West Bengal

Another opportunity

Print edition : May 02, 2014

CPI(M) candidate from Jadavpur Sujan Chakraborty writing his name on a wall while campaigning, in South 24 Parganas district on March 29. Photo: PTI

THE four-cornered contest in West Bengal, involving the ruling All India Trinamool Congress, the Left Front headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is expected to give the beleaguered Left Front an opportunity to improve its performance and regain some lost ground. The political fortunes of the Left, reeling from successive defeats beginning with the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and culminating in its ouster from power in the 2011 Assembly elections after ruling the State for 34 years, have been on the decline.

In the 2009 parliamentary elections, a united opposition comprising the Trinamool, the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) crushed the Left Front, reducing its number of seats to 15 from 35 in 2004. The Left was then trounced in the elections in 2010 to 81 municipal bodies. In the Assembly elections in 2011, it won just 60 seats out of 294 as against 227 in 2006. Even CPI(M) Polit Bureau members such as Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Industries Minister Nirupam Sen lost in the fray.

In all these elections, the Congress was an ally of the Trinamool, thus preventing any split in the anti-Left votes. But even the break-up of the alliance between the two parties in 2012 did not stem the decline of the Left Front. In the panchayat elections in July 2013 and in the elections to 12 civic bodies later the same year, the Left’s political fortunes made no signs of a turnaround. It could win only one zilla parishad and just 66 of the 329 panchayat samities in the panchayat elections.

Vote share

Though there has been an erosion of the Left vote in every election, the difference of the vote percentage between the Left and the Trinamool has not been as much as the seat position may suggest. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Left’s total vote percentage was 43.3, whereas the Trinamool-Congress combine secured 44.6 per cent. In 2011, the Left’s percentage dipped to 41.2 per cent when the Trinamool-Congress alliance got 48.02 per cent. The Trinamool by itself secured 38.93 per cent.

The worst result for the Left was in the 2013 panchayat elections, when its vote share was around 38 per cent. “Out of 58,000 seats, the results in around 14,000 seats were rigged. But in spite of that our vote share was 38 per cent,” senior CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb told Frontline. The Left accused the Trinamool of widespread rigging and intimidation in both the panchayat and the municipal elections.

Admitting that the 2009 and 2011 results were “real mandates”, a Left leader pointed out that the Trinamool was not able to sustain that performance and had to resort to terror tactics. “This time, with the anti-Left votes being split three ways [between the Trinamool, the Congress and the BJP], and the growing disillusionment of a section of the people with the State government, we hope to do better in several seats and improve our overall tally,” he said.

However, undeniably, the defeat in the panchayat elections was a severe blow to the Left. “It truly demoralised our workers. It has been seen that whoever controls the panchayats has a clear advantage over others during elections,” said a senior Left Front leader.

The Left is worried that this sense of dejection among its workers will adversely impact its electoral prospects. “Even though there is disillusionment against the Trinamool government in certain sections, it is still too early for the Left to stage a comeback,” said a CPI(M) source. The Left Front has fielded 26 fresh candidates in this election in an attempt to present new faces before the people.

The key planks of the Left Front’s campaign are corruption, price rise, poverty, unemployment, farmers’ suicides, rising atrocities against women, unremunerative prices for foodgrains, and the state of education. “For each of these issues we are providing an alternative plan; we have to convey this to the people and convince them that we are the only ones who can provide relief to their sufferings, as we have done in the past,” said Rabin Deb.

Countering Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee’s allegation that the Congress, the Left and the BJP have been in cahoots in West Bengal, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly Surjya Kanta Mishra said, “Going by the kind of candidates fielded by the Congress and the BJP, barring a few seats, they have given a walkover to Trinamool. It is clearly a got-up game.”

Communal concerns

But however reluctant the Left Front leadership may be to admit it, the rise in the BJP’s vote percentage is likely to further fragment the anti-Left votes and thus indirectly work in favour of the Left. “It is difficult for us to ideologically come to terms with it, but arithmetically we will gain by any increase in the BJP’s vote share,” a senior CPI(M) leader told Frontline.

However, the Left is also wary of the BJP’s growing popularity. “Even if the BJP does not win seats, they can create a base. The situation will become very dangerous in the State, especially with the communal forces on the other side of the border [Bangladesh] also being very active,” said Mishra.

The Left Front also has concerns of its own. Even if it is hopeful of regaining certain seats that had gone out of its grasp, the collapse of its organisational base in its strongholds like Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura, Purulia and Hooghly threatens the party’s prospect of retaining several of the seats it won in 2009.

Moreover, even though the CPI(M) has still kept its troops together, its allies have shown signs of disintegration. Two legislators from the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Dasarath Tirkey and Ananda Deb Adhikari, and one from the Forward Bloc, Sunil Mandal, defected to the Trinamool in March this year. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which has been a part of the Left Front since 1981, also severed ties with the coalition. The recent expulsion of two veteran leaders, Abdur Rezzak Mollah and Lakshman Seth, from the CPI(M) has also had an unsettling effect on the party workers. “Rezzak Mollah’s departure may not bode well for us. Not only was he a popular figure, he was also a very important face of the minorities,” said an informed source in the CPI(M).

However, there are some positive signs too. In spite of the alleged widespread terror tactics, the Left’s vote share in the panchayat elections was just four percentage points lower than the Trinamool’s. Political observers feel that it is unlikely that the Left’s vote share will dip any further, whereas the same does not hold true for the Trinamool. “If there are free and fair elections, the Left parties will do better than the Trinamool Congress,” Mishra said.

The Left has also been dismissive of Mamata Banerjee’s post-election prospects of an anti-Congress, anti-BJP federal front, which is not to be confused with the Left’s own “non-Congress, non-BJP secular democratic alternative”. Both the Left parties and Mamata Banerjee plan to pursue their programmes only after the elections. “The Left’s stand for a non-BJP and non-Congress secular alternative has been consistent all through, but Mamata Banerjee has been known to hobnob with both the parties. Her attack on the BJP is nothing more than an attempt to cover up her past association with the party and also to mislead the public regarding her future prospects with it,” Mishra said. According to him, even if she does not join hands with the BJP for fear of losing Muslim votes in the 2016 Assembly elections, she may not stand in the way of the BJP forming a government at the Centre. Mishra made it clear that for the Left, the Congress was not an alternative to keeping the BJP out. “You cannot fight the BJP with the Congress,” he said.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay