CPI(M)’s Dilemma in West Bengal: To Align or Not With The Congress

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CPI(M) West Bengal secretary Suryakant Mishra (left) with his predecessor Biman Bose and the party's general secretary Sitaram Yechury. Credit: PTI

File photo of CPI(M) West Bengal secretary Suryakant Mishra (left) with his predecessor Biman Bose and the party’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury. Credit: PTI

Fears, doubts and anxieties continue to swirl, even as the West Bengal state committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) recently declared that it approved of a dialogue with the Congress over a possible alliance in the upcoming state elections. The dilemma is compounded because whatever the party decides for Bengal in 2016 will affect its political strategy in 2019, when the main task will be to fight against the BJP and the Modi government’s policies.

The Bengal committee’s immediate concern is to get the central committee and the politburo to approve entering into talks with the Congress, if such a proposal is made. The obstacle is that the party’s Kerala body has already rejected the idea by quoting the party congress resolution that the CPI(M) will have no understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress. At recent meetings in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan and K Balakrishnan have both used the resolution to dismiss any alliance in Bengal as media speculation. There is other sources of strong opposition to the alliance idea and Manik Sarkar’s presence in Kolkata during the discussion is a signal that within the CPI(M) efforts are on to persuade the internal opposition to support the move.

A new twist is the unexpected and well-timed support from the CPI(M)’s last remaining founder member, V S Achutanandan, who has made it clear that he is in favour of the alliance, because the concrete conditions in Bengal are unique. It is obvious that some in the top leadership, including Sitaram Yechury, are working hard to disarm the hostile Kerala committee.

TMC is the enemy

For the state CPI(M) and its Left partners, the conditions in Bengal are extraordinary. The principal enemy is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the smaller, but equally dangerous, enemy is the BJP. The Congress is, therefore, a potential ally in the fight to restore democracy, rule of law and push the development agenda forward, by pushing aside the sacred political line banning it as a potential ally.

Without a Plan B, the CPI(M) and the Left Front will face substantial embarrassment if the alliance falls through. The only alternative is the weak and desperate idea of finding around 30 candidates who can be fielded as independents with support from all opposition parties. Given Mamata’s capacity to convince screen and sports idols to contest, this alternative would be an invitation for her to wipe the floor with the opposition.

The numbers game

As the enormity of the change proposed by the CPI(M)’s Bengal committee sinks in, the doubts and fears have resurfaced. Instead of focusing on negotiating the number of seats and the constituencies of a probable alliance, the party is agonising over Mamata’s comment to TMC party workers on February 12 that those who abandon their ideals — namely the CPI(M) — will be wiped out.

Within the CPI(M), Mamata’s comment has sent ripples of superstitious fear that she may have gauged the pulse of the voter better than the apparatchiks. The CPI(M) also has many doubts: will the alliance help it win more than the 62 seats it did in 2011? Will it only benefit the Congress and eat into the CPI(M)’s vote share? The internal opposition, limited to 11 members out of the 52 who spoke on the issue at the state committee, had valid points within the orthodoxies that have regulated the CPI(M)’s politics for so long. In Bengal, where the election has by far become the most important arena of political struggle, there is a fresh outbreak of anxiety that the conservative apparatchiks who opposed the idea of alliance with the Congress may be correctly guessing the equally conservative choices of the voters and the contradictory forces at work.

The CPI(M) is uncertain that the response at the local level, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas, to its belated initiative in 2015 to revive its mass base is robust enough to yield desired electoral results. Some see the red flag unhidden and unfurled as a signal that voters are getting over the fear of provoking vicious and violent attacks from the TMC. Others feel that strong anti-incumbency has kicked in, local resistance against ruling party intimation and violence has grown bolder and so the time is right to create a combination of the Congress and other Left parties. Others within the CPI(M) feel that the visible signals of support are not strong enough to launch the political counter offensive against the TMC. The doubts are valid, as there are uncomfortably large areas in the state where the CPI(M)’s legendary organisation has simply vanished.

The maths is straightforward. On its own, the TMC has around 37% votes. To defeat the party and fulfil its obligations to voters, the Congress and the Left have to combine forces and hope that together they will win over 150 seats out of 294. On their own, the Congress and the CPI(M) will win seats in some places, but the tally could come down from the present 62 for the Left and 42 for the Congress. Anticipating that there will be no alliance, or an alliance that is too weak to fight the challenge, the TMC is already claiming that it will win anywhere between 215 and 240 seats.

Just how unworldly the internal debates can get is handwringing in the CPI(M) over economic policy. Within the party there are people who continue to agonise that an alliance with the Congress will compromise the purity of its principled attacks and opposition to the economic reforms and liberalisation agenda. Practically, the CPI(M) in Bengal seized the end of licence-permit raj and worked to woo global investors. In fact, it took pride in its initial success and the Nano factory in Singur was to be the start of a re-industrialisation through private investment tsunami.

Uncharted territory

Used to carefully inching its way forward, leaping and twisting in order to make history is not comfortable for the CPI(M) leadership. If the party leadership has read the voters sentiments correctly, then the way forward is simple: an alliance with the Congress to oust Mamata and the TMC is needed because the everyday experiences of people has converted the elections into a war. If the party has got it wrong then it will be a ‘blunder’ that will push it beyond the political periphery, a place where it is now situated.

With the announcement of the election dates only weeks away, the heat is rapidly rising for the Left as much as the Congress to reach a decision. Both sides have to give themselves enough time to resolve what will be a very complicated and fractious exercise in decision- and alliance-making.

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