The CPI(M) Took the Voters for Granted in West Bengal and Has Now Lost Face

Instead of slowly building its cadre and winning local elections, the CPM rushed into an alliance with the Congress to challenge Mamata Banerjee

File picture of CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, with former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and other Marxist leaders in Kolkata Credit: PTI

File picture of CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, with former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and other Marxist leaders in Kolkata Credit: PTI

Kolkata: The Communist Party of India Marxist has lost face as the results of the West Bengal election prove. It has not gained ground and revived its fortunes; on the contrary, it is worse off today than it was four months ago, even though it is the second biggest party in terms of vote share, albeit a long way behind the Trinamool Congress. Politically, it had hoped to find a quick fix by joining forces with the Congress in what was officially described as a “seat adjustment” and popularly branded as a “Peoples’ Alliance” reflecting what it imagined was a groundswell of voter support against the increasingly domineering Trinamool Congress.

Impatient to regain relevance in West Bengal as the true leader and the most representative party, it had expected to win enough seats to claim that it was on the way to reacquiring its base in the state, the jewel in its crown. The anticipated improvement in its position would have enabled it to operate as a major player in national politics. It perceived the 2016 election as a historic opportunity. It failed because the forces of history were not in its favour and it misunderstood what it needed to do. It may well be that Mamata Banerjee read the popular reaction better and so even after her spectacular single handed feat in winning 212 seats, she rubbed it in, saying, “in 2004 when I was reduced to one seat, I did not compromise with my ideology. I did not lose my character. I did not clutch at straws. If you lose your character, you lose everything.”

It is hard to guess if the voter thought about the alliance and the CPI(M) in exactly the way that Mamata Banerjee said it, but it is evident that people were not convinced that the alliance or adjustment was a worthy alternative and conveyed their lack of confidence in a partnership that was put together without a programme and a clear road map for the future. The CPI(M)’s share of seats has plunged to 30 and its vote share is around 20 per cent, indicating that not enough voters in what were potentially winnable constituencies felt that it was a party worth investing in.

The real surprise is the share of None of the Above (NOTA) votes in the 2016 election: it is over 1.5 per cent. There were significant numbers of NOTA votes in almost every constituency. This indicates that the voter was not happy with the choices on offer and stood in line to say so.

Within the CPI(M), there was a section of opinion that the party should have first learnt to swim “like the fish in the sea,” as Mao famously said; meaning it should have gone back to working its way up from the grass roots, by first winning the confidence of the numerically larger rural voter through capturing the panchayats in the next elections in 2018, which would have positioned it to do better in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, which in turn would have given it a far better chance of cutting it with the voter in 2021, when the next West Bengal assembly elections are due. And that section of opinion seems to have been proved right.

The mistake is to have taken the people for granted. Just because the CPI(M) stopped cowering and came out into the political arena once again, it did not mean that in the popular perception the party had won back the confidence of the voter. On the contrary, what it meant was that supporters of the CPI(M) at the grass roots were willing to risk their lives and interests to openly support the party of their choice. But the number of such supporters was clearly smaller than needed to win.

Misreading the mood

In its rush to win back its place in West Bengal, it misread the timid re-emergence of its party support in the rural areas in 2015 evident in the rallies that snaked their way across the state as the first organised and large scale mass contact programme of the CPI(M) after 2011. The party saw in the groundswell of supporters who joined the combined rallies of the Congress and the CPI(M) and its Left Front partners in the districts and in Kolkata a wave that would lift it across the winning line in the savagely competitive election against the stormy and increasingly more entrenched Trinamool Congress regime.

There were issues that could have turned the 2016 election into an anti-incumbency contest, if the CPI(M) had worked towards that limited goal instead of rushing prematurely into a much bigger and tougher fight to capture power by replacing Mamata Banerjee. In the CPI(M), the concept of collective responsibility makes it impossible for the party to make public scapegoats of those who may feel that they are fully responsible for the debacle.

For the CPI(M), there will now be an internal churn. The decision to join forces with the Congress was not unanimously approved by the party’s central leadership. The Central Committee in a resolution said it would leave it to the politburo to figure out what should be done. The politburo in turn passed the buck and told the West Bengal party to decide on the matter. It was V. S. Achutanandan who tilted the argument in favour of what the majority of leaders in West Bengal’s party wanted by pointing out that the conditions in Kerala were different.

Elections are about making a choice from among a field of possibilities. Voters decide for many different reasons, none of which adds up to unqualified, uncritical oath of fealty to a supreme leader or party or ideology. The Congress found this out in 1967, the CPI(M) found out in 2011 and again in 2016.

A preliminary analysis of the results indicates that the Congress as a partner of the CPI(M) did not grab the voter as a good idea in most of South Bengal. This was the turf from which the Trinamool Congress would have to be ejected before the CPI(M) could improve its seat tally. The difficulty was that the Congress base in the south Bengal districts was not strong; too many of its supporters had suffered from the vicious violence of the CPI(M), when it cleaned the opposition out of the constituencies and there may have been a feeling that a vote in favour of the CPI(M) was a waste.

Vote shares

In 2014, the combined vote share of the Congress-CPI(M)-Left Front added up to just over 43 per cent. Today that number has plunged to 37 per cent. In 2014, the Trinamool Congress had a formidable 44 per cent support. Today it has gone up to 45 per cent. The most significant change however is that the Bharatiya Janata Party has hung on to about 10 per cent compared to the 17 per cent votes it won in 2014, winning in the bargain three seats and so raising its profile by a gain of two seats.

After investing almost its entire political capital by launching this understanding or adjustment or partnership with the Congress, the CPI(M) has to now acknowledge that it cannot read the undercurrents at the grass roots in West Bengal any more. It has to accept the grim and bitter truth that there is a disconnect between its leadership, the organisation and the voter. It knew when it entered into the alliance with the Congress that it cannot challenge the Trinamool Congress on its own and in a straight fight.

The party needs to go down to the grassroots and rebuild its base, brick by brick. If the 2016 election has helped the CPI(M) bake a few bricks in some pockets of rural West Bengal that would be a start. The short cut to reviving the morale of the party by winning the fight in 2016 via the alliance has failed. Either the CPI(M) knuckles down to doing it the hard way or it should reconcile itself to becoming a marginalised political force in West Bengal. The problem for it is that over the 34 years in power, it had built up a huge establishment that is now a weight that the depleted party cannot bear. This is a dilemma that the Congress faced in West Bengal many years ago and learnt to survive.