Fri, 04 May 2001

Polls weigh up India's communists

By Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters): The Soviet Union may have disintegrated and the Berlin Wall may have fallen, but there is still a communist government in India's West Bengal.

Now elections in the eastern state -- one of five going to the polls next week -- will put an alliance of leftist parties to its toughest test since taking power there 24 years ago.

The polls are not likely to have much impact on the stability of the ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But there is no doubt that the loss of West Bengal would be a body blow to the left, which has played a key role in "third front" alliances with regional groups at a federal level to counter the two heavyweight parties, the BJP and Congress.

The communists' share of India's national vote has been eroded to less than eight percent over the last 15 years.

However, with a tally of 41 lawmakers in the 545-seat lower house of parliament they still carry enough clout to trouble the government.

"If the Communists lose West Bengal, their ability to maneuver at the national level and play a larger-than-life role will be seriously hurt. It is critical for them to win," political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told Reuters.

The communist front in West Bengal, fighting for a sixth consecutive term, faces a formidable challenge from an alliance of the regional Trinamool Congress and Sonia Gandhi's Congress.

Trinamool is headed by a Congress defector, Mamata Banerjee, whose fiery anti-communist speeches and street-smart politics have won her a mass following in West Bengal.

An opinion poll in the Times of India last month showed that the ruling left would lose its Bengali bastion, though analysts say the election looks too close to call.

The communists are going to polls with a mixed record.

The fruits of India's decade-old drive for economic liberalization have largely passed by West Bengal. Industrial unrest, led by militant leftist unions, has resulted in a flight of industry and higher unemployment over the past 20 years.

But tough state laws that make it hard for government and public sector employees to be fired has created a loyal vote bank for the Left.

Radical land reform has also generated goodwill in rural areas.

Voters in the southern state of Kerala -- home to the world's first democratically elected Marxist government in the 1950s -- also vote in legislative assembly elections on May 10.

Kerala has traditionally swung between Congress and left rule every five years when elections are held.

This time, ruling leftists are being challenged by a Congress- led alliance. Analysts say the poor shape of Kerala's economy, hit by low farm product prices, could work against them.

Congress is also hoping to win the insurgency-torn northeastern state of Assam against an alliance of the regional Asom Gana Parishad party and Vajpayee's BJP.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, there will be a face-off between two regional parties which have the Congress and BJP as junior partners.

Analysts say victory in Assam and Kerala for Congress and in West Bengal for Trinamool would be morale boosters for Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The media have lambasted her leadership of India's oldest party as "uninspired". Under her, Congress took its lowest-ever tally of lawmakers -- just 114 -- in the 1999 general elections.

"If the Congress wins in two states, it will help her meet criticism of her leadership style and put more pressure on the central government," Rangarajan said.

But other analysts say even a good showing by the Congress in the state polls will not shake Vajpayee's coalition government.

"Several key allies like the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh have the Congress as their main political rival. So the Vajpayee government is being held together by fear of Congress," said Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express.

There is also concern about violence in the polls, especially in Assam -- where separatist guerrillas have threatened to disrupt the process -- and in West Bengal.

"There is a very real threat of violence especially in rural areas (of West Bengal), where communists are entrenched," said a senior editor of a Calcutta-based newspaper.