The two parties are considering an alliance ahead of the state assembly elections to defeat Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool. But their rivalry in Kerala could pose a problem.
Kolkata: As the West Bengal assembly elections near, a politics of compulsion is steadily pushing the CPI(M) and the Congress closer. The growing clamour for a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the CPI(M)-led Left Front against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has now reached Delhi.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi recently met with party leaders in Bengal to hear their views on a possible alliance. Most of these leaders are now camping at Delhi to lobby the party high command for their demand. Sonia Gandhi, perhaps in consultation with the Congress Working Committee, is expected to make a final decision soon. Meanwhile, the CPI(M) central committee – the party’s highest policymaking body – has convened a meeting in Delhi on February 17-18 to discuss the alliance issue. Prior to this, the party’s state committee will meet in Kolkata on February 12-13 and the politburo will meet on February 16. Prakash Karat, the party’s former general secretary, has said that the central committee will finalise the electoral strategy for Bengal after the state committee makes its position clear, but the decision will be taken in conformity with the party line.
The CPI(M)’s choices
Ahead of a formal decision being reached at the impending meetings, a media report quoted CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury ruling out any pre-poll alliance with the Congress in the state, creating some confusion among the rank and file. The party’s state committee members have strongly denied Yechury making such comments. A state committee member, on condition of anonymity, said that when the party’s state and central committees were meeting soon it is unlikely that the general secretary would pre-empt that. The committees are banking on a politburo statement issued on January 17, 2016 that said, ”The CPI(M)’s electoral tactics will be in accordance with the political tactical line adopted at the 21st Party Congress. The politburo and the central committee will take a decision at an appropriate time regarding electoral tactics in each of the states.”
The problems of the CPI(M) is two-fold. One, the party line is to fight against the ‘pro-big capital’ Congress and Hindutva BJP. At the same time, the party wants to focus on building a strong all-India Communist Party by rallying the ‘Left and democratic forces’. Thus, the Bengal comrades find the party line is open to interpretation; to fight against communal forces, the Left needs to forge a broad-based united front of democratic and secular forces, and the entry of the Congress into this united front can be encouraged through an alliance in Bengal.
The desperation in the Left’s repeated appeal to the Congress to join hands is palpable. But the Left and the Congress have had a long, hostile relationship in Bengal. Former chief minister Jyoti Basu had often accused the Congress of murdering 1100 party cadres during the national emergency. On the other hand, the Congress alleged that the Left, especially the CPI(M), unleashed a reign of terror in rural Bengal during their 34-year rule.
In the aftermath of its misadventures in Singur and Nandigram, there was an upsurge in popular opposition against the Left Front government in the state, with the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee becoming the face of this opposition. The state Congress, weak in strength and morale, remained almost invisible.
After the 2004 general elections, the CPI(M) became a powerful member of the UPA government. But when Karat led a Left walk out from the UPA over the nuclear deal issue, the Congress saw red. Steering clear of the CPI(M), the Congress fought the 2009 general elections with the TMC as a UPA partner, followed by an alliance in the 2011 state assembly elections.
After Mamata came to power, the TMC began an aggressive turf war, with the CPI(M) becoming its major target. According to the CPI(M) state committee, more than 171 of its cadres and sympathisers were killed and thousands wounded owing to the violence unleashed by armed TMC workers. Many were thrown into prison. A few thousand had to flee their rural homes and live under degraded conditions in makeshift shelters provided by the party in other districts. Having been in power for 34 years, Left leaders and workers were accustomed to getting police help. But they soon realised that although the police continued to play its role as before, the beneficiary was now the TMC. ”We never realised that the police would not only turn away from us, but also go against us with hostility. So, we had to keep low,” says a central committee member when asked why the CPI(M) did not resort to street agitations on issues like the Saradha Ponzi scam.
In 1978, when it first came to power, the CPI(M) had around 23,000 party members in Bengal, rising to over 3,00,000 by 2009; more than 90% of the present members have joined the party since 1978. These members have lived under the umbrella of state patronage, one facet of which is police help. Faced with relentless attacks from the ruling TMC, the party started retreating on all fronts. Out of power, the Left lost to the TMC in successive elections; in the Lok Sabha, the party’s representation decreased from its highest-ever 38 in 1980 to only 2 in 2014.
The Siliguri model
The Congress is also feeling the heat of the turf war unleashed against it them by its one time alliance partner, the TMC; Mamata’s party started attacking Congress workers in Burdwan, Birbhum and Nadia districts. In Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur, where the Congress has a solid support base (all four MPs are from these districts), the TMC initiated horse-trading and lured away a number of MLAs and district-level leaders.
Both the Congress and the CPI(M) have realised that unless they do something to protect polling booths from being captured by TMC workers, they won’t make any headway in Bengal, and that no matter how much public discontent may be brewing against the Mamata government for its partisan attitude and corrupt, high-handed governance, the TMC will continue to be in power. Thus, the ‘Siliguri model’ was born; the Congress and the Left together resisted the TMC’s bid to capture polling booths during Siliguri Corporation election in October last year, with the Left defeating the TMC to form the board. This was followed by a similar victory in the Siliguri Mahokuma Parishad election. With these successes, the idea of coming together to form an alliance ahead of the May assembly elections germinated in both camps.
However, one pressing problem remains at the forefront for the leaders of both parties in Delhi. West Bengal and Kerala will go to the polls simultaneously, along with Assam and Pondicherry. In Kerala, the Congress and the Left are the main contenders. If they form an alliance in Bengal, they might have to face many uneasy questions from voters in Kerala. The solution to this riddle might lead both the parties to a new phase in West Bengal.