Voters in West Bengal have been witness in recent weeks to an intriguing advocacy for an election alliance between the communists and the Congress, parties that have always identified themselves in opposition to each other in the state. The intensity of the pitch is rising as the election nears — former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee appealed publicly to the Congress last week for a quick deal to unseat Mamata Banerjee.
There was a note of desperation in Bhattacharjee’s call to the Congress — made on Saturday from Singur, a prominent signboard on the road to the end of the Left’s 34-year rule in West Bengal. CPM insiders say that until recently Bhattacharjee, and many others in the party, had serious doubts over the extent to which communists and the Congress would be able to transfer their votes to the other party in a seat-sharing arrangement. But that doubt has since receded, and a sizeable section of the communist leadership now believes a reasonable vote-transfer can be expected, they say.
And yet, even in the best case scenario, an alliance — and transfer of votes — will likely only bring to each party some more seats than they might have won contesting individually; under no circumstances can it dislodge the Trinamool Congress from power. Left leaders — and indeed, even Congress leaders — seem to have started to believe that an alliance is probably the only way to ensure that they are not humiliated by an election debacle of unprecedented magnitude.
This is the backdrop against which Bhattacharjee, state CPM secretary Surya Kanta Mishra, CPM Lok Sabha member Mohammed Salim, former CPM MP Sujan Chakraborty, RSP leader Manas Bhattacharya, and Manju Majumdar of the CPI are all willing to experiment with a Congress tie-up.
Similar enthusiasm is in evidence among leaders of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress, who have been making frequent statements arguing for an electoral understanding with the communists. A strong WBPCC lobby — which includes state president and Baharampur MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, veteran leaders Somen Mitra and Abdul Mannan, and Rajya Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya — has mounted a systematic campaign to influence the Congress leadership.PCC general secretary Professor O P Mishra of Jadavpur University has written to Congress president Sonia Gandhi twice — on December 31 and January 14 — to stress that “we must seize this political opportunity… (and) should we decide on a tie-up with the Left, it would be a win-win situation”.
The opposition to this line has come from leaders such as former WBPCC president Manash Bhuniya, who has said: “Some Congress leaders are playing to the tune of the Left. The political compulsions of the communists have forced them to take such a stance for the moment. There has not been any meeting of the WBPCC secretariat or the executive committee to recommend such a step (tie-up). Let Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi decide on this, and let us not forget that over 40,000 Congress workers were butchered in West Bengal under Left rule.”
As in the case of the individual Congressmen, the stance adopted by leaders of the state CPM too doesn’t have the official backing of their party as yet. The CPM central leadership remains unwilling to commit to a deal with the Congress. General Secretary Sitaram Yechury has said that electoral alliances were “now not on the agenda”, and the Politburo and Central Committee would take a decision at an appropriate time “in accordance with the political-tactical line adopted at the 21st party congress”.
The political-tactical line adopted at the April 2015 Visakhapatnam congress said that “the main direction of (the CPM’s) attack should be against the BJP when it is in power, but this cannot mean having an electoral understanding with the Congress”. However, the document also said that there could be “swift changes in the political situation” and “new contradictions” could emerge — therefore, “flexible tactics should be evolved to deal with the situation”.
The ground reality in West Bengal today explains why the concerted attempt at igniting the seemingly incongruous poll chemistry of a communist-Congress combine should be gaining ground. The Congress faces a rout — its fortunes have until now been limited to the Malda-Murshidabad-Dinajpur belt, and Mamata has concentrated resources here. Signs of major TMC inroads in these areas are visible in the party’s victories in panchayats and local self government bodies. No one knows this better than WBPCC president Chowdhury, whose stomping ground this belt has been for long. “If we go with the Left, the CPM may, in the worst case, betray us in the future. With the Trinamool Congress we are actually facing total destruction,” says Chowdhury.
The Left Front is far from a revival. The CPM has organised some impressive rallies and mass programmes of late, but grassroots reports are not sufficiently encouraging yet. The Left has been bleeding as both its elected representatives and rank and file cross over to the TMC. A young, vibrant leadership to take on the Trinamool challenge is missing. The CPM’s four-day plenum in Kolkata last month stressed on attracting more youth and “unleashing mightier people’s struggles to develop the independent strength of the party”.
An obvious conundrum lies in the fact that the West Bengal assembly elections will likely happen simultaneously with Kerala, where the Congress will be the CPM’s principal opponent. And the communists, considering an alliance with the Congress in Bengal, will face a situation similar to the one it frequently mocks the Trinamool (and its love-hate relationship with the Narendra Modi government) over: dosti in Bengal and kushti in Kerala.