In the Mahakumar Parishad or rural polls of June 2009 in Siliguri, there was no alliance between the Left and the Congress. The Left with 4 seats, trailed closely by the Congress with 3 seats, narrowly formed the board. The TMC had no winners.
Almost seven years and six elections later, that arrangement had become the seed of the ‘Siliguri Model’, the foundation on which the unlikely alliance between the Left and Congress has been forged.
Soon after the June 2009 elections, the Congress and TMC alliance got 30 seats in the municipal polls in Siliguri, the Left only 17. However, the victory turned sour soon enough for the TMC with differences between the parties delaying the choice of a mayoral candidate. Finally, the Left – sensing the greater threat posed by an increasingly aggressive TMC – supported the Congress in its choice of a mayor.
In 2011, after the Left’s historic defeat in Siliguri, Ashok Bhattacharya is said to have wept openly at the Left party office. Bhattacharya has since admitted that the decision to support the Congress in the 2009 municipal polls was intended to drive a wedge between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. In 2013, Ashok Bhattacharya was detained after an alleged SFI led-attack on finance minister Amit Mitra — in Siliguri Left and TMC supporters clashed. By May 2014, the distance between the TMC and the Congress had become unbreachable.
The Congress mayor resigned after allegations of non-cooperation from TMC members while the Left constantly underscored that their stand had always been ‘Shun TMC, Save Siliguri’ – a slogan employed by the Left ahead of municipal polls in Siliguri in 2015.
The Left and Congress formed an ‘unofficial understanding’ in those elections –tea garden workers, CITU workers and the traditional Congress supporters in the area joined forces and saw the Left win 23 seats, Congress 4 and the TMC 17.
In the 2015 Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad polls, the experiment was taken a step further with the Left forming further alliances not just with the Congress, but also the GJM and Adivasi Vikas Parishad. When results came in the Left won with 23 seats, TMC gets 17 and Congress 4 – and hopes of a resuscitating the Left in Bengal began to seem possible.
Many in the Left, in Calcutta, had privately thought Ashok Bhattacharya’s experiment as “abnormal”. The Left and Congress rivalry in the state has had a long and often bloody history. But as Bhattacharya himself has put it, it was a question of the “party’s survival”.
This was recognized in the December 2015 CPI-M plenum held in Kolkata. While party general secretary Sitaram Yechury had made the plea for an ‘informal understanding’ with ‘all democratic parties’ to unite against the TMC, the Kerala CPI-M had opposed the move vehemently. Finally, an unofficial understanding was officially approved with the CPI-M plenum resolution which said that the urgent need was to “strenthen Left unity and to forge the Left and democratic front not only as an electoral front, but as fighting alliance of forces”.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy sailing. The CPI-M and the Congress have admitted the presence of what they have called ‘friendly fights’ at some seats – where a Left front ally has decided to contest against a Congress candidate, for instance in Alipur Duar.
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