We don’t believe in covert politics. Whatever we do, it will be in the open,” that was Prakash Karat, former CPI(M) general secretary on the possibilities of a tie up with the Congress for the Bengal assembly elections in April. His comments in an interview to a national newspaper, was against the backdrop of state leaders of both parties reportedly lobbying hard with their respective central leaderships for an alliance.
The question is whether such an alliance could win? A simple arithmetical calculation puts the alliance in a close race with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). In 2011, the TMC secured 38.93 per cent of the popular vote in alliance with the Congress which won 9.09 per cent. The CPI(M) won 30.08 per cent, with other Left parties including CPI and Forward Bloc securing close to 10 per cent of the votes.
However, Indian elections never boil down to simple mathematical equations. Rather, it is a complex process which involves not only the campaign and its effectiveness, but more crucially the projected and historical baggage of each party and its leadership, which could influence the proposed coalition. There’s no doubt that both parties carry a lot of baggage, more so the CPI(M) given its 34-year long misrule in Bengal.
The leadership of both the parties, however, is keen to bury the hatchet on past differences to topple Mamata Banerjee and end what they describe as an “undeclared emergency in the state”.
“We should not live with the bitterness of the past. It is time to respect the aspirations of the masses who want to get rid of the misrule of the TMC,” CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim said, while addressing a seminar titled ‘West Bengal Assembly Elections: The Way Forward’, at the Kolkata Press Club recently, adding: “It is true that we had opposed the Congress during Emergency. But presently the situation in the state is nothing but unannounced emergency. This is not the time to think about past differences, but to work together towards the common goal of progress of Bengal.”
State Congress general secretary Om Prakash Mishra echoed similar sentiments when he said: “Yes we had differences during the Left rule. May be we will have differences in future too but this is not the time to recollect the past. It is time to fight united against the corrupt TMC that is destroying Bengal. It is time to move forward as the youth and people of Bengal are looking at us with hope.”
The bigger question for the Congress, is whether public memories of the atrocities committed by the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government (1972-77), especially during the ill-fated Naxal movement, have faded. The Congress never returned to power after that in the state. Add to it, the chaos of the UPA 2 government and multiple corruption scandals that saw a spectacular rise in the BJP’s vote share in Bengal in 2014.
The CPI(M) carries even bigger burdens as the memories of Singur and Nandigram are of recent vintage. Also, rural Bengal remains solidly in favour of Mamata. However, CPI(M) leaders believe that Mamata’s autocratic behavior in the last four-and-a-half years will compensate for all their sins.
“When you are in power, anti-social elements try to get into the party. But in case of TMC it is different as it is made of anti-socials where few gentlemen have also been included,” Salim claims.
But in truth, the CPI-M’s biggest mistake was to politicize any association, committee or union. They even tried to recruit primary school children into their students wing SFI (Students Federation of India)!
In an interview to a local channel post the TMC’s victory in 2011, a nameless peasant told a news channel: “We have found our freedom. The local committee used to decide on everything, to whom we sell our produce, to whom our children get married to or the number of children
Thanks to Mamata’s politics of minority appeasement, her intolerance of any criticism, the breakdown of law and order in rural Bengal and the endless infighting within the TMC
His observation reflected a harsh reality, the CPI(M)’s suffocating grip over Bengal’s citizens. It also made politics fiercely competitive in rural Bengal steeling simplicity out of rural folks where neighbors become enemies, if they supported the opposition namely TMC. There was the case in Nanoor in Birbhum district, where a boy was lynched to death for having an affair with a girl whose father was a TMC supporter. These attempts at social engineering were clearly not liked, and at the first opportunity people threw out the CPI(M).
In 2007, then chief minister bulldozed the Kolkata Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee, who was president of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), an autonomous body, so as to satisfy a personal grudge against the late Jagmohan Dalmiya. Subrata Mukherjee, currently a minister, was quoted as saying: “Bhattacharyya will now try to take over the Saraswati Puja committees all over West Bengal.”
That comment from the man often considered Bengal’s craftiest politician, can be dismissed but it exemplified the political aims of Alimuddin Street: To colour ‘red’ the minds of the people. It backfired with Mamata painting the state in hues of blue and white (her party colours).
The term ‘policy paralysis’ got national emphasis thanks to the dual power structure of the UPA but in reality it was first exhibited by the Buddhadab Bhattacharyya government post its inability to handle Mamata during the Singur and Nandigram crisis. As a senior government official told this journalist: “The government is long dead.”
