Why the Left-Congress Combine Will Find It Hard to Cause an Upset in West Bengal

The success of the opposition alliance depends on its ability to mobilise anti-Trinamool Congress votes in south Bengal, especially those that may favour the BJP, while retaining their own supporters.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, former West Bengal Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattcharjee and others candidate in a joint election campaign rally in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, former West Bengal Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattcharjee and others candidate in a joint election campaign rally in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

Elections to the West Bengal assembly are currently under way, with 216 constituencies already having voted. The polls are being held over seven phases, an unprecedented event in the state, the results of which will be declared on May 19. The elections involve a three-cornered contest between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Left Front-Congress combine and the BJP. These elections are extremely important for all the major contestants: the TMC is keen to prove that the people of Bengal – after having tasted ‘poriborton’ – are still with them despite the numerous allegations of corruption and mis-governance; the Left Front and Congress are attempting to survive and remain relevant in West Bengal; the BJP is trying to prove that its scintillating performance in the state during the 2014 general elections was not a fluke and that it has emerged as a major player in the local polity.

The Left Front-Congress seat adjustment and its likely impact

A remarkable feature of this election is the coming together of the Left Front and the Congress, long-standing political and ideological rivals, with the parties even campaigning together at the grassroots level. Left and Congress leaders in the state have commented that it was not choice but compulsion that brought them together. They claim that atrocities, oppression and the violation of democratic rights unleashed by TMC cadres, often aided by the police and the state machinery, has forced the parties to form a ‘people’s alliance’.

With many questions being raised about the combine, Left leaders in the state, particularly those from the CPI(M), have said that seat adjustment deals with the Congress are not new and were made with in Andhra Pradesh in 2004 against N. Chandrababu Naidu’s erstwhile government. They’ve also reiterated that the Left has had alliances with the Bangla Congress – a breakaway faction of the Congress that represented similar class interests as the latter – in 1967 and 1969, and hence the present seat adjustment with a party that represents the interests of ‘big bourgeoisie and landlords’ in India is not unprecedented even in the context of West Bengal. What is urgent in the present political context, the Left Front believes, is a broad based alliance of all Left and democratic forces in the state against a party that is undemocratic and corrupt.

However, the alliance has not found favour among all members of the Left Front. Critics have cited the political resolutions adopted at the last congress of the CPI(M) that had called for maintaining an equal distance from the Congress and the BJP, and thus the seat adjustment deal with the Congress is a deviation from that position. Further, they argue that the CPI(M) in Bengal has grown politically and organisationally because of its relentless struggles against the Congress, and this sudden U-turn against a former ideological adversary will likely demoralise the rank and file of the party in the state and across India. According to the critics, the Left fighting the Congress in Kerala while it allies with that party in Bengal means it does not have a consistent political position. 

Despite continuing criticism of the alliance, the bigger question is whether the Left-Congress combine can actually succeed in dislodging the TMC. An alliance between two political formations is not only about numbers and arithmetic; the chemistry between partners is equally important. In West Bengal today, the effect of both at the state-wide level is at best uncertain.

Chart 1 shows the overall vote shares of the main political parties in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha Elections in 2014.

Chart 1
Despite being the largest party in the state during the 2014 general polls, the vote share of the TMC was 39.79%, which implies that almost 60% of total votes polled were for other parties. The vote shares of the Left Front and the Congress in the 2014 poll, which they contested independently, is far lower than that of the TMC. Once their vote shares are combined at the state level, however, the contest with the TMC is almost neck and neck (TMC – 39.79%, Left-Congress – 39.64%). However, in terms of leads – where we compare the 2014 combined vote shares of the Left-Congress with that of Trinamool in individual assembly segments –  the TMC is way ahead of the rest, as illustrated in Table 1.

new table 1

This apparent mismatch between vote share and number of leads can be explained through a more disaggregated analysis. If the state’s 294 assembly constituencies (the 295-seat West Bengal assembly has one member nominated from the Anglo-Indian community) are broadly divided into three separate regions – north Bengal, central Bengal and south Bengal – then we get the following figures as shown in Table 2.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 6.26.58 PM

