Desperation, some call it pragmatism, has driven the moribund Left and Congress in each other’s arms in West Bengal. Both are fighting for their existence, although their public stance is about “saving Bengal from the clutches of an undemocratic Trinamool Congress government”. Their alliance has been firmed up in around 275 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats. The hope is that disputes will be resolved in as many of the rest as possible. The Left still has a core vote base, but not its earlier strength. It needs help from the Congress, which too has its share of votes in districts such as Malda and Murshidabad in particular. The Left’s plan is to ensure a one-on-one fight with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in as many seats as possible and to play to the respective allies’ strengths in different seats. It has largely succeeded in this. That some opinion polls are talking about the alliance giving a tough fight to the Trinamool is a bonus; although this is dismissed by the ruling party as drivel. The Left has taken a “nuanced” approach to the elections. “We are not asking the people to elect the eighth Left Front government, but we are asking them to elect a left-secular-democratic government,” CPM leader Fuad Halim tells this newspaper. What he does not mention is that the “nuance” is necessary, as the Left is still burdened by the baggage of 34-years of “misrule”. The spectre of an eighth Left government is not palatable to many.
The consensus in political circles is that if there has to be an impact of the Left-Congress alliance, it will be primarily in “north Bengal”, the top half of Bengal above Farakka, the barrage where the Ganga divides the state into two—north and south Bengal—before entering Bangladesh.
The CPM-Congress experiment started in Siliguri in Darjeeling district, towards the northern most part of the state. Siliguri mayor, and former CPM minister for 20 years, Ashok Bhattacharya is regarded as the man who masterminded the “Siliguri model”. The CPM has won both the panchayat and the corporation elections in Siliguri recently under his leadership. There were no adjustments with the Congress in the corporation elections. But there was tactical voting. “When Congress supporters realised that the Congress would not win in certain wards, they voted for the CPM and vice versa,” Bhattacharya tells The Sunday Guardian, while sitting in the rather austere CPM office at the Anil Biswas Bhawan in Siliguri. “In the villages, we supported the Congress in three panchayats and the Congress supported us in two panchayats, to elect the panchayat pradhan and the chairman of the panchayat samiti,” he says.
Before that in 2012, there was a united movement to increase the wages of tea garden labourers. In this, CPM’s trade union body CITU, Congress’ INTUC, Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha and some tribal unions came together on the same platform. “Except for the Trinamool and BJP (affiliated unions), 24 trade unions came together to form a joint forum, which still exists. This united movement had an effect on the corporation and panchayat elections,” Bhattacharya says.
Bhattacharya believes that they were able to change the “identity politics” of the tea gardens into “class politics”, as a result of which, tea garden workers rose above their tribal or Gorkha identity to vote for the Left as a united labour force. “So the Left won 70-75% of the panchayats here.” He says that all this had an impact on the Dooars-Terai belt in the foothills of the Himalayas and will affect the Assembly elections in the whole of north Bengal.
Bhattacharya, who is the CPM candidate from Siliguri, says he is confident that in this part of Bengal, of the 55 seats in the area between Kumargram (near India-Bhutan border in Alipurduar district) and Kaliachak (in Malda district), Trinamool will not get more than seven seats, while the Left-Congress alliance will get the rest.
This figure is hotly disputed by Trinamool Congress workers who have gathered at Ulka Sporting Club in that part of Siliguri town that comes under the Dabgram-Fulbari constituency. “It will be 35 TMC, 20 Left-Congress,” they say.
