Will Mamata Banerjee’s decline revive the Left in Bengal again?
Bengal's voters are not likely to forget in a hurry the last arrogant and oppressive years of the Left Front
In a severe drought, when most farmers’ lives get destroyed, one group sees opportunity: the salt farmers. Salinity in the soil peaks during drought, making it a harbinger of joy for some in an otherwise dark time.
Similarly, while the astonishing rise of the BJP in Bengal has ruination for anti-saffron parties, there may just be a glimmer for the near-extinct Left in the state. Mamata Banerjee has nearly decimated the once-mighty CPM, which ruled Bengal for 34 years. It got just 6.28 percent votes in the 2019 general elections. In 2016 Assembly polls, despite teaming up with the Congress, once upon a time the Left’s arch enemy in the state, it got just 26 out of 294 seats. Sandwiched between a raging BJP and a desperate TMC, it might get even less this time.
But if Mamata Banerjee’s party suffers a big defeat in 2021, which does not look impossible any longer, some political space might unexpectedly open up for the Left. TMC is not a party with a disciplined cadre and a clear, strong ideology that fires up ground workers and holds them together in extreme crises. It is a party formed by shored up anti-Left Front sentiments and an opportunity to make money and share the spoils of powers
In the eventuality of a debilitating defeat, the Trinamool Congress may internally crumble. Its seemingly loyal support base may vanish overnight. Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM , for instance, threatens to take away a sizeable part of TMC’s Muslim vote, which it has heavily relied on and pandered to, creating fecund ground for the BJP to consolidate the Hindu vote and polarise the electorate to its advantage.
A receding TMC will leave a vacuum of Opposition in Bengal. The question is: Is the Left ready to fill that space?
Not under the current circumstances. The CPM’s internal assessments have repeatedly shown erosion of youth support, especially in the 18-31 age group. A party membership renewal drive this year showed that the number of members had dropped from 1,68,042 in 2019 to 1,60,485. CPM had more than 3 lakh members before 2011. It came down to 2.56 lakh in 2015 and 1.96 lakh in 2018.
The party does not have popular mass leaders like Jyoti Basu, Saroj Mukherjee or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. On Saturday, along with TMC’s star Suvendu Adhikari, one of CPM’s last big vote-winners, Haldia MLA Tapasi Mondal, joined the BJP.
Leaders like Surjya Kanta Mishra, Sujan Chakroborty or Mohammed Salim lack a certain magic needed to turn the party around. Biman Bose, now 80, is one of the last ideological stalwarts. But he is on the doorstep of his political sunset.
There are some promising leaders. Minakshi Mukherjee, who is the West Bengal state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth body of CPM, is admired among supporters.
Deblina Hembram, a tribal and a central committee member of the CPM, was the main attraction at the party’s last Brigade Parade Ground rally.
But many of the cadre and sympathisers are upset with the way the party is being run today. They object to the party’s tie-up with its ideological rival Congress. They want a leadership overhaul. They feel committed workers who are still holding aloft red flags in small towns and villages in the face of TMC’s terror and targeting deserve to be the new faces of the party leadership.
These Left supporters are fed up of the party being run on the whims of Delhi’s armchair comrades and the deep factional faultlines in the state unit. They complain of gnawing bureaucracy within. They see opportunists consumed by the petty race for posts rather than selfless service to the ideology and the people.
The rot is deep. Bengal's voters are not likely to forget in a hurry the last arrogant and oppressive years of the Left Front.
Yet, a tiny window of opportunity may open up in the next four or five years. It will need a combination of bold, futuristic rethink and some vintage cadre commitment and discipline for the Left to find its feet again in what once was its unshakable bastion. The journey from today’s oblivion to becoming the state’s main Opposition would be long and gruelling.