West Bengal in its contemporary form is a new territory. One that came into existence at the helm of the midnight hour on August 15,1947. Prior to that, it was simply Bengal. Bengal whose geography was once distorted by Britishers who used the blade of divide and rule to slit it in 1905 into East and West Bengal based on religious demographics. Screams of the communal cut echoes till date. Nevertheless, with the span of time and struggle , independence was fetched and the western part of the Bengal province with a Hindu majority population got itched into India and Eastern front which was dominated by Muslims went to Pakistan; a deja vu of 1905 spilt, maybe?

It all started with Congress!

Politics in the newly formed West Bengal reciprocated the nation’s mood initially. Prafulla Chandra Ghose, a moderate Congress leader became the state’s first Chief Minister. Ghose was succeeded by the legendary Bidhan Chandra Roy, a Bhramo Samaj activist and physician who on Mahatma Gandhi’s advice acceded to become state’s second chief minister, ruling West Bengal from 1948 until his death in 1962. Another Prafulla Chandra but with surname “Sen” became the third Chief Minister of West Bengal after Roy’s death. Prafulla Chandra Sen’s reign witnessed drastic changes in centre’s politics . Indira Gandhi had become India’s Prime Minister following Lal Bahadur Shastri’s untimely death in Tashkan. She drew herself enormous flak from senior Congress leaders or the syndicate. In hindsight, Congress witnessed an internal split into Congress (O) or the old syndicate and Congress (I) , the loyalists to Indira. In Bengal, Prafulla Sen sided with Congress (O) and consecutively became unpopular.

The next legislative election proved to be a disappointment for the mighty Grand Old Party who broke its streak of victories and handed over the state’s administration to the first United Front Government led by Bangla Congress leader Ajoy Mukharjee. Bangla Congress was a tributary of Congress which came into inception when rebel congress leaders like Ajoy Mukharjee and Pranab Mukharjee (13th President of India) revolted against old syndicate leadership of Congress (O). United Front was an amalgamation of many left parties including CPI, CPI(Marxist) and All India Forward Bloc along with the independent Prafulla Chandra Ghose. PC Ghose as aforementioned served as state’s first Cheif Minister right after independence. PC Ghose is an important character in the 1st United Front government which took office in 1967 because he ultimately became responsible for dissolving the front 11 months after it took office due to ideological differences with his leftist counterparts. Second United Front govt. followed after a turbulent President’s Rule. Like its predecessor, the second United Front Government couldn’t sustain for very long and fell 13 months later. Next elections witnessed Congress’ resurgence to power under the leadership of Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Ray’s tenure is often scrutinized for it’s alleged quelling of communist leaders and supporter. Just after the elections Left parties were quick to accuse Congress for malpractices and rigging the elections.

The 1977 elections in West Bengal, first the Lok Sabha in March and then Assembly poll in June are important for two major reason. First, the humongous Janta Party backed by the veteran socialist Jay Prakash Narayan himself couldn’t spill its magic in West Bengal and second an invincible government of left leaning parties with communists acting as the torch bearers came to power ruling the state for the next 33 years.

Comrades in Bengal

Seeds of communism in India were sown long back in 1925 with the inception of Communist Party of India in Kanpur. Unprecedented success of the infamous October Revolution by Vladmir Lenin consolidated like minded rebels here in India to fight against imperial brutality and advocate for the working class. Communist Party’s influence in India was constrained to non Hindi speaking regions of Punjab , Andra Pradesh , Kerela , West Bengal etc. Among these provinces , West Bengal showed unsolicited zeal for communists. This was partly because Bengal was the 1st province that paved way for resistance against Britishers in early 20th century. Peasant unrests, culture of feudalism and consistent famines also rooted Communism as a popularly accepted alternative amongst Bengalis. But there activities continued to take place in Secret societies and Underground groups owing to their radical approach and affinity towards armed militancy.

The proper induction of communism in West Bengal’s politics happened after the emergence of Communist Party Of India (Marxist) which broke away from CPI in Calcutta in 1964. This is owed to an ideological contention among communists in India who reflected the international friction among communists.

Communists in China began to blame USSR’s communist Party for deviating from Marxist-Leninist principles. USSR saw that CPI must work in association with Indian National Congress. Organically, rebels came up and accused the CPI of becoming “right-wing”. As a result, these rebels who sided with China’s model of communism to strictly stick with the status quo of Communist principles gave birth to Communist Party Of India (Marxist). Pramode Dasgupta became the party’s first state secretary who would soon turn the tides of electoral politics in its favour because of his much celebrated “Pramode Formulae”. (to be discussed in the next section).

Pramode Formulae, ’77 elections and LAL SALAAM !

