Sat, May 13, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Indian left combines old with new for election success

AGENCIES , CALCUTTA AND NEW DELHI, INDIA

Sitting in his leather chair in an airconditioned office, Indian businessman Kaushal Kumbhat beamed as communists raced to victory in state elections in West Bengal on Thursday.

The world's longest-serving democratically elected communist government owes its success to the support of tens of millions of impoverished peasants, but in modern India it is also reinventing itself to attract middle-class urban votes.

After two decades of pushing for peasants' rights, land reforms and agricultural growth, West Bengal's communists changed tack in the past five years to woo foreign and domestic investment, boosting the economy and impressing capitalists.

It is a winning strategy. In Thursday's state elections, they gained 36 seats to win 235 of the 294 seats in the local assembly, their seventh straight win in the state since 1977.

"Industry is booming in the state and West Bengal is an oasis of peace," said 37-year-old Kumbhat, who heads a financial firm, after voting for a communist for the first time.

As communists romped home in West Bengal -- India's fourth most populated state and bordering Bangladesh -- the country's left "have never had it so good," according to a newspaper editor.

The left also won power in the southern state of Kerala, defeating the Congress party, which heads the coalition government in New Delhi. Communists also rule Tripura, a small state in the northeast.

The left also has one hand on the reins of power in New Delhi, its record 61 members of parliament shoring up the Congress Party-led national coalition.

This has given them unprecedented political clout in New Delhi and the ability to influence economic and foreign policy.

Analysts say in Kerala and West Bengal, the communists have managed to break into new groups. In Kerala, the communists have won over many Muslims from hardline and pro-Congress moderate Muslim groups.

In West Bengal, the communists have attracted businessmen and middle-class urban voters by adopting pro-business policies.

Disciplined and motivated cadres have also given the leftists a cutting edge.

In Kerala, the left built its base by taking part in social movements like spreading literacy, empowering women and fighting for agrarian reforms and peasants' rights from the 1940s.

In West Bengal, economic reforms under the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee have seen information technology com-panies flock to Kolkata, a city once seen as "dying."

Meanwhile, Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi won a by-election on Thursday with a massive majority and regained her national parliamentary seat.

Gandhi -- the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the power behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government -- regained her seat in Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh state that she gave up during a high-profile political row over holding a government job after being elected as a lawmaker.

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