Bengal Polls: Decoding The Tricky Cong-Left-Abbas 'Love Triangle'
The public spat between Abbas Siddiqui and Adhir Chowdhury is the new flashpoint in Bengal politics, ahead of polls.
The latest political flashpoint in West Bengal politics, ahead of the state elections in end March, has come from the "Third Front" in the state. The Front is a coalition between the Left Front, Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) party launched by Furfura Sharif cleric, Abbas Siddiqui.
At a rally by the Front at Kolkata's legendary Brigade Parade Grounds on 28 February, the crowds (in lakhs) were witness to a public spat between ISF's Siddiqui and West Bengal Congress Chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. On stage at the rally, and in the chatter that has followed, it was clear that the Left Front was the wall between Siddiqui and the Congress. Both of them claimed that they have had talks with the Left only and were, therefore, not answerable to any other political force.
The Brigade incident has thrown open the cracks in the Front, trying (albeit bleakly) to make themselves be counted in what has become a bipolar contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
What Happened At Brigade?
Trouble started as Siddiqui took the stage when Chowdhury was delivering his speech.
Chowdhury was halted by Left leaders who wanted to announce Siddiqui's entry. Live footage from the stage shows Chowdhury first refusing to stop his speech, then denying to continue it, and finally agreeing to finish it on the insistence of senior Left leader Biman Bose.
Thereafter, Abbas Siddiqui launched a scathing attack on the Congress when he took the mic.
He asked his supporters to vote for the Left only, with no mention of the Congress.
"I want to tell all those who love me from the Brigade Ground here, that wherever the Left Front puts up candidates, we will guard our motherland with our blood. We will oust the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its B-team the Trinamool Congress (TMC)", said Siddiqui.
He subsequently explained his stance.
"One can ask me, why I'm talking only about the Left and not the Congress. Let me make one thing clear, I've come here to seek a share, not beg. I want rights for Dalit, adivasi, OBC and Muslims, and that's the share I've come to claim. If someone wants to extend a hand, the door is open for them, and in the coming days Abbas Siddiqui will fight for them too", he said.
The Dynamics Of The Left-Congress-ISF Coalition
The Congress and the Left Front teamed up for the 2016 state elections. They went solo in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and have now again come together for the 2021 state elections.
The latest seat sharing talks between the Congress and the Left, held on 1 March, after the Brigade fiasco, has seen the Congress agree to take 92 out of the 294 seats in the state.
This means that the Left Front will have 202 seats in its share.
The confusing bit about the Third Front is that while the Left and Congress have reached a seat sharing agreement, and the Left and ISF have reached a seat sharing agreement, the Congress and ISF are not seeing eye-to-eye. Essentially, the Left Front is the thread holding the three together. The alliance, therefore, consists of two sub-alliances.
Siddiqui recently announced, and later confirmed at the Brigade rally, that the Left had agreed to give 30 seats to the ISF. Since there is no agreement with the Congress, these 30 seats will come from the Left's share.
Siddiqui had reportedly asked for about 80 seats from the Left-Congress combine.
On the other hand, the Congress-Left alliance is not without its hiccups either. The state units of both parties took an inordinate amount of time and negotiations to determine sharing of seats. There's another factor that also haunted them in 2016.
Due to the Congress-led UDF and the CPI(M)-led LDF squarely facing off in Kerala, negotiating relations at the state level and then building a strong narrative of unity has become difficult for both parties in Bengal. For the Congress, it has also created a dilemma for the national leadership.
There's speculation that Rahul Gandhi might not be coming to West Bengal to campaign for the elections and his focus will remain largely on Kerala for this very reason.
In 2016, Gandhi shared the stage with Left leaders, including former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, in Kolkata, in a show of Congress-Left unity.
However, at that time, he was not a Member of Parliament from Wayanad.
Congress' Siddiqui Dilemma
On 4 February, Bengal Congress leader and the party's leader of opposition in the assembly, Abdul Mannan, wrote to the Delhi leadership to approve the state unit's alliance with Siddiqui's ISF.
"The addition of ISF in the Left-Congress alliance may be a game changer in the ensuing assembly elections", wrote Mannan.
He also pointed out that Chowdhury had earlier visited Furfura Sharif and that Mannan himself had started "informal" talks with ISF.
Since then, the talks between the Congress and the ISF have come to a stalemate. The main point of contention, sources say, are the seats in Murshidabad and Malda - minority heavy seats, but also the only districts where the Congress had done well in 2019.
While Siddiqui is eyeing the minority vote in these seats, the Congress is unwilling to cede an inch in its stronghold. As a threat, Siddiqui has also said that he will field candidates from the seats the Congress is contesting if no compromise is reached.
He has further insinuated that he's "heard from a leader of the Congress" that a leader in the party is in talks with both the BJP and the TMC.
"I didn't ask him the name, he didn't tell me the name", said Siddiqui in a television interview.
It seems like the Delhi leadership of the Congress has also weighed in on this alliance complexity with Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma tweeting that an alliance with the likes of ISF is against the core values of the Congress party.
"Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party. These issues need to be approved by the CWC", Sharma tweeted.
"Congress cannot be selective in fighting communalists but must do so in all its manifestations, irrespective of religion and colour. The presence and endorsement West Bengal PCC President is painful and shameful, he must clarify", he added, launching an attack on Adhir.
Responding to Sharma's comments, Adhir said that no decision was taken by the state unit alone.
"We are in charge of a state and don't take any decision without any permission", he said.
The Third Front with the ISF and the Congress may shift some of the minority vote in the state from Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, many political pundits have opined. There's no analysis yet, however, on what happens if there's a TMC vs Congress vs ISF contest.
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