West Bengal: Can Trinamool Party Oust Communists?

May 10, 2011

Sandip Roy

Supporters of Mamata Banerjee rally in Calcutta wearing the Trinamool party colors and logo. The three leaf clover-like symbol represents leaves of grass and grass flowers - to suggest a grassroots party.
A house on a small side street in Calcutta is adorned with election graffiti. The Trinamool Congress logo looks like a three-leaf clover. The name of that party's candidate, Mamata Banerjee, is written in Bengali on the lower left.

Commentator Sandip Roy grew up in Calcutta. He moved back there earlier this year after living in the U.S. for 2 decades.

Five states in India have chosen who will run their governments. The election results will be announced on May 13. One election has drawn particular attention inside and outside of India. In West Bengal, the Communist party has ruled for over three decades, the only state in India where it's been in power that long. And this time, there's a serious challenger. Calcutta is the capital of West Bengal. Commentator Sandip Roy says the city is crackling with excitement.

It's a hot, muggy day. I'm in the middle of a streetside rally in Calcutta, and I can hear Mamata Banerjee saying the eyes of the whole world are on West Bengal.

Mamata is India's railway minister but she wants to be chief minister, the elected head of West Bengal's government. This middle-aged woman in a white sari and bathroom slippers just might topple the ruling Communist Party.

Mamata doesn't promise anything radical – more industry, investment, clean government. She's really about change. In Calcutta, usually nothing much changes. It was once the capital of British India, but these days it's the city that time (and India) forgot. Trams still trundle down the congested streets lined with quietly moldering mansions.

But this election has everyone abuzz. Historian Bharati Ray says that "to oust a government after 35 years of rule, a Communist government — particularly after what happened in Russia and what is happening in Cuba — is of international interest."

Over those 35 years, elections don't seem to have changed much, though the voting machines are now electronic. There's brightly colored election grafitti all over the walls. Posters still flutter from the backs of rickshaws. The Communist party faithful marches down the streets shouting "long live the revolution."

But both campaigns have tiptoed across new frontiers. Mamata's Trinamool Congress party got into social media, inspired by the Obama campaign. The local newspaper rated the parties' websites. The Communists came out ahead.

The Trinamool vice president, Derek O'Brien, says his side won the cookie race (hammer and sickle cookies for the Communists or Trinamool cookies with their three leaf clover-ish logo). "I was very happy to know we were selling 8 to 2" he says. "And the cookies [were] very expensive by Indian standards – a dollar and half."

But campaign cookies — and text messages and American-style town hall debates — are just the icing of democracy. The real story of change in this election is not high tech versus low — or even Mamata versus the Communists.

It is the way the elections are reported and conducted, argues journalist Ruchir Joshi. India's democracy is strong but politics can be dangerous here. Just a few years ago, West Bengal police shot dozens of people during a political protest.

"Earlier," says Joshi "a lot of nastiness in Indian politics would happen because who is going to see if I put a bullet through your head. That is more and more difficult to do now."

This time, a strengthened election commission monitored polling places. And television and the internet reach into the smallest communities.

"For the first time the normal public has a sense I can go and vote for who I want," Joshi continues. "There is a special election bubble which gives people courage."

I couldn't vote in this election. I'm an American citizen. But all around me I see inkstains on people's fingers, the indelible mark that says they voted. It makes sure you don't get to vote twice. But I also see it as a stamp of courage and the faith ordinary Indians have in their chaotic democracy. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.