The Left appears in a mood to fight it out in West Bengal. It has its back to the wall, having lost its erstwhile bastions of Tripura and Bengal over the years. In Kerala, the only state the Left rules, the Congress is challenging it in the race to form the next government.
In Bengal, the Left’s decline has been sharp. Not only did it draw a blank here in the 2019 national elections, but also a section of its traditional supporters shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as theorised by its leaders and analysts alike. This section, among other factors, led to the saffron party winning 18 of the state’s Lok Sabha 42 seats — a performance that bolstered its 2021 bid.
Even though the narrative of the ongoing Bengal elections is largely centred around the BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Left would like to prove political pundits wrong. For its future in electoral democracy is at stake.
“I think it won’t be a repeat of what happened in the Lok Sabha polls. The people know that both the BJP and the TMC are in a dummy fight…they are actually one. Its only us who are offering a real alternative. People vote differently in state polls and the Left will do well,” said Mohammed Salim, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M).
On the ground, the Left cuts a sorry figure in Bengal, which it had ruled for 34 years. From 50% in 2006, its vote share fell to 40% in 2011, when the TMC came to power on the back of agitations against land acquisitions. The Left’s vote share plunged further — to 26% — in the 2016 assembly polls, when it fared worse than its ally, the Congress.
After coming to power, chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a former Congress leader who learnt her politics from the Left, ensured that her arch-rivals were decimated in the state. A large section of CPI(M) workers joined the TMC and cases were filed against top Left leaders. The cadres that did not yield alleged intimidation by the TMC — one of the reasons behind many of them gravitating towards the BJP, which they believed would be able to provide them security. It was an insult the Left could not forget.
The Left’s showing, in a way, would have a significant impact in the fiercely fought Bengal elections. If the Left manages to convince supporters that tilted towards the BJP to return, it will hurt the saffron camp. On the other hand, if its alliance with the Congress and Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) causes a major split in Muslim votes, the TMC could be hit hard. If it manages to do both, that will add another interesting dimension to an already-thrilling contest.
On the ground, the problem with the Left appears to be that even its most trusted voters are dismissive about its winnability. The Left’s primary task will be to reassure the doubters who are asking why they should vote for a party that is going to lose anyway.
It has tried to answer that question in two ways. One, by stitching up a strategic alliance with the ISF to dent the TMC’s Muslim vote base; the ISF is believed to have some influence in Hooghly and parts of Howrah. Second, it has gone for an image makeover by fielding young and women candidates. For example, in Nandigram, where the CM is up against former party colleague Suvendu Adhikari, the Left has played the woman card by fielding Meenakshi Mukherjee. Additionally, the Left has also tried to shed its sombre image by releasing several sleek social media videos to win over the youth.
The alliance with the ISF, however, has a flip side as far as the secular Left is concerned. The coalition has made a section of its core voters uneasy and smacks of desperation. But that would be the least of the Left’s concern since the fight is about political relevance.
Indrani Mukherjee, who is contesting Naihati — it falls in BJP MP Arjun Singh’s Barrackpore stronghold — said: “It’s not the BJP or the TMC but BJPmul (BJP+Trinamool) that is contesting against us. They are a B-Team of each other, and so the Left is the real alternative. We have given so much to Bengal, and we understand Bengal.”
The chief minister would be in a dilemma of sorts when it comes to the Left’s performance. On one hand, she would not want communists to dent her Muslim support base. The last few rounds of the eight-phase polling is important for the TMC with seats up for grabs in minority-dominated Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur, where Banerjee has appealed to Muslims not to split their votes.
On the other hand, she will not want the Left to surrender completely and transfer its votes to an aggressive BJP. Both communists and the CM would hence hope the shift from vaam, or left, to Ram would not follow the pattern seen in 2019. Even as Banerjee has accused the Left-Congress-ISF of working in tandem with the BJP amidst talks of a possible division of Muslim votes, there has been a buzz in the state’s political circles that two top leaders of the Left and the TMC have discussed the possibility of working together in a post-poll scenario if the numbers are not favourable for either. For both, the BJP is the “common enemy”.
CPI(M) leader Salim said: “Well, she should have realised this when she decided to break our party when she came to power in 2011. She did not let go of any opportunity to harm us.”
With the animosity between the two sworn enemies running deep, it would be interesting to see how a possible cooperation, if any, unfolds.
Political analyst Subir Bhoumick said the TMC was going slow on the Left with the BJP emerging as its principal enemy. “That has given Left supporters and voters a sense of security and political space they did not enjoy after they lost in 2011. The Left also realises that if the BJP comes to power, it will finish them as well as the TMC, as (former Congress CM) Siddhartha Shankar Ray did with the Naxalites in the 1970s. So, most traditional Left voters will vote for the Left this time.”