West Bengal polls: Meet the man behind the unlikely CPM-Congress alliance
The present CPI(M) — Congress(I) alliance, that has made the West Bengal elections far from an one-sided affair, owes a lot to the Siliguri model and to Ashoke Bhattacharya.
While the alliance between the CPI(M) and the Congress(I) is now a reality in West Bengal, this was not always so.
The two parties have a long history of animosity going back decades. The infamous Sain Bari massacre of Congress(I) functionaries, allegedly by CPI(M) members, is known for its gruesomeness, while it is remembered in some left circles as necessary retribution exacted on some feudal lords of rural West Bengal.
This is only one of the thousands of political murders of Congress(I) members done allegedly by the CPI(M). The list of CPI(M) members allegedly killed by the Congress(I) in West Bengal is also very long and such lists alongwith gruesome pictures of the murdered bodies used to be standard election-time propaganda material of the CPI(M) not so long ago.
CPI(M)'s mother party, the CPI, has always been seen by CPI(M) to be close to the Congress(I) and attitudes towards the Congress was one among the many reasons of the split and till recently was one of the many factors cited that stand against periodic discussions about possible reunification. The now-deceased one-time charismatic young MP of the CPI(M) Saifuddin Chowdhury was one among many expelled and humiliated by the CPI(M) for advocating a closer relationship with the Congress(I).
Now, in 2016, the political dominance of Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool and the successive defeats faced by the CPI(M) and the Congress(I) have brought the sworn enemies together, although, in theory, the CPI(M)'s supreme party ideology framed in the last Party Congress (not to be confused with Congress(I), a separate party) still maintains the principle of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP.
The alliance is a direct contradiction of the CPI(M)'s collective decision, in its broadest party forum, the Party Congress. For this alliance to make sense in communist jargon, certain ambiguous sentences about the 'need of the hour' were uttered by the CPI(M) shortly before formalization of the alliance, which had already been agreed upon. Party ideology has taken a back-seat for the time being, given the ground reality of West Bengal's politics — that without an alliance, Mamata Banerjee is not only invicible, much the Trinamool might sweep the elections. From the need for self-preservation and the promise of capturing power, CPI(M) has been trying hard to justify the alliance with the Congress(I) as being the only option available to counter 'fascism' in West Bengal. Necessity, wise people say, is the mother of invention.
However, even before this election, a CPI(M) — Congress(I) alliance in all but name was successfully tested out back in October 2015 in Siliguri. Its architect was the CPI(M) leader Ashoke Bhattacharya, who crafted a ground level understanding with the Congress(I) in the Siliguri municipal elections and riding on the success of the arrangement, went on to become the mayor of Siliguri. A member of the CPI(M) since 1968, he is the party's candidate for the Siliguri assembly constituency in the ongoing elections. It was Bhattacharya's Siliguri model that provided a signal to the CPI(M) leadership in West Bengal to imagine that rich political dividends from a wider alliance with the Congress(I) was possible. The present alliance, that has made the West Bengal elections far from an one-sided affair, owes a lot to the Siliguri model and to Ashoke Bhattacharya.
Ashoke Bhattacharya faces the popular retired footballer Baichung Bhutia, who is the Trinamool candidate for Siliguri. Bhattacharya has a twin advantage. He has recently won in that very area and he is also a native of that constituency, unlike Bhutia. Added to this is the fact that the CPI(M), through its long opposition to the Gorkhaland state demand, had positioned itself as the party of Bengalis. That Bhutia is a non-Bengali candidate in a Bengali majority town that is the epicentre of the resistance to the Gorkhaland state demand helps Bhattacharya in no small way. Siliguri has been quite favourable to Bhattacharya in the past. He was the Chairman of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation from 1987 to 1991. Starting from 1991, he was elected as a Member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly four times in a row, a record for that constituency. He wad defeated in 2011 by the Trinamool candidate Rudra Nath Bhattacharya. He was one among the many ministers of the Left Front defeated in that election which saw the CPI(M) being evicted from power in West Bengal after 34 years. In the last Left Front ministry of West Bengal, he was the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Urban Development and Town Planning. This is a key ministry and marked his senior position in the CPI(M)'s collective leadership system. This was the time when he was widely perceived to have a very good rapport with Bengal cricketer Sourav Ganguly and much was made at some point of Sourav's leanings towards the then ruling Left Front.
All that is history, for now. Ganguly as the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal shares a cordial relationship with Trinamool, the present ruling party, though he called up to congratulate Bhattacharya on his electoral success at the Siliguri municipal polls. After the 2011 defeat of the CPI(M), when many leaders withdrew a lot from party activities, Bhattacharya did not. He was continuously active in party programmes and agitations and these bore fruit in the Siliguri Municipal elections of 2015 and is very likely win once again in the assembly election from the Siliguri constituency. In the event that the alliance between the CPI(M) and the Congress(I) is actually able to defeat the Trinamool is West Bengal, Bhattacharya will no doubt get promoted to some very senior position in the ministry. For now, he is leaving no stone unturned to gain back the Siliguri seat he lost to the Trinamool in 2011.
Bhattacharya and the CPI(M) certainly hopes that the success of the Siliguri model is not limited to Siliguri. Whether the success of the Siliguri model is repeated in this election as the Bengal model and whether thet can be the basis of the CPI(M)'s dream for 2019 Lok Sabha elections of having a Congress-Left led challenge to the BJP at New Delhi, only time will tell.
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