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Print edition : April 08, 2011

The Left Front faces a tough challenge from the Trinamool-Congress alliance.

in Kolkata

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Left Front chairman Biman Bose at a rally in Kolkata on March 13 to launch the Front's election campaign.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

THE Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in West Bengal is likely to face its toughest challenge ever in the Assembly elections beginning April 18. After returning to power for the seventh consecutive term with an overwhelming three-fourths majority in 2006, the Left Front lost considerable ground to the opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, in the panchayat, Lok Sabha and municipal elections held in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. The TMC appears confident of spoiling the Left Front's return to power. As of March 19, the Left's worries over the TMC-Congress tie-up continued, as both parties, after weeks of wrangling over seat adjustment, still kept the doors for a tie-up open. The TMC has allotted 64 seats to its alliance partner and has decided to field 228 candidates.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who is contesting from the Jadavpur constituency, will lead the Left Front campaign. Mamata Banerjee has surprised voters by announcing that she will not contest this time and that she will enter the Assembly if the TMC is voted to power. She will, however, actively campaign throughout the State. The elections to the 294-member Assembly, which will be held in six phases between April 18 and May 10, is likely to be a close one. Although the ruling coalition has been walking the tightrope following three successive reverses in the local body elections, CPI(M) sources say that signs of a gradual turnaround are beginning to appear. Party workers were crestfallen, particularly after the municipal elections last year, but they have since found the motivation to fight. We don't know whether we will win or lose, but our performance will definitely improve, said a source.

In an unprecedented move, the Left Front has dropped half of its sitting MLAs, including nine Ministers, from the list of candidates. This was done ostensibly to stem the slide of its popularity and fend off the anti-incumbency factor. It has chosen 151 new candidates. The CPI(M) will contest 210 seats. Renewal is a very important factor with the Left parties. In making our list of candidates, we have kept a balance between the young, the middle-aged and the veteran, said Left Front chairman and CPI(M) State secretary Biman Bose. The candidates have been chosen from all walks of life. They include professors, doctors, lawyers, teachers and artistes.

Among the nine Ministers dropped from the list are party heavyweights such as Manab Mukherjee, who is also Minister for Tourism and Small-Scale and Cottage Industries; Partha De, Minister for School Education; Jogesh Burman, Minister for Backward Classes Development; Nandagopal Bhattacharya, Minister for Water Resources and a CPI warhorse; Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim; Deputy Speaker Bhaktipada Ghosh; and Left Front chief whip Syed Mohammad Masih.

The new candidates include a number of young faces and student leaders, the youngest among them being Satarup Ghosh, a university student. Special emphasis has been given to youth to counter the anti-incumbency factor, which is often associated with the old faces, and also to attract the young voters, particularly first-time voters, a Left source told Frontline.

Of the total electorate of around 5.6 crore, more than 30 lakh voters will be voting for the first time in the coming elections. The overwhelming success of the CPI(M)'s students' wing, the Students Federation of India (SFI), in college union elections in the last one year even as the party suffered setbacks in other elections may have prompted the party to field young candidates. The SFI controls the unions of 300 of the 430 colleges in the State.

CAMPAIGN THRUST

The Left's campaign strategy is multilayered. Its aim is to re-establish direct contact with the masses through rallies and street-corner meetings, acknowledge and rectify its past mistakes, and spread the message of democracy, development and peace. After the dark period of the 1970s, when we came to power, we managed with great effort to bring about peace and stability in the State. We want to make people aware of the dangers that come with backing the TMC. Its association with Maoists is no secret and its politics of violence is there for all to see, a senior CPI(M) source told Frontline.

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed (left) after a marathon meeting in Kolkata on March 13.-PTI

Change has been the Trinamool's political catchword in recent times. Referring to the coming elections as a historic event that would usher in a government of ma, mati, manush (mother, earth, people), Mamata said her appeal to the electorate would be to bring in change against atrocities and injustice.

MINORITY VOTE

The Left Front has fielded 57 Muslim candidates, an increase from 44 in the previous elections. Political observers attribute this to the growing perception that the Left's minority vote base has been eroding. At least three reasons are offered for the disenchantment of the Muslim voters with the Left Front government: the land acquisition drive to set up industries; the Sachar Committee report's revelation that the lot of Muslims in the State left much to be desired; and the mysterious death of Rizwanur Rahman, a computer graphics teacher, in Kolkata, which caused a huge public outcry and culminated in the transfer of top police officials.

However, former CPI(M) Member of Parliament Mohammad Salim told Frontline that the minority voters in West Bengal had never voted in one particular way. In the earlier elections, where we lost, we lost in all the segments and not just because of the minority vote. Similarly, now, as we are turning around, all sections of the people are returning to us, including Muslims, he said.

DECLINING VOTE

According to CPI(M) sources, the percentage of votes polled by the Left Front has been on the decline since the 2004 Lok Sabha election. From 50.72 per cent it dipped slightly to 50.18 per cent in the 2006 Assembly elections and then alarmingly to 43.3 per cent (in the 2009 Lok Sabha election). On the other hand, the TMC's political resurgence, through its violent agitations over land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur and its alliance with the Congress, increased the percentage share of votes polled by the party to 45.96 per cent (in 2009). Although the difference was not much in terms of percentage points, the difference in the number of seats won was big, indicating a sharp polarisation of votes. The Left won only 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, while the TMC-Congress-Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) alliance won 26. The following year the Left suffered yet another setback in the municipal elections even though there was no TMC-Congress alliance at that time.

The TMC-Congress alliance continues to remain on shaky ground. Although the TMC is a constituent of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, it has never missed an opportunity to emphasise that in West Bengal the Congress is the junior partner. Old wounds and mistrust have made it so difficult for the two parties to coexist peacefully and put up a united fight against the Left Front that for a while it appeared that the idea of a grand alliance against the Left may just fizzle out. It may not bode well for the beleaguered Left if the two parties realised the need for a united fight.

CONGRESS' DILEMMA

For the Congress, the alliance is turning out to be a bitter pill. Initially, it had demanded 98 seats and winnable ones. But the TMC offered only 64 seats, that too in a take it or leave it manner. At the same time, Mamata Banerjee maintained that she wanted an alliance with the Congress. The State Congress leadership kept harping on not compromising its dignity for political gains. It remains to be seen if it will swallow its pride as the prospect of political doom increased without an alliance with the TMC. The anti-incumbency wave is such that the TMC by itself can still win against the Left, but without an alliance with us, it will not be a complete rout of the Left. Moreover, it would be disastrous for the Congress, a senior Congress leader said.

The Congress has 19 seats in the present Assembly, but with the Trinamool's growing reach these may not be its sure seats any more. Although the Congress' influence is spread all over the State, it has clear chances of winning only in Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur districts.

The absence of an alliance between the Congress and the TMC would be the most welcome development for the Left. It remains to be seen whether the Left Front will manage to reverse the anti-incumbency sentiment or the Trinamool will surge forward even without an alliance with the Congress.

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