By Rajat Roy
In the general elections of 2014 the vote share of the ruling Trinamool Congress was 39.8 percent. The Left Front (comprising the CPI(M), CPI, FB and RSP etc) got 30 percent and the Congress got 9.5 percent only.
Now, with the state Assembly election knocking at the door, a clamour for an alliance against the TMC is growing within both Left parties and the state Congress leadership. The clarion call for the alliance came from former chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee on 16 January at Singur. Flagging off a march from Singur to Salboni, Bhattacharjee issued an open appeal to the Congress to join hands with the Left Front to defeat Mamata Banerjee's TMC in the Assembly election due a few months later.
"What is the Congress leadership thinking today? We are not alone. Come and join hands to dislodge this undemocratic government," said Bhattacharjee. The Save Democracy Forum, a civil society organisation, under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court judge Justice (retd) Ashok Kumar Ganguly, has also urged the formation of such a coalition to oust the TMC from power. The PCC president Adhir Ranjan Choudhury promptly responded by saying that the workers at the grassroot-level in his party are demanding the same thing. He will now apprise the Congress high command of the development and await their decision.
Similar demands are being voiced now by a number of CPI(M) and state Congress leaders. At Salboni, after concluding the 170-kilometre-long seven-day march that started in Singur, the CPI(M)'s state secretary Suryakanta Mishra addressed an impressive rally on 22 January, where he said that the need of the hour was to form a broad-based front against the TMC. The Congress will have to take a call on whether or not it wants to join.
At Coochbehar, in the northern part of the state, in a rally held last Sunday, the district Congress president Shaman Choudhury raised the question of whether the workers were willing to enter an alliance with the TMC. He was greeted with a loud "No" from the audience. Instead, they demanded an alliance with the Left. PCC president Adhir Choudhury, who was also present there, assured them that he would bring it the notice of the high command. At Kolkata, Omprakash Mishra, a general secretary of the state Congress, observed, "To defeat the TMC, we must close ranks with the Left and other democratic forces."
The Congress high command has already taken note of the changing mood in Bengal. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, has invited party leaders from Bengal to a meeting at Delhi on 1 February to discuss the pros and cons of the issue. The CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has already indicated where his sympathy lies by observing that the state unit's views should not be ignored while taking a call on this issue. But, his bête noire Prakash Karat is still holding on to his earlier position of keeping a safe distance from both the Congress and BJP. Commenting on this development he said recently that the party should adhere to the line adopted in the last party congress.
The Left, especially the CPI(M), has a long history of anti-Congressism.
In the early years of post-Independence politics, the Communist Party of India (then undivided) used to brand the Congress as a party representing the interests of the bourgeoisie and the feudal class. Since the Congress was in power at the Centre for a long time and also in a number of states, the Communist Party had no hesitation in declaring it as its main enemy. But, the scenario became complex with the advent of BJP. The Left sometimes adopted a line of going soft on the Congress while branding BJP as enemy number one, as happened during the 2004 General Election.
So much so that the CPI(M) had no hesitation in forming a loose coalition with the Congress in the post-election scenario that facilitated the UPA-1 government to come into being. But after snapping its relations with the UPA government in 2008, the CPI(M) went back to its earlier position of keeping a safe distance from both the BJP and Congress. Now, the Bengal leaders, after suffering successive electoral defeats at the hands of the TMC, are trying to change their party line.
The new slogans "Trinamool Hatao, Bangla bachao" (Defeat the TMC and Save Bengal) and "BJP hatao, desh bachao" (Defeat the BJP and Save India), paving the way for a possible alliance with the Congress, were raised by none other than Bhattacharjee in his address at Singur rally. For the last four years, both the Congress and the CPI(M) have been suffering heavy erosion in their respective organisations as the ruling party aggressively engaged the Opposition in a bloody turf war, where the local police and armed goons are acting in cohesion with, and at the behest of the ruling party workers.
Thousands of workers and sympathisers of both the Left and Congress have already been forced to flee their areas — many more have joined the TMC. A significant number of CPI(M) workers and sympathisers have become idle. The situation came to such a pass that during the 2014 elections, the Left couldn't put up agents in a vast number of booths in south Bengal. There were several occasions where the ruling party workers were seen capturing booths after chasing away Opposition party agents. Protests or complaints to the Election Commission observers did not change the situation.
On the other hand, the TMC leaders through their words and actions made it amply clear that they were not interested in having a free-and-fair poll.
The following year, ie in 2015, when elections for the Siliguri Corporation were being held, the opposition resorted to a different tactic. The CPI(M) leader Ashok Bhattacharjee and district Congress president Shankar Malakar came to an understanding that they would have to join forces to resist TMC activists attempting to capture booths. The slogan "Nijer vote nije dao; anyoke dite debe na." (Cast your own vote, don't allow other people to cast your vote) became very popular among the voters of Siliguri. The BJP also joined the campaigned, thus a popular movement was built against the culture of booth-capturing.
When the election results were made public on 28 April, 2015, it was found that the CPI(M)-led Left Front was way ahead of TMC and other parties. Eventually, Ashok Bhattacharjee became the mayor of Siliguri. A few months later, the Left Front got a similar result in the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad elections. Nabendu Guha, a veteran journalist, who has worked for many years in Siliguri, observed that while the initial understanding was to put up a united resistance to the TMC in thwarting any attempts of booth-capture, it was gradually noticed that a more subtle understanding had been developed at the grassroot-level.
The CPI(M) and the Congress saw to it that wherever their candidate's prospect of a win was suspect, they did not campaign much in those wards, instead allowed the other party to have a free run in the election. Emboldened by the success in Siliguri, the demand for an electoral alliance started raising its head in party circles in Kolkata. From the Congress side, senior leader Abdul Mannan from south Bengal, started demanding that the Congress rethink its election strategy and close ranks with the Left to oust Mamata from power.
In a fortnightly publication edited by him, Mannan argued in September that if the US and Cuba could put an end to their long enmity and resume normal relations, what was the harm in reaching out to the Left against the TMC?
But this idea only got momentum after the Bihar elections.
Mannan is optimistic about this, and though bed-ridden after two successive surgeries, he hopes, along with other state-level leaders, to take part in the meeting with Rahul in Delhi on 1 February. While a majority of Congress leaders in Bengal are pinning their hopes on this possible alliance with the Left, a few leaders are unhappy about that. Manas Bhuniya is one such leader. A Congress MLA from West Midnapur's Sabang constituency, Bhuniya is interested to see the resurgence of the TMC-Congress alliance that was in place during 2009 Lok Sabha elections and 2011 Assembly elections.
Addressing a party workers' conference on Monday at Sabang, he said, "Many things are being said in support of this alliance. But I would ask you to uphold the Congress flag and march forward.''
While the talk of this possible alliance is steadily gaining ground, TMC leaders including their supremo Mamata are getting nervous and edgy.
Realising that a Left-Congress combine can really impact the poll prospects of the TMC negatively, the leaders started questioning the efficacy of this alliance. Mamata has started attacking the Opposition by calling it ''unprincipled and opportunistic'' alliance. Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim and some others are trying to underplay it.
On the other hand, the BJP is alleging that the Left has double standards. Shamik Bhattacharjee, the lone BJP MLA, has pointed out that in Bengal, the Left is joining ranks with the Congress, while in Kerala, it is fighting the Congress. The CPI(M) leaders are also aware that if the party opts for an alliance with the Congress in Bengal, it will impact party prospects in Kerala. This is one question that must compel the CPI(M) central leadership to think twice before giving the nod to the Bengal comrades' demand.