The national general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury on 11 January in a press conference held in Agartala said, that his party is in support of a broad anti-Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) platform for the upcoming polls in the Northeastern state of Tripura.
This statement clearly shows that the Left party is ready to strike a seat adjustment deal with its once arch-rival Congress and also with Pradyot Debbarma’s TIPRA Motha which is currently ruling the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC). Yechury along with his predecessor and party polit-bureau member Prakash Karat came to the state to attend the party’s one-day state committee meeting held on 10 January.
From Arch-Rivals to Political Allies
After the Congress's defeat to Narendra Modi-led BJP at the Centre in 2014, the party’s support base in this state also started to shift towards the saffron party to defeat the then-ruling party CPI(M). This shift was almost over by the 2018 state polls where the grand old party was completely decimated. On the other hand, the CPI(M) lost 7-8% votes to NDA but after losing power, the Left party’s support base declined faster.
With the passage of time as the anti-incumbency started to gather against the saffron party, both CPI(M) and Congress initiated their organisational activities — and as a result, these Opposition parties also started to recover their lost ground.
However, both the parties know that their individual strength isn’t enough to defeat the BJP. With elections round the corner, the two Opposition parties — CPI(M) and Congress — are left with no choice but to bury their rivalrous past and form a broad platform to unseat the saffron party from power.
Will the Congress-CPIM Arrangement Work?
It isn’t an easy path to pave. Congress and the Communists have been fighting against each other in this state since the first Lok Sabha elections of 1951-52. The developing bonhomie brought the top leaders of the two Opposition parties — state Communist Party of India (Marxist) Secretary Jitendra Chaudhury and Congress MLA Sudip Roy Barman came together in December last year to celebrate 75 years of independence where CPI(ML) Liberation National Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya too was present.
Later in the same month, the speculated alliance got a boost when the six parties, including the CPI(M) and Congress issued a joint letter urging the voters to defeat the BJP. The signatories of the letter were Jitendra Chaudhury, state Congress President Birajit Singa, CPI State Secretary Judhisthir Das, RSP State Secretary Deepak Deb, Forward Bloc State Chairman Paresh Sarkar and CPI(ML)(L) State Secretary Partha Karmakar.
Of these, CPI, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc are constituents of the state Left Front headed by the CPI(M). Importantly, TIPRA Motha’s Supremo Pradyot Debbarma didn’t sign in this joint letter, although Jitendra claimed that Pradyot also agreed with their appeal.
The Failed Bengal Model
Before the 2016 assembly polls, the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress burying their bitter past decided to go for a pre-poll alliance to defeat Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress.
However, the Left and Congress termed it as a 'seat-sharing agreement', objecting to the word “alliance”. But the alliance failed to defeat the TMC as there was a lack of chemistry among the allies on the ground. As a result, the Left Front suffered the most in terms of seats — and this failure also resulted in the decline of the Left with its votes going to the BJP.
The saffron party emerged as the main Opposition party in the state mostly by eating into the votes of the Left as witnessed during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2021 State Assembly polls.
In the 2021 state assembly polls, the Left and the Congress again entered into an alliance — and this time it was called Sanjukta Morcha. If 2016 was a tragedy for the alliance, 2021 turned out to be a farce for them. For the first time since independence, Communists and Congress failed to win a seat in the assembly.
Challenges for the CPI(M)-Congress pact
Yechury in his press conference clearly stated that the party won’t form any alliance or front outside the existing Left Front. He categorically said, the party won’t repeat its Bengal mistake. According to Yechury, the party’s aim is for a seat adjustment with like-minded parties to bring anti-BJP votes together as much as possible.
The situation in Tripura isn’t much different save BJP becomes the contender instead of the TMC. The voters are wise and it has been seen, they generally don’t consider such opportunistic alliances, until and unless they offer a constructive alternative. That’s the reason why the CPI(M) and Congress are cautious and taking into considerations all angles before arriving at a final decision.
In the 2016 polls of Bengal, the Congress pressurised the CPI(M) to cede seats where the grand old party didn’t have a strong presence — and the beleaguered CPI(M) too agreed to do so despite facing strong criticisms from its Left allies.
In some places, the Congress had put up candidates against CPI(M) and its Left allies. Not only this, the grand old party also failed to consistently transfer its votes to the Left Front, which was successful in transferring its votes in a large way to the Congress. Clearly, both the parties have to keep in mind the ground realities, particularly the Congress, which has a history of demanding unrealistic seats from its partners.
Apart from hurting CPI(M)-led Left Front’s prospects in 2016 Bengal polls, the unrealistic demand for seats from Congress cost other electoral partners like DMK in 2016 Tamil Nadu polls, Samajwadi Party in 2017, Uttar Pradesh polls and RJD-led Grand Alliance in 2020 Bihar polls. The DMK, learning from its 2016 mistake, offered less number of seats to the Congress in 2021.
Another major challenge is that the BJP is already using this speculated CPI(M)-Congress alliance to get the votes of the supporters of the two parties who aren’t happy with this new developing bonhomie.
Particularly, the saffron party is targeting the anti-Left mindset of the Congress voters who played a big role in the party’s victory in 2018 assembly polls. However, lately, a section of these Congress voters, dissatisfied with the saffron party, are returning back to the party. A direct alliance with CPI(M) is likely to force these voters to rethink returning to the Congress — and this is likely to benefit the BJP.
Will the Mixed Reactions to Left Alliance Work in BJP’s Favour?
Interestingly, despite many similarities, there is a difference with that of West Bengal. In the Northeastern state of Tripura, although the banner of Left Front exists, it is nothing like that in Bengal. In this Northeastern state, the constituents — RSP, CPI and Forward Bloc have no presence on the ground, and are entirely dependent on CPI(M) for elections. So, it is likely that the alliance talks between the CPI(M) and the Congress are expected to be less hectic in comparison to that of Bengal as the allies weren’t much eager to enter into a seat understanding with the grand old party both in 2016 and 2021.
Whether it is seat-sharing or forming a front, the main challenge for both CPI(M) and Congress is that their chemistry isn’t strong enough and they have to focus more on it than arithmetics if they are to defeat the BJP.
(Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator and tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)