South Bengal has almost 75% of the constituencies in the state. Hence, it is essential that political parties do well in this region. It will be worthwhile to analyse the leads of all parties across the three regions in West Bengal during the 2014 general polls.

table 3

Given their vote shares in 2014, the Left-Congress combine had leads in north and central Bengal, where they had taken leads in 70% of the constituencies (54 out of 77) in these regions. However, they are still way behind the TMC in terms of overall leads, since they failed to take leads in 20% of the seats (44 out 217) in south Bengal. Of all regions in West Bengal, south Bengal is where the TMC is most powerful organisationally ad thus the opposition parties will have to make additional efforts to dislodge it from power.

Vote shares across regions and the ‘X’ factor

The Left Front-Congress combine is extremely powerful in north and central Bengal while the TMC is stronger in the southern part of the state. Given that south Bengal holds the majority of the assembly seats, the TMC’s superiority in that region suggests that it is in a strong position to retain power in the state. It will be worthwhile in this context to study vote shares of main political parties of the state in each of these regions, shown in Charts 2, 3 and 4.

chart 2

Chart 3

Charts 2 and 3 show that the TMC’s vote shares in north and central Bengal were below 30% – 29.12% in north and 19.85% in central. Also, the Congress has a sizeable vote share in both these areas, which has boosted the Left-Congress combine’s vote share. In fact, the Congress’ vote share in central Bengal (38.68%) is the highest of all major parties, which makes it possible for the Left-Congress to sweep the elections if they can maintain their vote shares (Table 3). An interesting political development in the 2014 polls was the rise of the BJP, especially in north Bengal. While an alliance with the largely hill-based Gorkha Janamukti Morcha did help the party to raise its vote share, the rise cannot be attributed to the alliance alone. In north Bengal, the decline in the vote share of the Left between 2011 and 2014 corresponds to the rise of the BJP over the same period (Table 4). In other words, there was a significant shift from the traditional Left supporters towards the BJP, which is more discernible in assembly segments located in the plains – Matigara-Naxalbari, Siliguri, Phansidewa and Dabgram-Fulbari – where Narendra Modi’s ‘achhe din’ development slogan appeared to have an impact. 

Table 4

As Table 4 shows, the losses incurred by the Left Front in north Bengal largely corresponds to the gains made by the BJP in the region in the 2014 polls. Were its erstwhile support base, especially those in the plains, to return to its fold, the Left will make substantial gains. The vote share of the BJP in north Bengal (22.76%) is higher than its vote share in the state as a whole (17.02%) in 2014. The vote share of the TMC in north Bengal in 2014 is almost 13 percentage points lower than the combined vote shares of the Left and Congress. Poll reverses suffered by the TMC in the recently held Siliguri Municipal Corporation and Siliguri Mohokuma Parishad elections, where there was an understanding among the opposition, showed that the ruling party has failed to make much of an inroad in these areas and it will be a tough fight for it there in the assembly elections as well, especially if the seat adjustment between the Left and the Congress results in an actual sharing of votes at the ground level.

table 5

In central Bengal, one does not see a correspondence between the Left’s decline and the BJP’s rise in vote share between 2011 and 2014. Despite a rise in the BJP’s vote share and the consequent division of anti-TMC votes, the TMC failed to gain much in this region in 2014, since it was weaker than the Left and the Congress organisationally. In central Bengal, although the TMC has gained strength over the years, it is still behind the Congress and the Left in terms of vote shares. Hence, a 3.21% increase in vote share for the BJP in these areas, implying a split of the anti-TMC vote, could not severely erode the prospects of the Left Front-Congress combine. Also, the Left and the Congress Party can take heart from the fact that the Modi wave has largely disappeared and hence there is very little possibility of a further rise in the BJP’s vote share. Thus, even if the Left-Congress combine can maintain their 2014 vote shares, even if the BJP were to get some additional votes, it will be a clean sweep for them in the elections in this region.

