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India's Left Front pays the price of 'arrogance'

Election defeat is blamed on corruption by party officials, the desertion of its Muslim supporters and economic mismanagement.

KOLKATA // India's Left Front is searching for answers after a crushing defeat in the general election, with anxious leaders calling for an immediate review of the party's performance. But analysts and some senior members believe it is facing an uphill task and could end up losing control of West Bengal, which it has ruled since 1977, in the 2011 state assembly elections.

The Left Front, of which the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), is the largest member, only won only 24 seats in the 543-seat parliament, down from 61 in the 2004 elections. In West Bengal its tally dropped from 35 to 15 and it also suffered heavy losses in Kerala. While in Kerala it suffered because of party infighting, in West Bengal the debacle has been blamed on factors such as the communist-led government's aggressive policy of acquisition of farmland for industrialisation or urbanisation, corruption among party cadres and desertion of the party by disgruntled Muslims.

In the last parliament, the Left Front had been a key ally in the Congress-led national coalition of the United Progressive Alliance, but after being an influential member of the coalition for four years, last year it withdrew support from the alliance over concerns about a nuclear deal with the United States. In West Bengal the Left Front was defeated by a Congress ally, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, which won 19 seats in this year's election, up from its previous tally of one.

"This result is, in fact, a very big disappointment - a setback to us," Sitaram Yechury, a CPI (M) politburo member, told CNN-IBN, an English-language Indian TV news channel. In a bid to win back its traditional supporters, Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front, said the party would "analyse the unexpected results, learn necessary lessons and take corrective measures". A CPI (M) statement last week promised "serious examination and self critical review [of party's failure in elections] ? for corrective steps".

West Bengal's minority development minister, Abdus Sattar, said the Left Front would "definitely continue" in power through the next state elections and "small misunderstandings" between the party and its traditional supporters would be cleared up. However, Gautam Ray, a Kolkata-based political analyst, said the Left Front could face a political disaster in the 2011 state elections, even if it embarked on serious efforts to win back its traditional support base.

"In this short period it's an uphill task for the Front to reverse this massive loss caused by decades of corruption, negligence and mismanagement. We shall not be surprised if the communists lose control of the state in 2011," said Mr Ray, a senior editor of the Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper. "There's an anti-Left wave sweeping. With a fierce rival like Mamata [Banerjee] targeting to take control of the state, the job for the Left parties has now become increasingly difficult."

West Bengal's land reform minister and veteran CPI (M) leader, Abdur Rezzak Molla, who had warned the state government against its "hasty" policy of large-scale acquisition of farmland, said it would be "impossible" for the Left Front to hold on to power in the state. "Farmers were scared of losing their lands. The Muslim middle class for years have been complaining of discrimination in society.

"Corruption has become well-entrenched in at least the middle and lower rungs. Party leaders overlooked people's grievances and now we are paying for their vices, including arrogance and indifference," Mr Molla said. "They are planning steps on these 'corrective measures' now - years after I had suggested them to do so. It's too late. It's impossible for the Front to win a majority in the next assembly elections."

Anjan Basu, executive editor of Sangbad Pratidin, a Kolkata-based newspaper, has previously said that Muslims, who constituted 27 per cent of the state's population and had played the major role in keeping the Left Front in power, were turning against the communists. "Unless the Front can convincingly assure the farmers that they would not take away their croplands and Muslim issues like fair representation in government jobs and improvement of their living conditions are addressed, it can never hold on to power," he said.

This week, in a clear bid to regain its base among Muslims, the Left Front leadership announced it would review the effectiveness of the state government's approach to minority empowerment and dropped a plan to take over south Bengal farmland that it planned to build a city centre on. But a Muslim community leader in Kolkata said that with 40 per cent of the farmers being Muslim and a large, educated Muslim middle class reeling in hopelessness, the Left Front had no chance of winning the 2011 elections.

"In my college days I knew communists were the people with the best political ideology and were the most trusted saviours of weak or minority communities. Banking on key Muslim votes they have been staying in power for more than three decades. But they have done so little for us - we feel cheated," said Aziz Mubaraki. "Now the leaders are trying to revive the party by trying to win back the Muslims. But Muslims are not going to trust them that easily and in the 2011 elections the communists will discover this bitter truth."