed the international situation for domestic inflation. The government can take comfort from clever opinion polls. A recent one showed that the UPA government had 34% support, as against 26% for BJP and its partners. Then buried somewhere deep in the copy lay an interesting fact: the survey was done among 1,600 respondents in the big cities, and restricted to the very rich, the topmost socio-economic categories. The rich find inflation less demanding than the poor. And if Dr Manmohan Singh cannot get the vote of this segment, which constitutes less than 10% of the population, then he has no vote at all. I am sure if you take a poll within my family, you will find my support at 34%. If you check with the whole mohalla, it could be a different outcome. The difference between the Left and the UPA might seem distinct over dialectical debates in Delhi; it seems a blur from the villages of Bengal. Jyoti Basu always had a wonderful alibi when faced with difficult questions. He would blame lack of cooperation from Delhi and send subliminal signals that this was also discrimination against Bengalis. Buddhadev Bhattacharya tried to blame the Prime Minister during the panchayat elections. No one bought his story. The voter had seen him cozying up to Delhi too often.
The Marxists will lose very little if they lose Delhi. The Left can afford to lose Delhi; it cannot afford to slip in Bengal, or it will disappear for a decade.