The Congress and CPM have announced that they will jointly contest the upcoming West Bengal assembly elections. The two parties had an informal understanding in some assembly seats in 2016, but they fought the 2019 general elections separately. The contours of the alliance — from seat distribution to a common agenda or manifesto — are still to be worked out, but its leaders evidently hope that voters will view it as a third option to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP in the state. This will pose a formidable challenge in a state where increasing polarisation would appear to be turning electoral politics into a direct contest between the TMC and BJP.
The emerging political situation in West Bengal seems not to encourage multi-polarity or offer hospitable ground for a third front. Moreover, both Congress and CPM have been shrinking since 2011, when the TMC ended 34 years of Left Front rule in the state. The TMC repeated the success in 2016 by trouncing the Left and weaning away leaders, legislators and cadres from both the Congress and Left parties. As the CPM and Congress retreated, the BJP, eager to spread its footprint, has moved into the opposition space. Its remarkable rise became evident in the 2019 general election, when it won over 40 per cent votes and 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. Since then, the BJP has mounted a campaign of aggressive outreach with Hindutva rhetoric, predatory politics (inviting leaders from other parties), and intensive targeting of the state government, including through central ministers and the office of the governor. In the process, the BJP has all but turned state politics into a bipolar affair, with the party occupying one pole. The Left, losing cadres and leaders to the BJP, has been unable so far to mobilise on the ground and appears to have ceded space on agendas such as federalism and secularism to the TMC. The Congress-Left tie-up is also complicated by the fact that the two parties will be adversaries in Kerala, where elections are due at the same time.
Ironically, the West Bengal Congress has aligned with the Left against the TMC at a time when the latter has received support from Congress chief ministers in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, besides other regional leaders including Sharad Pawar, in its stand-off with the Centre. Legacy issues, local animosities and, perhaps, egos, will present challenges in the consolidation of anti-BJP forces in West Bengal.