POLITICS encourages surprising partnerships. With the elections to the West Bengal State Assembly likely to be held in April, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress are looking hard at the prospect of reaching an electoral understanding to prevent the Trinamool Congress from returning to power. Influential sections in the two parties agree that an alliance of “secular democratic forces” was necessary to take on the Trinamool Congress in the State.
Although ideologically poles apart, the reconciling factor for the two traditional rivals is the need to remove the Trinamool from power for their own survival. In the past five years, both the parties suffered massive erosion in their respective support bases and worker strength; their workers and supporters have been subjected to attacks by the ruling party. The performance of the two parties in the panchayat, Lok Sabha and municipal elections held in the past five years have not been encouraging and there is the fear that a drubbing in the Assembly elections would prove too disastrous for them.
Shyamal Chakraborty, senior CPI(M) leader from West Bengal and member of the Central Committee of the party, said an electoral understanding between the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress was the demand of a large section of the people of the State and should be duly considered. “There is a section of voters who do not support either the Trinamool Congress or the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. These people have only one demand, that the CPI(M) and the Congress join forces and remove the Trinamool from power. In my 56 years in politics, I have never witnessed such a demand,” Chakraborty told Frontline . Acknowledging that there are ideological differences and a history of rivalry between the two parties, he said the overriding need of the hour was to defeat the Trinamool.
“ Trinamool hataao, Bangla Bachaao [remove Trinamool, save Bengal] is our slogan for the State, BJP hataao,desh bachaao is our slogan for the whole nation. Let us first remove the Trinamool, after that we will face the next challenge,” he said. He is certain that a Left-Congress combine will be able to overthrow Mamata Banerjee’s government.
Although there were hints of a quiet understanding between the workers of the two parties at the grass-roots level, the idea of a formal seat-adjustment started gaining momentum when a letter from Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary and spokesperson of the Pradesh Congress Committee, to party president Sonia Gandhi came to light. In the letter, Mishra had surmised that a Congress-Left combine would be able to secure 161 of the 294 Assembly seats; the Trinamool would get 126; and the remaining seven, according to his calculation, would go to the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (three) and the BJP (four).
“The Trinamool Congress after coming to power in the State with the help of the Congress turned vindictive against us and tried to decimate the Congress. It has been a soft ally of the BJP and remains a potential partner of the BJP. So we do not have much of a choice but to go for cooperation and coordination with the Left parties as far as electoral strategy is concerned. Neither the Congress nor the Left Front by itself can succeed in defeating the Trinamool,” he said. Mishra is hopeful that the party’s central leadership will realise that a Congress-CPI(M) combine in West Bengal will ultimately provide a strong contingent of MPs to a Congress-led alliance at the Centre against the BJP in the general election in 2019.
The idea that a Left-Congress alliance may be successful in taking on the Trinamool germinated in Siliguri in north Bengal during the municipal elections of 2015. The CPI(M) was successful in staging a political turnaround in Siliguri and found positive response to its appeal to non-Trinamool and non-BJP parties to come together to ensure that the people cast their votes on the day of polling. It was an informal teaming up to counter the alleged intimidation of the Trinamool Congress.
The CPI(M)’s Ashoke Bhattacharya, the architect of the Siliguri victory and the Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation, said: “Though there have been no formal talks between the two parties on this, the public perception that the Left should have an alliance with other democratic parties, including the Congress, has given a lot of hope and encouragement to party workers in north Bengal.”
After being at the receiving end of the Trinamool’s allegedly violent and autocratic ways, the workers at the ground level of both the Congress and the CPI(M) are now looking for a reprieve. Their single-point agenda is to remove the Trinamool from power.
Senior Congress leader Amitabha Chakraborty said: “The situation today is similar to that of 2007, when there was a cry all over the State among Congress supporters and workers that the CPI(M) has to be defeated through an alliance with the Trinamool. After five years, the same people are now demanding the ouster of the Trinamool with the help of the CPI(M). If the CPI(M) tried to chop off our hands, the Trinamool is trying to chop off our heads.”
There is also a fear in the State unit of the Congress that the central leadership may align itself with Mamata Banerjee to take on the BJP at the Centre. If that happens, the Pradesh Congress would once again have to eat humble pie and surrender itself to the Trinamool, a prospect that practically everyone in the State unit dreads. In fact, Mamata Banerjee’s overtures to Sonia Gandhi, including her meeting with the Congress president in New Delhi on her birthday, has intensified the fears of the Congress of being swallowed up by the Trinamool.
However, not everyone in the State unit of the CPI(M) is happy about the party’s prospective alignment with the Congress. A sizable section feels it is too steep a price to pay for immediate electoral gains. “A major economic crisis is looming over the country today. It is the Congress which brought about the crisis. There is no difference between the economic policies of the Congress and the BJP. Now, the path the communists can take to fight this is being shut. Moreover, in whatever way we may try and explain this, the people will see this adjustment as an opportunistic attempt to come to power at any cost. I strongly feel that the ideals and credibility of the party are being compromised. Many others feel the same way,” a senior party leader told Frontline on condition of anonymity.
There are also many within the party who do not endorse the view that a Left-Congress combine will bring victory. There is a fear that the core supporters of the Congress, who have traditionally been anti-Left in their politics, may refuse to toe the line of the Left Front and cast their vote for the Trinamool and that old supporters of the Left may even abstain from voting. “There are many factors that can work against this alliance. Politics is not just arithmetic,” said a Left Front leader.
However, while the possibility of a Congress-Left tie-up has bolstered the flagging spirit of their respective party workers, it has dampened the mood in the Trinamool camp. In spite of all the problems the Trinamool and its government have been facing—the Saradha scam, bitter factional fights, growing unemployment and woeful lack of industrial growth—Mamata Banerjee was expected to return to power with a thumping majority in the Assembly elections. But the new political development has unsettled the rank and file of the ruling party. “There are many among us who feel that a victory for us may not be a foregone conclusion any more,” said a Trinamool functionary. There is also a fear in the Trinamool camp that even if the alliance fails to secure a majority, it will win enough seats to prompt the disgruntled section of the Trinamool to switch allegiance. “Right now we are strong, but if that happens, it may be the beginning of the end,” said a Trinamool source.
As of now, the talks between the Left and the Congress have been kept deliberately at an informal level. The central leaderships of both the parties are wary of committing themselves. While the CPI(M) has to reach a consensus at the State level before the matter is taken up by the Polit Bureau, the Pradesh Congress is hoping that the high command will not reject any possibility of an understanding with the Left.
CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Surjya Kanta Mishra said: “Our stand is clear. I am asking the State Congress leadership, are you ready? Then we can proceed with talks.” State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury responded: “In our case the decision has to be taken by the Congress high command. I have informed the high command about the mood on the ground where workers of both the parties wish to join forces to remove the Trinamool.”