In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, what would have been unimaginable in Bengal less than 10 years ago, happened. The Left Front, led by the CPI(M), did not manage to win a single Parliamentary seat. Additionally, barring one (the Jadavpur constituency), the Left lost its deposit in all its seats. Its alliance partner, the Congress, didn’t fare much better, registering wins in just two seats.
For the 2021 Assembly elections due in roughly six months, the Left and Congress have joined hands again. This time, many believe, however, that for both, its a fight to not just mark an electoral victory, but also to maintain their relevance in the state.
Who Is The Bigger Enemy? Modi Or Mamata?
The first challenge for the Left-Congress now is to maintain their position as principal opposition in the West Bengal Assembly. In the 2016 Assembly election, which the Trinamool won with a thumping majority, the BJP secured only two seats. Now, however, in spite of no legislative presence, the saffron party has emerged as the main opposition to Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress.
The dilemma before the Left-Congress, electorally, is whether to see the TMC or BJP as its main target.
At this point, the alliance says that they will target both.
“Of course the BJP is our main opposition- not just in West Bengal but also nationally. They are ideologically and politically completely opposed to us. But that being said, we are not ready to give an inch to Mamata Banerjee either. The TMC needs to go, but they can’t be replaced by the BJP. That is our position”, said Shatarup Ghosh, CPI(M) leader.
In the 2019 elections, the Left votes, largely en masse, shifted to the BJP. The BJP got almost 1.5 crore more votes than it did in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
“Of these 1.5 crores, around a crore votes came from the Left voters. I agree. But the rest came from the TMC voters. So it’s not like only the Left contributed to the BJP’s success”, says Shatarup.
But have they figured out why this shift happened?
The Left says that after 2011, and especially after 2016, TMC violence against Left cadres, especially in the districts increased.
“There was violence in our rallies, in our meetings and even our offices were taken over”, Shatarup says.
“At this point, because we couldn’t function in full strength, there was a void in the space of the opposition. The BJP came in at that point and said that they’re running the centre, have CBI, ED and other machinery and can help fight the TMC in a way that they Left can’t. Those who wanted to vote against TMC, therefore, naturally went to them”, he adds.
Governance Vs Polarisation
The alliance says that their election campaign will focus on governance-centric issues. They plan to raise issues of farmers’ rights and minimum wage as their key electoral planks. But with both BJP and the TMC playing the religion card, will this kind of a campaign cut ice with the voters?
“The problem with the Left-Congress is that they are still stuck in old school politics. They will throw around terms like ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeoise’ and ‘class struggle’. Who listens to these things any more? Especially in this scenario where polarization is the name of the game”, says political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty.
“If the Left-Congress proceed with such a campaign, they will lose both their Hindu and Muslim votes because they will not be the first choice for either electoral group. In that case, the most they will do is dent both the BJP and TMC”, he says.
However, for the alliance, forcing a governance-centric narrative in the face of communal polarization is the aim.
“That is our challenge. They will try to polarize. They will try to make this campaign about communal politics. But we will try to bring the focus back on grassroot issues like jobs, minimum wage and so on”, says Shatarup.
In this context, the Bihar elections have given the alliance hope.
“Four months before the elections, everyone was saying that the BJP will sweep the elections on the basis of Ram Mandir and the religion card. But in the lead up to the elections, Tejashwi Yadav and the Mahagathbandhan brought the focus back on governance. They didn’t win, but the fact that it was a close contest means that people still care about issues that affect them directly”, he says.
As a learning from the Bihar elections, where the Left performed better than the Congress, will it now push to be senior alliance partner in the Bengal elections?
As of now, both parties say, that the seat division will be decided on a “seat-by-seat” basis.
“But it’s a fact that we have more vote share than the Congress”, says Shatarup.
Who Will Lead The Alliance? The Left or the Congress?
Another problem for the alliance is that, like the BJP, they may not have a Chief Ministerial face to front the elections. Unlike the BJP, both the Left and the Congress have senior, seasoned politicians in their ranks. But who among them can be made the face of the alliance to put up a good fight against Mamata?
“I think the alliance needs a national and charismatic face like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury to lead it. He has sway amongst the youth, is a grassroot politician and also has national recall. That’s something that Left leaders like Surjya Kanta Mishra and Biman Bose lack. They will most probably not project a CM face, but if they do, and if they front Adhir, it will definitely ramp up their campaign”, says Chakraborty.
Another criticism that the Left routinely faces in Bengal, is its lack of young faces. Like Bihar, is it time for the Bengal Left to push younger, credible leaders to the forefront?
At 34, Shatarup is one of the Left’s youngest leaders in the state and fought his first election in 2011, at the age of 25. Like most Left leaders, he also made his way into the CPI(M) through the Students’ Federation of India (SFI).
He, however, says that the Left has been trying for years to give space to younger leaders.
“The youngest person in the West Bengal Assembly is from the CPI(M). For many years now the Left is trying to bring younger people into their fold, and efforts are being made to recruit youngsters from campus politics”, he says.
But why are leaders like Mishra and Bose still the face of the party? Where is the Bengal Left’s Kanhaiya Kumar?
“There are youth leaders in Bengal who are popular like Kanhaiya. The fact that we don’t have young faces is largely a perception”, says Shatarup.
“It’s just that unlike the TMC guys, Left leaders don’t dye their hair!”, he adds in a lighter vein.
In the 2016 elections, however, the Left just had three candidates who were below 40. Shatarup was one of them.
As the alliance tries to up the ante with its public rallies ahead of the polls, most don’t expect them to win the election. However, they would hope, that they come back from the near decimation that they faced in Lok Sabha 2019.
The Quint reached out to several Congress leaders for a quote on this story, including Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury but is yet to receive a response at the time of publishing this article.