The concern for the Left Front-Congress combine in central Bengal, and to some extent in north Bengal, is not the arithmetic of seat adjustment, but the chemistry of it. Over the past 50 years, the Left and the Congress have been at loggerheads, often violently, in these areas, particularly in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. In fact, the two Left members of parliament from the state – one from central Bengal (Murshidabad) and the other from north Bengal (Raiganj) – have been elected by defeating their Congress rivals. Cadres from these parties in these areas had over the years engaged in pitched battles against the other. In this context, it will be extremely interesting to see whether the leaders and their cadres manage to end their long-standing hostility to maintain an alliance against a common political rival.

No southern comfort for the combine

The most interesting story, however, emerges in south Bengal – politically and arithmetically the most important space of West Bengal politics. 

Chart 4

It can be seen that the combined vote share of the Left and Congress (36.06%) was lesser than that of the TMC (44.3%) in south Bengal in 2014. This is largely due to the Congress’s very low support base (5.35%), the lowest among the three regions. A decline in the vote share of the Left between 2011 and 2014 (from 36.93% to 28.6%) was another contributory factor for a difference of almost 8 percentage points in the vote shares of the TMC and Left-Congress combine.

Unlike in central and north Bengal, arithmetic and not chemistry is the problem for the Left-Congress combine in the south. The struggle for political space in this region has not been between the Congress and the Left, unlike north and central Bengal, but between the Left and the TMC when the Left was in power, and between the TMC and the rest at present.

Significantly in 2014, the vote share of the BJP in south Bengal (16.56%) has been much higher than that of the Congress. The decline in the vote share of the Left has been almost equal to the rise in the vote share of the BJP in south Bengal between 2011 and 2014. In this sense, this is very similar to what happened in north Bengal over the same period. 

table 6

As Table 6 shows, in south Bengal the BJP gained at the expense of the Left, with a section of Left Front supporters voting for them. This erosion in the Left Front’s vote share and the rise of the BJP meant further division of the anti-TMC votes, which will immensely benefit the ruling party if it is to occur in the same manner during the ongoing assembly polls. In fact, the BJP had done extremely well in areas around the Kolkata metropolis, which is in south Bengal.

Table 7

Table 7 shows that within south Bengal, the increase in the vote share for the BJP has been more spectacular in areas around the metropolis. The increase in the vote share of the BJP has exceeded the decline in the Left’s vote share, which implies that a sizeable section of erstwhile non-Left voters had also voted for the BJP. The magnitude of the increase in the BJP’s vote share clearly shows that the middle and upper middle class sections of the urban electorate had shown a clear preference for the BJP. Modi’s development agenda and the general disenchantment among the urban middle and upper middle class against the ruling TMC – over matters like the Saradha scam, the lack of industrialisation in the state, lack of basic health and education infrastructure and misgovernance – and the overall failure of the state opposition, particularly the Left Front, in mobilising their discontent against the ruling dispensation are some of the factors that had prompted a preference for the BJP.

However, the BJP wave seen in Bengal in 2014 has largely disappeared and it seems that the vote share for the party in south Bengal has reached a plateau. It remains to be seen how far the Left-Congress combine manages to bring these sections into its fold in the ongoing polls.

The BJP has a higher vote share in north Bengal (22.76%) as compared to the south (16.56%) or the Kolkata metropolis area (21.13%). However, a higher vote share for the BJP will not have similar impacts across regions, as the TMC is strongest in south Bengal and relatively weaker in other regions. Hence, a greater division of votes among the opposition due to a higher vote share for the BJP will benefit the TMC more in south Bengal as compared to other areas. This is in addition to the fact that almost three-quarters of the total number of constituencies of the state are in this region.

In this context, it is not enough for the Left-Congress combine to ensure that the seat adjustment materialises in terms of a shift in popular votes at the grass root level, but also that it is credible for a substantial section of anti-TMC voters, including erstwhile BJP supporters, who will believe that the alliance can defeat the ruling TMC on the basis of an alternative agenda. The X-factor for the Left-Congress combine is their ability to mobilise anti-TMC votes, particularly the BJP votes, while retaining their own, so that the entire opposition vote gets consolidated in favour of the alliance. But this is only possible when the people of West Bengal have made up their mind to dislodge the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee from power.

Shantanu De Roy is an Assistant Professor of Economics at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi.