The Assembly elections tested whether a ‘jote’, or alliance, between the Left Front, led by the CPI(M), and the Congress could successfully uproot the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal. That experiment clearly failed. The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll analysis reveals that in contrast to the ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Bihar or the BJP-AGP-BPF combine in Assam, the chemistry of a Left-Congress alliance was not conducive to electoral victory in West Bengal. Insofar as the alliance did succeed, it worked more to Congress’s benefit than the Left’s.
This ‘jote’ was premised on the appearance of hard math. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Congress and the Left Front together won 39.64 per cent of the vote in West Bengal, just a hair short of TMC’s 39.72 per cent. If those who voted for Congress and the Left in 2014 could just do so again in 2016, a Left-Congress alliance could pose a stiff challenge to the TMC. Anxious about the prospect of further decline in the state, the ‘jote’ was promoted vigorously by the CPI(M) state unit, against the misgivings of the national party leadership and some coalition partners such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB). The state party unit of Congress endorsed the alliance also, against the hesitations of the national leadership concerned about its effects on the party’s contest against the Left in Kerala.
The election results bear out the misgivings of the skeptics. The fundamental weakness of the Left-Congress ‘jote’ was simple: voters vote differently in state elections than national elections because issues of state governance are different from issues of national governance. The 2014 elections were defined by a debate about development and change at the national level. By contrast, these elections were largely a referendum on the performance of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC government. Fifty-seven per cent of voters were satisfied with the performance of the TMC government, while only 33 per cent were dissatisfied. Among this dissatisfied third, the Left-Congress ‘jote’ won only 65 per cent of votes, indicating that many anti-TMC voters did not think it presented a credible alternative to the TMC.
While the Left’s votes largely transferred to Congress, Congress’s votes did not transfer as consistently to the Left. Among those who voted for the Left Front in 2014, 88 per cent voted for the ‘jote’ while only 9 per cent voted for TMC in 2016. But among those who voted for Congress in 2014, 73 per cent voted for the ‘jote’ and 24 per cent voted for TMC. This lopsided transfer of votes helped Congress win more seats than the Left Front and emerge as the next leader of the opposition.
Strikingly, the TMC and Left-Congress ‘jote’ split the difference in the BJP’s drop in vote share from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. While one in four (25 per cent) Bengalis who voted for the BJP in 2014 opted for the TMC in 2016, roughly the same (26 per cent) shifted from the BJP to the ‘jote’. This must serve as a corrective to the narrative that the TMC’s landslide victory was driven by disaffected BJP voters. The TMC, in fact, won more votes from Left-Congress ‘jote’ defectors than BJP defectors.
Logistical, ideological defeat for Left
Extended deliberations over the terms of the Left-Congress ‘jote’ and confusion regarding its status likely harmed the alliance’s ability to mobilise voters. Among the 58 per cent of Bengali voters who were contacted by a party worker or canvasser during the election campaign, one in three (33 per cent) was contacted by the TMC. Only one in six (16 per cent) was contacted by a party worker or canvasser from the Left-Congress ‘jote’.
The most troubling development for the Left may be an overall decline in support for Leftist ideology among the people of West Bengal. In 2011, 54 per cent of Bengalis thought that trade unions are necessary to protect worker rights. In 2016, less than half (47 per cent) think the same. While in 2011, 44 per cent of Bengalis thought the government should impose a ceiling on income and wealth to reduce the gap between rich and poor, in 2016 only one in three (33 per cent) support such a ceiling. In 2011, a majority (51 per cent) thought that all major industries should remain in the public sector if it helps the people. In 2016, just 36 per cent of Bengali voters support public ownership of industries. Even among Bengalis who supported trade unions, a ceiling on income or wealth, or public ownership of industries, the TMC won more votes than the Left Front. The TMC has become the new Left of West Bengal.
The Left-Congress alliance was an electoral experiment that did not succeed. The long-term decline of the Left in West Bengal presents an opportunity for another party to present itself as the principal opposition to TMC. Only time will tell whether that space will be filled by Congress, the BJP, a reborn Left, or something altogether different.