A rising star battles India's communist bastion

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 18, 2011 2:13 AM
A rising star battles India's communist bastion

By Rupak De Chowdhuri

KOLKATA (Reuters) - Voters filled into polling stations in India's West Bengal state on Monday in a local election that could see a rising political star unseat the world longest-serving, democratically elected communist government and emerge as a key power broker.

After 34 years of communist rule, federal Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, simply known as "Didi" or "elder sister," looks set to overthrow a leftist government blamed for leaving West Bengal and its capital Kolkata in a time-warp of Soviet era state control.

Banerjee's Trinamool Party is allied to India's ruling Congress party and her victory would give the national coalition a moral boost at a time when it has been battered by high food inflation and graft scandals.

But analysts said that hopes that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may be able to revive stalled economic reforms are low because the coalition remains pre-occupied with fighting off an opposition onslaught on the graft charges.

If anything, a landslide win for Banerjee may only leave the Congress more vulnerable to pressure from its populist partner.

Results for the month-long staggered election will be known on May 13.

The 56-year-old's victory would seal her position as one of India's most powerful regional politicians with the ability to influence Singh's government, which is dependent on her party's 19 seats in the 545-member national parliament

Congress has 207 seats and depends on regional allies like Trinamool to reach the 272 halfway mark in parliament.

Banerjee with her trademark white sari and known for her spartan life-style, has won support with firebrand speeches and aggressive leadership against the communists that saw her once severely beaten up by communist mob.

"I promise to run North Bengal into Switzerland" she told supporters at the weekend on the campaign trail. Monday's election is centered on the remote northern part of the state.

Her statement, widely quoted in local media, referred to bringing the railway network up to Swiss standards. It was the kind of rhetoric that her critics say highlights her lack of real policy beyond criticizing the communists.

As dawn broke on Monday, scores of voters formed queues outside one unopened booth, excitedly showing their identity cards to security personnel in Siliguri, some 600 km (370-mile) north of state capital Kolkata.

"There are no predictable results in India's politics, but if there were, then this would be the most predictable of them all," The Indian Express said in an editorial on Monday.

Once one of the richest cities in Asia and the capital of the British empire in India, Kolkata has become a byword for poverty that has stumbled behind the new modern India of IT cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

DISAFFECTED URBAN VOTERS

West Bengal has reflected wider issues in India. Banerjee gained popularity after overcoming communist plans to develop a Tata car plant on farmland - a battle that cost at least 14 lives and reflected the wider conflict between farmers and industry.

Her party has also benefited from millions of disaffected urban voters who feel the communists have largely benefited farmers at the expense of city dwellers increasingly demanding new jobs and better services.

The communists though have won praise for raising the living standards of poor farmers, their vote base.

Banerjee is criticized for standing more against the communists than standing for anything. She calls for industrialization and infrastructure in West Bengal but litters her speech with rhetoric.

As railway minister, Banerjee refused to raise passenger fares despite criticism that the network's finances were shaky. Banerjee has also been criticized for enthusiasm for flagging off new passenger trains -- crowd-pleasing measures that strain the sector's finances and derail freight growth.

"She has promised so much to so many that following through on any of it will be problematic," the Indian Express said.

(Added reporting by Henry Foy and Matthias Williams: Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)