The CPI(M) was defeated long before May 2011 as its famed party machinery degraded and the faithful gravitated to the TMC. Poor leadership and the obsession with old ideologies and slogans ensured it lost ground with the youth, affecting the party’s grass roots support.
Perhaps nothing underscored the aging leadership’s lack of connect as technology: They were bewildered with the introduction of mobile phones and I distinctly remember the day a twitter handle was opened at Alimuddin Street by Left Front chairman Biman Bose. His posture suggested they were going on twitter due to public pressure, but in his view it was a mindless exercise and would not help the party win a single additional vote.
The leadership had long considered the vote from the masses as their right and their utter decimation was a shock that the faithful believe, the leadership is yet to recover from. An earlier generation of political observers, say the defeat was because none of the current leadership had built the party from the ground up, rather they inherited its full glory from the late Pramod Dasgupta and then Jyoti Basu. The proteges of Dasgupta, Bose, Bhattacharyya and late Anil Biswas, were like prodigal sons who lost whatever their predecessors had raised brick by brick.
The clamor for an alliance with the Congress, which none other than former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee described as “a political necessity”, raises serious doubts about the current leadership. A party which controlled the state for 34-years has to seek an alliance with the “bourgeois” Congress.
Insiders say Marxism was taken over by maxims of individuals, who took the voters for granted. “What happened to our party can happen to any party if you remain in power for long. 2011 was a reality check where our leaders hopefully have realized that people cannot be taken for granted,” said a CPI(M) central committee member who would not be named. “Self-interest had crept into the party where people were seen making money and even anti-social elements rose to positions of power,” admits the leader.
But the alliance could succeed thanks to Mamata’s politics of minority appeasement, her intolerance of any criticism, the breakdown of law and order in rural Bengal and the endless infighting within the TMC. In her first tenure as chief minister, Mamata was intolerant of the sensitivities of the middle class who had openly rooted for her. Take the case of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was arrested for circulating a cartoon about the chief minister and then railway minister Mukul Roy; or the girls in Kamduni who complained about the lack of security for women and were labelled by Mamata as “Maoists”.
For TMC the biggest concern is infighting which could work to the advantage of the coalition as in every block, the ruling party comprises at least three fractions at each other’s throats, even ministers fight each other live on camera. The perception of a strong, credible opposition could result in some of the TMC factions defecting to them or backstabbing the ruling party from within.
Mamata has been urging her party leaders to unite, and went to the extent of ending her year-long rift with old associate Mukul Roy, thereby preventing the creation of a new party that could eat into her votes. At a party campaign she said: “I am requesting leaders like Saugata Roy and others not to criticize the party publicly as its harms the party. This request is to one and all. Those who want to be with TMC for personal benefit are requested to leave.”
The chaos of the UPA 2 government and multiple corruption scandals saw a spectacular rise in the BJP’s vote share in Bengal in 2014
Mamata has also turned her guns on the CPI(M) and the Congress, dismissing their coalition as “opportunistic”. “We are not bothered about any alliance,” echoed Mukul Roy, “those who are insecure about their political stake in the state are now trying to cobble up an alliance in their own interest and to save each other. This will not be the first time we will contest on our own. We contested 2014 Parliamentary elections, Panchayat polls (rural body election) and municipals polls and won with massive majority.”
“We have already declared some of our candidates and finalizing the list of cabinet members as everyone knows we will return to power whether there is an alliance or not,” insisted Partha Chatterjee, TMC minister.
But the alliance remains the party’s major concern, and this came out in the public domain when Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi disclosed during a meeting with state Congress leaders, that Mamata had urged him not to tie up with the CPI(M).
“These are baseless canards being circulated by the Congress and CPI(M) trying to showcase that we are afraid of the possible coalition. Our leader had not shared anything with Gandhi during the ceremony and we are not bothered,” Chatterjee said.
Chatterjee’s comments may not reflect the reality within the TMC, but the prospects for a Cong-CPI(M) coalition don’t appear that easy. Even if their past baggage is no longer an issue with the public, the biggest tumbling block would be picking somebody who could be a credible chief ministerial face during the campaign. Also, the coalition needs to satisfactorily answer questions about their ideological differences and how they intend to bridge them.
Typically, the Congress is evasive. “First let’s have the coalition, all will fall through. We are not doing this to become chief minister, but to save Bengal from this autocratic rule. It is a demand of the people not of the leadership,” said state Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury. Any takers for that?
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