Why West Bengal Isn’t East Berlin

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It is an almost irresistible comparison. When Mamata Banerjee triumphed over the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in recent state elections in West Bengal, she ended the rule of the world’s longest continuous democratically elected Communist government.  Here’s how Swapan Dasgupta described it to the Financial Times:

“For many Bengalis, it’s the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall…For them, it was 30 years of complete stagnation where the state’s share of manufacturing output fell from 13 per cent to 3 per cent.”

After the Wall comes down, what next? It’s a logical question. West Bengal is one of India’s poorest and most poorly managed states, and Banerjee will certainly be under pressure to do better. The Wall Street Journal makes a game attempt at teasing out clues to her economic priorities from her public statements and party manifesto.

It’s a useful exercise, but it makes the mistaken assumption that voters in West Bengal have voted out the Communists for economic reasons and must want something radically different. What voters in West Bengal — and so many millions of others all over India — want actually hasn’t changed much in decades — jobs, basic services like “bijli, pani, sadak” — electricity, water, roads — and when they are feeling very optimistic, functional schools for their children. In response, Banerjee’s government is likely to do what most governments in India do, Communists included — some combination of encouraging private-sector jobs and doling out public-sector subsidies.

So why the sudden rejection of the Communists? After 30 years in power, they were thrown out in an embarrassing defeat. It wasn’t even close. Banerjee’s party won 225 of the state assembly’s 294 seats.

A look at West Bengal’s recent history shows that their downfall wasn’t sudden at all. And voters’ biggest grievance against them wasn’t economic; it was moral. In March 2007, 14 people were killed by police (controlled by the Communist-led state government) during protests over an industrial development project; a few months earlier, a teenager who had been active in similar protests at Singur was raped and murdered; two Communist Party workers were convicted of the crime. Those incidents were the beginning of the end for the Communists, who could no longer credibly portray themselves as champions of the poor. The protests escalated in 2008, causing Tata Motors to move its Nano factory out of West Bengal. The Communists lost ground in 2009 parliamentary elections, and again in local elections last year.

Banerjee expertly channeled this anger. Jim Yardley of the New York Times describes her in action earlier this year:

She had already driven overnight to the scene of the shooting and then returned to Calcutta for a rally the previous night with almost 100,000 people. At the rally, as smoke floated over the dais and balloon-tied banners bearing her face floated into the air, she blamed the Left Front for the killings and reminded the crowd, if indirectly, that she, too, had felt the blows of political violence. It is the crucible of her political story. … “They have attacked me many times,” she said, explaining why her politics are so personal. As her car moved through traffic, she rolled back her sari to show long scars on both elbows. She touched a spot on her jaw where the skin was repaired by plastic surgery. “From my belly to my back to my eyes,” she said. “I’m covered in these things.”

Having finally defeated those she blames for her scars, she could have taken revenge. Instead, in her first public address after her election, Banerjee issued specific instructions to her party rank-and-file for calm:

“Do not beat up anybody. It is very easy to beat up someone…. The CPM goons had beaten me so many times, now the people of Bengal have taught them a lesson.”

She’s a smart enough politician to learn that lesson herself. Anger got her elected, but she’ll need peace to govern.