In districts across West Bengal, Left supporters, specifically CPI(M) supporters, are marching with saffron flags, and chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” alongside BJP candidates.
On Monday, in an exclusive interview to CPI(M) mouthpiece Ganasakti, former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee warned the people of West Bengal, “There is no use in leaping from a TMC frying pan into the BJP’s fireplace.”
Describing the BJP’s rise in the state as a “danger”, Bhattacharjee said, “In some places, the danger is already present. Our task is to bring back the people from this self-destruct mode.”
Diverging from the party’s stance, Bhattacharjee said in the Lok Sabha elections, the principal opponent is the BJP, rather than Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). Other CPI(M) leaders have insisted that the TMC – which routed the Left from it’s three-decade rule in the state – and the BJP are two sides of the same coin.
The Left veteran and former CPI(M) politburo member has serious respiratory illness and his eyesight is fading, keeping him away from active public life.
The two-time Left CM lashed out at both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for “bolstering communal feelings in secular West Bengal”. He said Modi favours “crony capitalism”, adding, “The chowkidar of opportunist capitalists should be ousted at all costs.”
Across Bengal, erstwhile Left supporters are drifting towards the saffron party, despite their diametrically opposite ideologies. The red brigade is losing sheen, both in terms of organisational structure and popularity with the masses. The crossing over is fulled by the allure of money in some cases and strong disdain for arch-rivals TMC, or both.
Decreasing vote shares
Ever since the Left lost power in the 2011 assembly elections to the TMC, the CPI(M) has been in free-fall. The trend is reflected in the party’s electoral performances too. In the 2014 parliamentary polls, the CPI(M) could win only two seats in the state, after ruling without interruption between 1977 and 2011.
In the 2011 assembly election, the Left Front’s vote share in the state was 39.6%. The BJP’s was a meagre 4.06%. Five years later, the Left Front’s vote share dropped to 25.6% and the BJP’s jumped to 10.28%.
While statistics may not establish that Left votes transferred to the BJP, analysts agree on the probable conclusion. This is because both the TMC and the Congress managed to increase their vote shares in the 2016 assembly election. Similar trends have continued in Lok Sabha elections – where the BJP jumped from 6% in 2009 to 17% in 2014. The Left Front’s vote share declined from 42% in 2009 to around 30% in 2014.
Why supporters are swaying
Tapan Biswas of Dum Dum is in his late 50. His family ardently supports the CPI(M), but Biswas campaigned for the constituency’s BJP candidate Samik Bhattacharya. When asked why he switched camps, Biswas said, “CPI(M) has no existence now. 15-20 people attended their meetings. What is the point of campaigning for such a party? Mamata was our enemy when I was with the CPI(M). Even now, she is the enemy. It is better to support a powerful party (BJP), who can defeat her,” Biswas said.
Biswas wasn’t the only one. While touring West Bengal during the elections, The Wire observed similar trends in most constituencies. Not just supporters, Left cadres too have switched camps for better prospects.
In the Bongaon constituency of North 24 Parganas, which is close to the India-Bangladesh border, this reporter encountered many who have switched their allegiance.
At Thakurnagar of Bongaon constituency, The Wire met Pranab Mondal, a battery-operated rickshaw driver. Mondal said, “My whole family supports CPI(M). Now, voting it means wasting the vote. Local leaders personally asked us to vote for the BJP to defeat the TMC,” Mondal stated.
In an unprecedented event, sitting CPI(M) Habibpur MLA Khagen Murmu defected to BJP in March. Murmu is now the BJP’s candidate from Malda North constituency. This is possibly the first time a Left MLA joined the far-right BJP.
Unhappy with Murumu’s candidature, the constituency’s BJP workers protested. Posters and hoardings expressed anger against Murmu, saying: “We won’t accept CPI(M) return Khagen Murmu as our candidate.”
Waking up too late?
On Monday, former Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar, speaking at an election rally in West Bengal, said, “To gain freedom from the TMC, don’t make the mistake of choosing the BJP. It will be a blunder. It will be self-destruction.”
However, it seems the time to warn people has passed. Maybe the Left leaders woke up from their slumber too late, as large number of party supporters have switched to the BJP, viewing it as a viable alternative. Many psephologists believe that the Left’s vote share will reduce by 8-10%, a majority of which will be consolidated by the BJP.
Political commentators believe that the Left’s West Bengal poll strategy was misplaced from the start, and helped the BJP. Maidul Islam, who teaches political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, told The Wire, “The Left is attacking the BJP and TMC with the same intensity. Equating them is a wrong formulation and may backfire.”
Islam explained that considering this is a Lok Sabha election, the Left’s principal opponent should have been the BJP and not the TMC. From the Left’s election campaign, it is understood that “they (Left) made the TMC their primary opponent and went a little soft on the BJP” Islam said.