When CPI-M leader and Left Front Chairman Biman Bose and West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury held a joint press conference in January to announce that the Left and the Congress would jointly fight the upcoming Assembly election and had already begun the process of sharing seats, it was a watershed moment in the history of Bengal politics. This was for the first time that top leaders of the two parties, sworn enemies for decades, were seen together announcing a seat-sharing deal. It was surprising for many to see the two leaders, flanked by some of their party colleagues, address the media.
In 2016, the Left and the Congress did form an alliance to take on the ruling Trinamool Congress, but there were hiccups all along. The result was an unmitigated disaster for the Left, which was reduced to the third position with a tally of 32 seats and the Congress surged ahead of them becoming the main Opposition with 44 seats.
The experiment brought such ignominy to the Left that the alliance came unstuck in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. The decision to part company proved even costlier for it. The Left was wiped out of the State’s electoral map failing to win a single of the 42 seats of the State. While the BJP made history winning 18 seats against the Trinamool’s 22, the Congress managed to win two from its strongholds of Murshidabad and Malda.
The joint fight this time around is a dire necessity for both the Congress and the Left, which are facing an existential crisis in the State, where the Trinamool and the BJP will occupy the centre stage of the electoral contest in April-May. The 2019 LS election has clearly shown the State electoral preferences in favour of the BJP and the Trinamool. The BJP’s popularity curve is ascending so alarmingly for its opponents that all the non-BJP parties are now desperate to protect their support bases.
The 2019 LS poll statistics, however, do not inspire much hope for the Left and the Congress. Both have steadily lost their ground since the 2016 Assembly poll. Things came to such a pass that the Congress’ control of Assembly segments dwindled from 44 in 2016 to 9 and the Left’s from 32 to nil in 2019. The Trinamool also suffered immensely with its tally dipping from 211 to 164. The BJP registered a phenomenal increase from three to 121.
The vote share of the Left, Congress and the Trinamool also dropped drastically from 2016. The Left was the worst sufferer with its vote percentage going down from a little over 24 to a meagre 6.33, the Congress’ from 12.25 to 5.67 and the Trinamool from 44.91 to 43. The BJP increased its vote share from 10.16% to 40.7%.
This is the reason why the Left and the Congress have decided to ink a seat-sharing deal to take on both the Trinamool and the BJP. The first major task before the combine is to prevent the anti-incumbency votes from going to the kitty of the BJP from the Trinamool. The BJP and the Trinamool are seeking to direct the electoral discourse to a binary so that the two remain the main contenders and the rest are rejected as poor also-ran outfits. That is part of their strategy of getting the lion’s share of the votes of the Hindus and the Muslims respectively. In such a scheme of things, the BJP stands to gain maximum from the anti-incumbency that the Trinamool is suffering from because of allegations of corruption against it and its minority-appeasing policies. The Left-Congress can ill afford to let the BJP alone reap this benefit. For, if that happens, the BJP will be the clear winner.
The Trinamool is also too aware of this, which is why it has gone to the extent of enlisting the support of the Left and the Congress to keep the “communal and divisive” BJP at bay. The latter, of course, rejected the suggestion outright. To rub salt into Trinamool’s injuries, the Congress even proposed that Trinamool should merge with it to put up a united fight against the BJP.
The BJP, in turn, has gleefully welcomed the development and included it in its campaign pitch. It is telling the people the Trinamool’s suggestion is an admission that the BJP has emerged as a potent force in the State and that the Trinamool is in no position to take on it on its own. “If the Left Front and the Congress are genuinely anti-BJP, they should rally behind Mamata Banerjee in her fight against the communal and divisive politics of the saffron party,” senior Trinamool MP Sougata Roy said.
On the sidelines, the astute Sharad Pawar has all along been playing an important role without attracting public attention to nudge the Left and the Congress to close ranks in Bengal to stop the BJP in its track. He is leant to have recently met Sitaram Yechury and CPI leader D Raja and told them not to do anything that would help the BJP’s plan. Pawar’s argument is that if the BJP captures Bengal, then the success will give it the vantage ground to try to win a third term at the Centre in 2024.
On the other hand, according to Pawar, if Mamata is helped to retain power with the Congress-Left support, the anti-Modi unity bid will be boosted. The ongoing movement of famers against the three contentious farm laws has only bolstered Pawar’s hope.
Moreover, if the Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui, who has floated the Indian Secular Front, joins forces with the Left-Congress, as he has already indicated, the combine’s plan to prop up a Trinamool government may be translated into reality.
(The author is a political analyst associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research group)
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