Kolkata: Choosing young candidates who will focus on issues on the ground, and identifying the Bharatiya Janata Party as the principal political opponent — these are factors that contributed to the Left’s spectacular success in the just concluded Bihar assembly elections. As the focus now shifts to Bengal, which goes to the polls in April 2021, will the beleaguered Left Front take a leaf out of their Bihar comrades’ book? That is the question everybody seems to be asking.
As part of the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan, Left parties fielded candidates in 29 assembly constituencies in Bihar, of which they won in 16. Among the three parties, CPI(ML)(Liberation) did exceptionally well, winning 12 of the 19 seats at a strike rate of 63.15%, second only to the BJP. As Bengal political parties get into the poll mood, stopping the BJP in the state becomes the key question as the BJP will see the 2021 elections as its final frontier. Kerala and Bengal remain the only two states the saffron party or its allies are yet to capture.
The Left Front rose to power in Bengal under the leadership of the CPI(M), depending on their promise of restoration of democracy in the state and their land reform-based activism in favour of the poor. They ruled the state for 34 years. However, with the Singur and Nandigram incidents, and the party leadership’s attitude around that time, their pro-people and pro-farmer image took a severe beating. They alienated the peasantry and started to be seen as a party which promoted corporate land grab. The Trinamool, which had won only 30 seats in the 2006 assembly polls, overnight became the darling of the common man and eventually came to power in the state in 2011 with 227 seats. At present, the CPI(M) has 26 members in the 294-seat Bengal assembly.
CPI(ML)(Liberation) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya believes that following the 2011 defeat, the CPI(M) completely wasted five years in expecting that the voters who had left them would come back to them in the next elections. “This is where the party’s calculations went completely wrong. They thought when the honeymoon is over and people will see the real face of the Trinamool, they will automatically return to the Left. So they kept waiting without doing any kind of course correction. Meanwhile, 2014 happened and the whole political landscape of the country changed. The BJP became a force to reckon with everywhere in the country, including in states like Tripura, Assam or Bengal. And the Left in Bengal now finds it difficult to stay afloat.”
Now that the entire country, including Bengal, faces a threat from the BJP, Bhattacharya believes that the Bengal Left must consider the BJP as its No. 1 target. “We want a Left resurgence in Bengal. But the CPI(M) has got its priority wrong. The Trinamool Congress in is power in the state, and I feel their days are numbered. The BJP is a far more powerful party and it is out to grab Bengal. But still CPI(M)’s primary aim is to somehow unseat Mamata from power. This vision, in my opinion, is myopic. So, instead of competing with the BJP to oppose the Trinamool, they should compete with the Trinamool to oppose the BJP.”
He also said he did not agree to CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s view that to defeat the BJP in Bengal, one has to first defeat the Trinamool. Speaking to The Wire on Friday, CPI(M) politburo member Md Salim said that since the BJP is governed by a “fascist organisation called the RSS”, it poses a great danger for the entire country.
“When one is fighting the BJP, one has to talk about the last ten years of utter misrule in West Bengal because in the state BJP and Trinamool compliment each other. At least 84,000 false cases are pending against our workers. We are fighting that too. The Trinamool is a platform which was created to take on the CPI(M) and decimate the Left in Bengal to make way for the BJP and the RSS. In Tripura also, as long as the Left was in power, the Trinamool was active in the state opposing the Manik Sarkar government. Since the BJP came to power, Mamata Banerjee hasn’t uttered a word about Tripura. The Left is fighting the BJP all over the country, but that does not mean it should relent in its fight against the Trinamool in Bengal,” Salim added.
It is a matter of fact that with the rise of the BJP in Bengal, the CPI(M) finds itself in a fix about who they want to oppose principally, the Trinamool Congress or the BJP. In the national context, the Left does see the BJP as a force which should be fought off. But in Bengal, the snubbing that Left heavyweights received in the 2011 elections at the hands of TMC still hurts the party and its cadre so much that a section of Left voters find it worthy to strengthen BJP’s hand to oust the TMC from power. And then there is another section which does not see the national and the state perspectives as different, and believes they should vote for the TMC to ward off the rise of the BJP in the state. In the process, the Left’s own vote share fell abysmally in the 2016 assembly elections.
Thirty-five-year-old Abhisek Ray from Jadavpur, whose family members have been Left supporters for generations, said, “The Trinamool and the BJP supplement each other in Bengal. One thrives because of the other. The Left should draw people’s attention to that, but stopping the BJP should remain its principal target. The Trinamool’s support base is eroding. But at a moment when the entire country is facing an unprecedented crisis from a Fascist party, the Left cannot be indifferent to who replaces Trinamool in the state.”
