May 8, 2006

Mixed report card for India’s long-running leftists

By Kamil Zaheer

GOTALA HAT, India (Reuters) - Farm laborer Allauddin Sheikh
will vote on Monday 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

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 Gotal Hat, a village of rice fields and banana trees, 30 km
(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 programme.

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)