May 9, 2006

Mixed Report for India’s Long-running Left

By Kamil Zaheer

GOTALA HAT, India (Reuters) - Farm laborer Allauddin Sheikh voted last month for yet another term for the world's longest-running elected communist government in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

Allauddin earns around 80 rupees a day ($1.80), but he is guaranteed work and a certain share of the produce he tills, thanks to sweeping land reforms brought by the Left Front government.

His children don't have to go hungry and that is reason enough to vote for the communists, who are expected to extend their 29-year control of West Bengal in the five-phase elections that end on Monday.

"When I was young, my family often went without food. I knew real hunger and it was hard," said the 52-year-old farmer in Gotala Hat, a village of rice fields and banana trees, 20 miles south of state capital, Kolkata.

After the left took over West Bengal in 1977, more than 2.5 million peasants received ownership of plots in India's most sweeping land distribution program.

Millions of sharecroppers like Sheikh were given legal protection against eviction from plots they tilled and a share of the produce.

"Though we are poor, at least my family now has enough rice to eat thanks to the Left Front," Sheikh said.


But while the communists changed the countryside, they neglected industry and the cities, and allowed militant unions to thrive.

Industries and money fled Kolkata, which was once India's industrial capital, and the state was shunned by business due to strikes and labor unrest.

In the 1980s, more than 35,000 industrial units and business enterprises, large and small, shut down.

Businessmen said making money was almost impossible.

"They made healthy industries sick thanks to uncontrolled unionism," said Raj Rathi, a businessman in Kolkata.

But he said the situation had improved with the present chief minister of the state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who put the spotlight on urban areas and began to woo foreign and domestic capital.

Over the past five years, West Bengal has seen foreign and private domestic investment flow into the information technology sectors with firms like IBM and HSBC setting up software development centers and backoffices.

This has, for the first time, attracted middle-class voters and businessmen -- normally seen as anti-left -- to the communists in the latest election.

Chief Minister Bhattacharjee says there is more work to be done to restore the state's industrial primacy.

"In the last 29 years, there have been many gains especially in agriculture but we have a long way to go," he told Reuters in an interview.

He tells supporters in election meetings that more jobs must be created in a state where unemployment is close to 10 percent of the population.

Some younger voters in rural areas are impatient for that change to come about.

"Sure, I get two meals a day, but I am not satisfied with only one pair of jeans I now have," said 25-year-old Hasan Sheikh, who works in a leather processing unit. "I want more."

(Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar)