Kolkata: It will remain a big mystery as to why the Congress and CPI(M) decided so late in the day to up their alliance game, with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya sharing a platform in an election rally in Kolkatta. Even as a sea of red flags and the tricolour merged seamlessly on Wednesday, Gandhi and Bhattacharya hugged each other and a huge garland was thrown around the two leaders as if to cement a long-term relationship. Intimacy in politics has never been known to occur in this abrupt manner. As if to further solemnise the union, Congress President Sonia Gandhi gave an unprecedented call that Bengal voters must support the “red flag”. The suddenness of the event was not lost even on the CPI(M) cadres. A party leader sent from Delhi to help with the joint campaign told this writer,”We had no option but to do this alliance with the Congress. Therefore the Rahul-Buddhadev public bonhomie could have happened much earlier and not at this late stage when four phases of polling are already over”.
Until a few months ago there was only talk of a seat adjustment to deny Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the advantage of a three-way vote split. Given the experience in Bihar, there is a new awareness about how opposition unity creates a big advantage when the single largest party’s vote share hovers between 35% and 40%.
The urgency of the Congress-Left alliance was felt more by the CPI(M) as it faces an existential crisis. Another five years out of power could eliminate the party at the the grass roots level. As it is, a lot of the party cadres have gradually moved over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). In a way, the Congress too faces a similar dilemma as it has been losing power in various states. Thus one can understand the sheer rationale of the alliance in terms of electoral arithmetic.
But the manner in which it has been effected may create some doubts over its internal coherence. Amit Mitra, the state’s finance minister who is contesting the poll for the second time from outside Kolkatta, says, “In my constituency, Khardah, there are pillars created to record the names of political martyrs from the CPI(M) and Congress. Thousands have been killed over the years in the Congress-CPI(M) rivalry. How can they forget this overnight?”. Yet, the Congress and CPI(M) are trying to forget this past bitterness to ensure their political survival in the future.
Although Banerjee still has a strong support base in rural Bengal, her rivals believe that the TMC can be challenged with the magic of alliance arithmetic. For instance, as it turned out in Bihar last year, the Nitish- Lalu alliance rode initially on electoral arithmetic and eventually established a special chemistry with the people. In Bengal, Banerjee’s chemistry with the rural poor works fine, but the opposition alliance is expecting to produce some surprise in terms of better arithmetic. This is possible if a substantial part of the BJP’s vote share gain from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections goes back to the CPI(M). The BJP vote share went up from 4% to 17% in 2014, mostly shifting from the CPI(M). The CPI(M) always got a minimum 40% vote share in the Bengal assembly and Lok Sabha polls. However, in the 2014 general election – partly due to the Modi phenomenon – its vote share came down from 41% to 29%. Almost all of the lost vote share went to the BJP. The Congress-CPI(M) alliance is hoping to get back recapture these votes. This could be decisive.
The big question analysts are asking is – if the BJP surrenders even half the gains made in 2014, which seems very likely, who will be the gainer? A good 7 percentage point vote share could move away from the BJP, and if this largely goes back to the CPI(M), then the alliance could muster close to 44% vote share; CPI(M) could get a 35% vote share, plus the Congress’ 9% vote share.
But going by Banerjee’s popularity in rural Bengal there is every chance that some of BJP’s lost vote share moves to the TMC as well. In that case Banerjee – with a 40% vote share base in 2014 –will be difficult to dislodge. A senior TMC leader told this writer, “It is true the Congress CPI(M) alliance will give us a better fight and our margin may be reduced, but we are still winning comfortably. In the Bengal assembly, 148 seats is the halfway mark. If we get less than 165 seats, I would see it as a defeat for TMC.” This shows the high confidence level among the TMC’s leaders.
TMC member of parliament Derek O’ Brien says the Congress-CPI(M) alliance creates a huge advantage for his party in North Bengal where the alliance is strong and the TMC relatively weak. O’Brien says the opposition alliance may indeed do very well there but since the TMC had won only two of the 70 seats in North Bengal last time “we (the TMC) have nothing to lose there incrementally”.
The main problem with the opposition alliance in Bengal is that it does not seem organic at this stage. It could become more cohesive in the future if the Congress and the CPI(M) come up with a common socialist agenda and communicate it properly to the voters. That may have the potential to create a new space in politics, even at the national level. At present, the new alliance seems rather tentative and Banerjee knows this only too well.
Notwithstanding the serious corruption charges surrounding her party, Banerjee knows that some of her focused developmental work – rural roads, electricity, housing, scholarships for girl students and the like – has gone down well with the voters who seem to want to give her another chance. It seems the voters mind, especially in the rural constituencies, is already made up.