The photograph said it: Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and CPM stalwart and former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee smiling and shaking hands at the joint rally of the two parties in Kolkata on Wednesday. What was deemed an impossible political scenario until recently is playing to a full house in West Bengal as the state enters the last lap of the six-phase election. A cautious CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury has suggested it was kosher for Bhattacharjee to share the stage with Gandhi since the former was no longer a part of the party’s central leadership. Though leaders of both parties, including the CPM’s chief ministerial nominee and politburo member, Suryakanta Mishra, and state Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, have been addressing joint rallies, the Left’s central leadership has been at pains to explain that it is only a seat adjustment, not an alliance. The guarded response of the CPM central leadership to the jot is evidently shaped by the compulsions of the Kerala elections, where the Congress is its main adversary, and the reluctance of a section within the party to sharing electoral space with an old “enemy”. The Congress, less encumbered by history and ideology, has had fewer qualms in admitting to the jot.
Clearly, political exigency has forced the two parties, sworn adversaries in the state since Independence, to come together. Cadres of both the Congress and the CPM were fleeing to the Trinamool Congress, the new party of office and power, and the latter stood to gain from a divided opposition. Arithmetic drawn from the 2014 general election, which the Trinamool near-swept, indicated that the voteshare of the Left Front and the Congress in West Bengal matched the Trinamool’s numbers. Feeling the heat on the ground, cadres pushed reluctant leaderships to forget the past and join hands. The outcome of the Bihar assembly polls, where Nitish Kumar, who had defined his politics in opposition to that of Lalu Prasad, built a winning Mahagathbandhan with the RJD and the Congress, must also have influenced the tie-up in Bengal. Critics may call the Congress-CPM coming together schizophrenic, but it points to a phase of post-ideology politics that also reflects the maturing of a layered federal polity. Politics in states has acquired an autonomy with the emergence of powerful regional parties, which is forcing parties with a national footprint, like the Congress, the BJP and the CPM, to explore state-specific alliances based on local factors.
However, political arrangements, forged only for power, may not last if the parties fail to discover or forge common ground. The jot in Bengal, for instance, will need to converge on political goals that go beyond a shared antipathy towards their common foe. A tie-up that enthuses cadres may not attract voters if it does not promise political stability and a governance agenda.
(This editorial first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Bengal snapshot’)