By the time Indira Gandhi called for fresh elections in March, 1977 after relaxing the Emergency, Congress had become very unpopular. The rising front in centre was Janata Party, an abysmal fusion of socialists, far-right parties and old syndicate leaders. Simultaneously , West Bengal Legislative elections were to be held in June that year. CPI(M) united left wing parties in West Bengal to form what would be called the “Left Front”. To secure victory the left front proposed a seat sharing scheme of 56% to 44% for Janata Party and itself respectively. But Janata Party’s confidence (or over-confidence) didn’t allow it to agree anywhere below 70%. The talks were dismissed and the left front decided to contest on its own.

Pramode Dasgupta, the CPI(M)’s state secretary (a dominant part of left front) proposed a formulae in which the party with highest share of votes in a constituency in the last election will field its candidate there under their own symbol and manifesto. This tactic didn’t prove to be futile.

The result came out in favour of the comrades; who swiped the elections with more than 6.5 lakh votes .Left front won 234 out of 294 assembly seats. CPI(M) which contested on 224 seats won 178 and fielded Jyoti Basu, the veteran Communist leader as the Chief Minister of the state. The lavish victory for the Left Front came from a plethora of factors. Food shortages which led to regular famines, penurious condition of the northern region of Bengal above and around Silliguri Corridors, dreads of peasants on food prices they got, an on and off imposition of president’s rule which halted the Democratic processes and off course the hard hitting anti incumbency because of Emergency etc. aided the Left Front in steering the elections.

CPI(M) which had a mere membership of 44,000 people in 1977 filled the void Congress created and galloped the opportunity which would make a historic tenure in terms of both duration and effect.

Holding power in hands, turn after turn

Left front’s magic wouldn’t have sustained for long had it not come up with three major reforms in rural Bengal. These three reforms were Operation Bagra, a land re-distribution drive and restructuring Panchayat elections.

Operation Bagra was a mission to confer the farmers their right over the crops they yield. Although there were provisions that entitled a farmer 75% of his produce or 50% if seeds came from a landlord , but as these provisions were mostly verbal, they were hardly binding. Operation Bagra was meant to educate the farmers of their rights.

In the land re-distribution scheme , plots above legal ceiling were identified and then seized by government. These plots were then redistributed among peasants. Along with land re-distribution and Bagra drive , it was Panchayat Reforms which popularized the Left Government amongst villagers. Panchayat elections in state had not been held for almost two decades. Feuds in villages were looked upon by influential families. The communist Government revamped the Panchayati system in a drive to decentralize democracy in state. It evoked the Panchayat committees to draw up development plans and funds from the centre. This was hugely successful , as was also reciprocated with left’s victory in Panchayat Elections in 1978.

In Urban areas, what popularized Jyoti Basu’s government was its ability to deal with law and order situation. Siddharth Shankar Ray’s tenure had seen a surge in chaos and regular political infighting in cities. Left government ended that chaos. Long hung demands of fee hike of school teachers was met and so was of police personnel. The trade unions affiliated to CPI (M) aided government employees and bankers. In hindsight, urban citizens were flattered nicely and so were rural voters.

Owing to these factors, Left Front swept the next seven Legislative assembly elections, first five with Jyoti Basu’s leadership and after Basu voluntarily retired from active politics in 2000 , Buddhadeb Bhattacharya administered as Chief Minister for the rest of left’s tenure which finally culminated with its loss in 2011 assembly elections. It was Mamata Banerjee, a fierce critic of the left whose party All India Trinamool Congress in coalition with Indian National Congress defeated the once invincible left front. Communist’s adorned slogan of “Peace-Land-Bread” turned stone cold infront of Didi’s “Ma-Maati-Maanush” which translates to “Mother-Earth-People”.

PRIYANSHU is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism (Hons.) from Delhi School Of Journalism (University Of Delhi). I hail from Patna, Bihar. I am keenly interested in Politics, History and Urdu Poetry.

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  1. Subhajit Pal says:

    Three questions for you: can you elucidate your reason for using the term ‘infamous’ for October Revolution. Second what do you mean by the term ‘syndicate’? And third why did not you take into consideration the events from Naxalbari that has a huge bearing in the regional politics and holds relevance in the public folklore even today?

    • Farooque Chowdhury says:

      Mr. Subhajit Pal has reasonably raised the questions including “infamous October Revolution”. Mr. Pal has reasonably said: “Naxalbari that has a huge bearing in the regional politics and holds relevance in the public folklore even today”. Mr. Priyanshu, it’s expected, will come up with answers to the questions, which will help to learn.

  2. Farooque Chowdhury says:

    It’s Operation Barga, not Bagra.