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'Boomerang' that never came back: How the BJP rose to prominence in Bengal and pushed CPM to the fringes

It’s a strange story of a boomerang that never came back — a little comic but largely sinister, if one judges the impact the lost boomerang had on West Bengal.

The 2011 election results in West Bengal — swept by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) after more than three decades of Left rule — triggered a process of deep-rooted and far-reaching developments in the state. The faces that once dominated Kolkata’s political scene became non grata overnight. So much so that CPM workers began to feel the heat on their own home turfs. Reports of attacks on local Left leaders and workers in cities and towns and social boycotts in rural areas started pouring in despite the new chief minister’s assurance that the TMC wanted ‘change (badal)’, and not ‘revenge (badla)’.

The Alimuddin Street — hardly a street, it’s a narrow alley in central Kolkata where the CPM state unit’s offices are located — apparatchiks found themselves totally helpless while the TMC systematically dismantled the Left’s huge organisation. It was a low-key operation, almost imperceptible to the rest of India. Also, the media, which suffered a lot during the Left rule, chose to look the other way. And as expected, the Left, which had always gone underground when things went wrong, had no underground base left after decades of being in power.

 Boomerang that never came back: How the BJP rose to prominence in Bengal and pushed CPM to the fringes

File image of BJP flags. AFP

Then, some smart thinking young leaders of the Left came up with a plan. The cadres were asked to get associated with the BJP for physical safety, since it was not a political target in Bengal at that moment. The post script was that they would come back to the CPM fold once the storm blew over. Till this day, it’s not, however, clear whether the plan had been a well-thought-out strategy or just a knee-jerk reaction of some helpless men. CPM politburo member and parliamentarian Mohammed Salim had revealed the ploy to this writer while discussing the party’s turnaround strategy just before the 2016 Assembly elections. The party was still hoping then that the lost flock would ultimately come home to roost. He had not sought anonymity then.

But things didn’t go as was supposedly intended. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was initially unaware of the game that the Left was playing, it later saw an opportunity and quickly created its own base on the ruins of the CPM’s cadre network. And the Left leadership, which had initiated the game, remained helpless spectators. The reasons: One, the BJP, still in its nascent stage in Bengal, had to cling on to the newcomers and give them the importance that these cadres never had in the well-structured and bureaucratic CPM. And two, the hatred between the workers of the TMC and the CPM got translated into a bloody TMC-BJP fight which didn’t allow the saffron party to do without the former red brigade.

The first sign that CPM men were fighting under the lotus banner surfaced when the BJP took on the TMC in almost all the south Bengal districts, especially Birbhum — where Rabindra Nath Tagore set up his university, Shantiniketan (the abode of peace), about 200 kilometres north of Kolkata. Media reports showed that BJP workers who were killed or maimed in battles were largely Muslims. The BJP then claimed that the party had become so popular in a short span of time that even Muslims had decided to fight for the lotus symbol. Eyebrows were raised and state BJP leaders were questioned. But there was no convincing answer.

The CPM, meanwhile, had no option but to keep quiet and lose its vast rural and urban middle class base to the BJP. One of the main reasons — besides personal security issues — could be the lack of avenues to earn a livelihood when the party is not in power. The moment the TMC took over the state, the well-oiled system of ‘give (loyalty) and take (favours)’ collapsed. While musclemen took the easy option of joining some TMC leaders’ private armies, a vast majority felt the rich national party would be able to financially provide for them.

This is perhaps the reason why the CPM in Kerala never witnessed such large-scale exodus despite losing power almost in a regular cycle. The CPM in Kerala controls a Rs 25,000-crore business empire in the cooperative sector. In fact, the cooperative sector — after foreign remittances — is the second-largest contributor to the state’s gross domestic product. Party workers are mostly employed in these cooperatives. As their livelihood issues are taken care of, it does not matter too much to them whether the party is in power or not. For, business goes on as ever.

Now, the situation in Bengal is such that the vote share the CPM is losing in every election is getting added to the BJP’s kitty, making it the second most important party in the state, while the Left is relegated to the third position. The party still does not seem to have a well laid out recovery plan, as it is still waiting for its lost flock to return to base.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 18:08:10 IST