F or both the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress, once the two main forces in West Bengal politics, the 2021 Assembly election will be a battle to re-establish their relevance in the State’s politics. The spotlight is on the fight between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet the Left and the Congress, which have joined forces once again, may emerge as the dark horse in what may turn out to be a four-cornered election. The fourth side is the newly formed Muslim front headed by the Bengali Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui and the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
Leaders of both the Left and the Congress realised soon after Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011 that in order to survive the relentless onslaught of the Trinamool Congress, they would have to set aside their political differences and past enmity and join forces. However, not all workers and supporters of the respective parties were able to embrace the new situation wholeheartedly. The alliance itself often appeared diffident and undependable. This was evident in its poor performance in the 2016 Assembly election and again in the 2019 parliamentary election. The Left-Congress combine failed repeatedly to make its presence felt.
But this time the situation is different. The BJP has emerged as the main opponent of the ruling Trinamool, and the Left-Congress combine stands equally opposed to both. With no scope for entering into any political understanding with either of them, the Left-Congress combine has its hopes pinned on the support of those voters who are disenchanted with the Trinamool and ideologically opposed to the BJP. The alliance is trying to rope in all “secular democratic forces” from political and social spheres to set up a broad platform against the BJP and the Trinamool.
After a meeting with Left leaders on January 17, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Pradesh Congress president and leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, said: “On the one hand there is the communal party, the BJP, and on the other hand there is the autocratic party, which is the Trinamool. We believe to defeat both of them the Congress and the Left need to unite and fight together… through constant dialogue we believe a convergence of views will take place.” The two sides are yet to finalise a seat-sharing arrangement.
Pointing out the tendency to overlook the Left and focus only on the Trinamool and the BJP, senior CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb told Frontline : “We have, in fact, been upholding people’s issues consistently. During the pandemic we were providing relief, food and medical benefits to the downtrodden and the helpless. We have been in the forefront of all people’s movements in the State. The media have been projecting only the BJP and the Trinamool, but we have been making connections with the people physically in spite of the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.”
Going easy on Trinamool not an option
As the Trinamool and the BJP remain locked in a bitter political battle, the Left-Congress combine has been attacking both the parties with equal intensity. While acknowledging that the main danger and the principal ideological opponent is the BJP, the Left and the Congress believe it is impossible to go easy on the Trinamool for the sake of keeping the BJP out. Rabin Deb said: “The BJP, being in power at the Centre, is using all the agencies and powers at its disposal to subvert democracy in the States, but even then we cannot fight the BJP without first defeating the Trinamool. It was after all the Trinamool that first brought the BJP to power in the State.” The Left was the first to condemn the Trinamool’s election strategy of labelling the BJP as an “outsiders’ party”. “Causing a rift between Bengalis and non-Bengalis is a very dangerous thing, and this is something the Trinamool has been doing right from the start,” said Rabin Deb. The Congress, too, has been maintaining that between the Trinamool and the BJP, there is no “greater” or “lesser” enemy.
The Left is aware that the decline in its own vote share has been concomitant with the BJP’s rise in the State. While the BJP’s vote percentage rose from 10.28 per cent in the 2016 Assembly election to 40.3 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Left’s fell from around 26.6 per cent to 7.5 per cent. (The Congress, too, has not been able to hold on to its votes; its share fell from 12.4 per cent in 2016 to 5.6 per cent in 2019.) With the Left’s political fortunes showing no sign of recovering, its supporters had little option but to turn to the BJP to seek a way out of the Trinamool’s onslaught. However, in many instances it was seen to be a move arising out of necessity rather than any shift in ideology. This is why going easy on the Trinamool in order to keep the BJP at bay is not an option for the Left. A senior CPI(M) leader told Frontline : “If we even consider an understanding with the Trinamool, whatever support we have will go straight to the BJP. Rather than stopping the BJP, it will help it to come to power.”
As the Left mobilised its workers over the last one and half years, it did not surrender any political space to Mamata Banerjee, be it in the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the new farm laws, or crimes against women. In fact, the Left and the Trinamool appeared to be in a competition to establish which side was the more credible opponent of the BJP. In several instances, protest rallies by the Left drew more crowds and appeared more spontaneous. With the Congress also lending its weight behind the Left, the Trinamool was sometimes left looking vulnerable. The Left and the Congress have time and again proved in the last few years that their ideological stand against the BJP has more takers than their detractors would give them credit for.
According to Ashok Bhattacharya, senior CPI(M) leader and former Minister in the Left Front government, the Left is the only credible alternative in the current situation in West Bengal. “People of Bengal are very anti-Trinamool now. Its politics has brought down the standard of politics in Bengal. The corruption, the nepotism, the undemocratic style of functioning, not allowing free and fair elections, disregarding the Constitution—for all these reasons the people of Bengal are angry with the Trinamool. But the BJP cannot be the opponent of the Trinamool because it does the same thing wherever it is in power. In this situation the real credible opposition is the Left. We were in power for 34 years, and nobody can accuse us of misusing power. People wanted a change and so they brought in a change. But people have realised that that change was wrong, and so we are very hopeful that our results will be very good in this election,” he told Frontline .
However, the alliance between the Left and the Congress has never been a comfortable one. Wranglings over seat sharing, “friendly” contests among alliance representatives, and lack of cooperation have often ruined chances for any kind of success. The old animosity between party workers and loyalty of supporters have also come in the way for the alliance to work smoothly. A Left Front source told Frontline : “Left workers are a disciplined lot. They will work according to the orders of the leaders. But the same cannot be expected of the Congress.” This time, both sides believe the situation will be different as their senior leaderships have formally accepted the alliance. The combine partners are now working on strengthening the alliance at the grassroots.
The Muslim factor
Although the Trinamool has received the support of Muslim voters for a long time, there have been signs of disillusionment among its minority voters of late. Allegations of rampant corruption among Trinamool workers at the grassroots, mismanagement in the disbursal of relief and compensation after Cyclone Amphan, the State government’s apparent apathy about the plight of migrant workers—the majority of whom are Muslims – during the lockdown have alienated a section of Muslim voters. The Left-Congress combine is hopeful that many of the minority voters may turn to it as an alternative. However, the appearance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM on the political scene and its tie-up with the influential Bengali cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s newly launched Indian Secular Front may queer the pitch for the alliance.
Congress spokesperson Amitabha Chakraborty, however, does not believe it will. “Of the 30 per cent Muslim population in Bengal, 95 per cent are Bengali-speaking. Owaisi does not have much influence on Bengali Muslims. We are trying to explain to the Muslim people of Bengal that Owaisi will not be able to help them. If they vote for Owaisi, they will end up helping the BJP,” he told Frontline . But some Congress sources agree that if Abbas Siddiqui ultimately joins forces with AIMIM, it will hit the Left-Congress prospects quite hard. Some of the Congress’ traditional strongholds like Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur have high Muslim populations.