Indian Communists Face Stiff Challenge in West Bengal

A man sits in a trishaw decorated with Trinamool Congress (TMC) placards on a roadside in Kolkata. Voters streamed into polling stations in West Bengal on Monday in state elections that could see populist maverick Mamata Banerjee unseat the world's longes

In India, the world’s longest-ruling, democratically-elected communist government is struggling for survival in West Bengal, a state long regarded as a leftist bastion.

Monday’s voting in West Bengal marks the first phase of polling, which is being held in six stages in the next three weeks.

Voters are choosing a regional government. But the election in West Bengal is being watched all across the country amid forecasts that the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has not lost an election in West Bengal since 1977, is likely to be ousted from power.

Political analysts say that Mamata Banerjee - the fiery leader of an opposition regional party, the Trinamool Congress - could sweep the polls and end the uninterrupted 34-year rule of the Marxists.

Banerjee, who is positioning herself as the new champion of the poor, is India’s railway minister and is allied with the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi. If she wins, she has promised to revive industry and agriculture in a state where economic fortunes have plummeted in recent decades.

Political analyst and history professor at Delhi University, Mahesh Rangarajan, says there is what he calls a "negative current" against West Bengal's communist government.

"It has been in power for more than a generation. There are changing expectations… They did have some fairly formidable achievements. But 35 years is a long time. There is a new generation who has never known another government and maybe they and the elders want a change,” Rangarajan said.

The popularity of the communists was built on distributing land to millions of poor people. But the state has lagged behind in industrial development and is far less prosperous than some of the country’s other regions. Once counted as among India’s premier cities, the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata, is now one of its most rundown.

However, efforts to industrialize the state and make it more economically vibrant boomeranged on the communists in recent years, as farmer’s stiffly resisted acquisition of their land to build a huge automobile plant. The violent protests were led by candidate Mamata Banerjee.

Political analysts say, even if the communists suffer a defeat, they will continue to be a strong force in the state.

Votes in the staggered Indian elections will be counted on May 13 for all the states. In addition to deciding the fate of the Communists in West Bengal, the results will also indicate if the issues of corruption and high inflation have impacted the popularity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led government with voters in other parts of the country, where regional polls were held earlier in the month.