In Bihar, the communist parties identified the BJP as their chief opponent, and unequivocally decided to strengthen the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan, which offered an alternative to the BJP-JD(U) coalition. In the process, not only did the grand alliance increase its credibility and come within striking distance of a majority, but the Left parties also gave themselves the best chance to remain relevant in the state’s electoral polity.
Speaking to The Wire, Bengal CPI(M) leader and Jadavpur MLA Sujan Chakraborty explained in detail his party’s strategy ahead of the 2021 state elections. “There is absolutely no doubt that defeating the BJP everywhere in the country is our target. If in Bengal, going in some kind of understanding with the Trinamool brightened our chances of doing that, we could have thought about it. But in politics two plus two is not always four. Those who know the ground reality of Bengal, know that entering a pact with the Trinamool will have a completely opposite outcome.”
“This is because even the most hardcore Trinamool supporters are fed up with the party at the present moment. Everybody can see that the party is breaking up. Those leaders who started the party are distancing themselves. Whoever directly or indirectly enters a pact with the Trinamool now, will also earn the wrath of this vast number of people. They will shun both the Trinamool and whoever is with them, and vote for the only other option, the BJP,” he said.
“There is very strong anti-incumbency sentiment in the state. The Left will tap that. If people see that we are with the Trinamool in any way, all anti-incumbency votes will automatically go to the BJP. So aligning with the Trinamool will amount to helping the BJP in Bengal,” he said, adding, “Both the Trinamool and the BJP want to communally divide the electorate. People have to realise that the Left is the only alternative. And above all, Trinamool is fast losing its support base in every sector, even among the minorities. It stands no chance of winning in 2021.”
Bhattacharya, however, thinks the Bengal Left still believes they are fighting ‘Modi at the Centre and Mamata at the state’. “This is a mistake they are making. The BJP is growing not just out in Gujarat, but in Bengal too. So it is very much a local threat, not just a national threat,” he said.
When The Wire spoke to some seasoned CPI(M) voters across the social spectrum, they sounded concerned that the Left Front in Bengal lacked youth leaders who could inspire the common people’s confidence in the party. One of the things that the Left did right in Bihar is that they put their trust on a number of young candidates who had been part of student politics, farmers’ struggles and working class movement in the state consistently. These young candidates, particularly from CPI(ML)Liberation, had a strong local connect and had been running effective political campaigns focusing on issues like economic and social justice.
Liberation’s Agiaon candidate Manoj Manzil, for example, has persistently taken up the issue of education in rural Bihar. In 2017-18, he ran a campaign called ‘Sadak pe School’ which highlighted the pathetic condition of primary education in the remote pockets of the state. The 37-year-old former AISA leader defeated his closest competitor, seasoned JD(U) leader Prabhunath Prasad, by close to 50,000 votes. Similarly, in Paliganj, the party fielded 33-year-old Sandeep Saurav, the national general secretary of AISA and former JNU students’ union leader. Amarjeet Kushawa, who defeated JD(U)’s Kamala Singh in Ziradei by 25,000+ votes, is 46.
“This is something in which the CPI(M) seems to have miserably failed in Bengal. The Left has not been able to come up with a single youth leader in the last decade or so. Towards the end of the Left rule in Bengal, the CPI(M) came up with the slogan that the only alternative to the Left government is an improved Left government. However, the CPI(M) old guard failed to offer that to the Bengal electorate. Once Paribartan happened in 2011, the party needed fresh faces and fresh ideas to challenge Mamata Banerjee’s politics. But that was not to be,” said Kumaresh Sanyal, an assistant professor of political science. The Wire reported in August 2020 that an internal assessment in the CPI(M) raised serious concern over its ever decreasing influence on young people.
Chakraborty, however, asserts that there is no dearth of promising young faces in the party in Bengal. He named young comrades like Dipsita Dhar, Srijan Bhattacharya, Minakshi Mukherjee, Sayandeep Mitra, Pratikur Rahaman, Shatarup Ghosh, Aishe Ghosh, Ibrahim Ali and others as the future of Leftist movement in the state. “I can name so many others. Unlike in other parties, they don’t behave like heavyweight netas. That’s why people may not know them. They are being nurtured. We will bring them to the forefront of electoral politics at the right time,” Chakraborty said.
Indradeep Bhattacharyya is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.