A golden Raymond Weil wall clock — tucked between two rows of framed portraits of leaders long gone — ticks away ominously. Marxist stalwarts from EMS Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet to Jyoti Basu and Pramode Dasgupta stare down gravely from the photographs. And the clock reminds visitors — the few who drop in — that there is, perhaps, no going back in time.
The West Bengal headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in Alimuddin Street, a narrow slice of a road in central Kolkata. And quite like the party it houses, the four-storey building looks forlorn. A torn poster bestows a “Red Salute” on Fidel Castro, but half of the late Cuban leader’s name is missing from it.
The Left has been sliding in Bengal over the years, but the 2019 election result spells doom for the party that ruled the state from 1977 to 2011. It failed to win any of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, and its candidates lost their security deposits in every seat but one.
The CPI(M), which lost to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in the 2011 state Assembly elections, once commanded 50 per cent of the votes polled in the state. This year, its vote share plunged to 7.8 per cent.
Eight years ago, cars with flashing dome lights and wailing sirens zoomed in and out of the lane, ferrying powerful ministers and party leaders. Journalists, the police, party workers — everybody called on Alimuddin Street, for that’s how they referred to Muzaffar Ahmed Bhavan, named after another late leader. Going to Alimuddin Street meant a visit to the party office. The CPI(M)’s diktats were simply known in bureaucratic or ministerial circles as “orders from Alimuddin Street”.
Like the party, the fading pink building, streaked with mildew, looks as if it’s caught in a time warp. The repair that was needed never got done — neither for the building, nor for the party.
The large Kolkata Police kiosk on the busy Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road — where Alimuddin Street starts — remains to this day. But it has a lone policeman dozing on a plastic chair.
The street where roadside parking was once forbidden to ensure the smooth passage of chief ministers Jyoti Basu and his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is now clogged with parked cars, taxis, motorcycles and rickshaws. An unbearable stench of squalor and urine hangs in the air.
Reams can be written about what caused the CPI(M)’s decline in the state. It may have started with villagers protesting against land acquisition in Singur, where the Tatas had sought to set up a plant. The turning point was the 2007 Nandigram police firing — in which 14 people protesting in a march against a government plan to acquire land for an economic zone were gunned down. Some analysts blame the 2011 defeat on the party’s continuing reliance on an ageing leadership with a moribund outlook. The CPI(M) could no longer attract the young and, after 34 years, even old voters were thirsting for change or paribartan , as they called it in Bengali.
The CPI(M)’s 2019 loss is the BJP’s gain. The Bharatiya Janata Party won 18 seats against the Trinamool’s 22 and Congress’s two. Many believe that under attack from the ruling party, CPI(M) workers and grassroots leaders in rural Bengal had openly joined or stealthily worked for the BJP in an attempt to defeat the Trinamool and save their skins.
“There is no denying that a lack of younger leadership is one of the reasons for our defeat and we need to introspect. But the way Mamata Banerjee’s party attacked us and tried to decimate the Opposition in Bengal after it came to power in 2011 also contributed to our loss and the BJP’s victory,” says Shatarup Ghosh, the 33-year-old state secretariat member of the party’s youth wing. “They broke our strikes, did not allow us to contest the panchayat elections as they tried to wipe out the Left with a vengeance.”
Ghosh, like many others in the CPI(M), holds that the BJP came up in the resultant political vacuum, aided by the relentless work of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in rural Bengal, where the saffron party fared exceptionally well in the recent polls. Chief Minister Banerjee’s decision to give imams a monthly honorarium of ₹1,000 and defer the immersion of idols after the Durga Puja to make way for Muharram processions gave a boost to the BJP’s “minority appeasement” charge against the Trinamool. “It gave the BJP a foothold in Bengal politics,” says a CPI(M) leader.
But the CPI(M) also missed the signs of discontent brewing right under its nose. “Even before 2011, Muslims living here who had stood by the CPI(M) had begun to leave it for Mamata Banerjee’s party,” says Shahnawaz, 55, who owns a grocery store near the party office. “They did nothing for us. Only the leaders of the CPI(M) local committees had benefited from its rule in the state, not ordinary Muslims.”
The grocer, who studied in a missionary school till Std X, refers to himself as “Mr Shahnawaz”, without adding an Islamic prefix to it. He holds that “educated Muslims are not afraid of” the BJP and its growth in Bengal.
“There could be fear of the BJP among illiterate Muslims, but not among us. Name a single secular party which has really done something for us, except to use us for votes,” he asks.
The time has come, he says, for change, another paribartan .
Debaashish Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Kolkata