The sitting MLA of Dabgram-Fulbari constituency is Gautam Deb of the Trinamool Congress. Deb is the state Minister for North Bengal Development and is running on the plank of…“development”. His party workers talk about a second Secretariat being brought to this part of the state, bridges being built, roads being widened—the kind of development “that no one in this part of Bengal has ever seen”. Deb is confident of a win, so are his cadre. However, a list that has been prepared by Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra, shows Dabgram-Fulbari as a possible win by the Left-Congress alliance, by adding up the two parties’ votes, along with 40% of the votes that BJP got during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. TMC got 69,700 votes from this Assembly segment in the Lok Sabha elections; BJP 64,990; Left 51,562; and Congress 9,413. The calculation shows Left and Congress together getting 60,975 votes and after adding 40% of the BJP votes, reaching a handsome 86,971 votes. However, the minister dismisses the possibility of losing his seat. “The alliance has happened among the leaders, not among the workers. Congress is a mass based party, Congress is not a regimented party, so the vote sharing among the partners of this unnatural alliance will not happen. Wherever the Congress has not put up a candidate, that vote will come to us, and not transfer to the Left,” he tells this newspaper. Deb also believes that the BJP vote share, if it melts—which it will, according to all TMC leaders—will go to the TMC and not to the Left-Congress because “Mamata Banerjee is a clear winner and will form government”.
The question then is of Left-Congress coordination. According to Fuad Halim, the alliance is getting a positive response from the grassroots workers of both parties. Apart from that “where the Left has its candidates, the Congress leadership has openly come and campaigned for us both at the constituency level and door to door level.”
This correspondent did see a couple of Congress-CPM rallies in Siliguri and Dabgram-Fulbari. Although they appeared subdued and thinly attended compared to the vociferous and muscular Trinamool rallies, there are reports that some sort of coordination is taking place at the grassroots.
In Malda, Congress leaders too talk about pressure from the grassroots. Mausam Noor, who is MP from Malda North, and Isha Khan Choudhury, who is contesting the Shujapur Assembly seat talk about having difficulty in reconciling themselves to an alliance with the CPM. “It was the high command’s decision,” says Choudhury. “We did not want an alliance, because we have been fighting the Left, but the demand came from the people, the workers. It was very difficult for us but the coordination happened so well at the lower level that we went with them,” says Mausam Noor. Both leaders belong to the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury’s family, and in Malda, which has been a Ghani Khan family bastion for decades, the Congress does not need much help from the Left. The speculation is that Trinamool will not get more than three of the 12 seats in this district. Even the big Trinamool leaders in Malda have mostly defected from the Congress.
According to Congress’ state general secretary Om Prakash Mishra, the big story of the elections will be south Bengal, particularly the two districts of South and North 24 Parganas and Kolkata, a Trinamool bastion. “Trinamool has 68 of the 75 seats in this belt, but it will lose most of these seats,” he claims. This is countered by Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha MP, Sukehndu Shekhar Roy, with a sarcastic retort, “Of course, they (CPM-Congress) will win all 294 seats.” The talk on the ground is of some seats slipping out of Trinamool hands from this belt, but the ruling party is more or less expected to retain its hold here.
One of the biggest problems of the Left-Congress alliance is history, often angry and bloody. CPM’s 34-year rule was pockmarked with violence against its political opponents. There were too many murders of workers and leaders belonging to both Congress and Trinamool. The Trinamool Congress, which is an offshoot of the Congress, is going to town on this, including putting up photos of “political martyrs” at its campaign rallies and reminding voters from every available microphone of that gory past, about how the Congress has forgotten its own history and joined hands with the “butcher CPM”.
West Bengal Minister for Food Processing and Horticulture, Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury of the Trinamool, who was earlier with the Congress, is contesting the English Bazaar seat in Malda. Considered a “strongman” in this district, Chowdhury gives a graphic description of how, once, Manas Bhunia, the former state president of the Congress, fled after being beaten by CPM goons. “Nine of us Congress MLAs were attacked by the CPM. Bhunia was one of them. And now the same Bhunia is joining hands with the CPM. I feel sad for the Congress.”
The CPM and Congress, meanwhile, are trying to appear gung-ho, talking about getting anything between 130 and 170 seats, while the Trinamool is setting its sight on 190 to 220 seats.