The Communist Party of India (Marxist) owes it very origin to antipathy towards the Congress party. Back in 1964, leaders such as Jyoti Basu were anti-Congress before it was cool, splitting the Communist Party of India on the basis of its perceived closeness to Indira Gandhi (one of the snide names the CPI was called at the time was Communist Party of Indira).
Subsuming high-flowing rhetoric to more practical ground politics, however, is a skill that communists have perfected to a high art. Almost six decades after the CPI(M) was founded, the party’s West Bengal unit is desperate for an alliance with the Congress in order to dislodge the Trinamool Congress from Writers’ Building. After months of CPI(M) feelers, proposals and denials, on Saturday, former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee openly called for a CPI(M)-Congress alliance at a rally in Singur.
Trinamool’s shaky position
Mamata Banerjee might seem invincible after grabbing 34 out of 42 Lok Sabha Seats in the 2014 General Election but the ground reality actually isn’t that rosy. While she may hold 63% of the seats in the state Assembly and a whopping 81% of West Bengal’s Lok Sabha seats, this is more a function of the fact that the Trinamool’s opposition is divided and the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, which is designed to heavily magnify vote-share leads in terms of seats.
Here’s a look at the vote-share break-up in the recent 2014 General Elections.
While the TMC won 81% of West Bengal’s Lok Sabha seats, its vote share was half of that: only 39%. In contrast, the CPI(M) and the Congress together polled in 32.3% of votes. These figures get even more worrying for the TMC when you consider that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s performance was probably a flash-in-the-pan, driven by the Modi wave. As we saw in Bihar in 2015, the BJP might struggle to replicate its 2014 performance in state elections, a prediction that is all the more probable in Bengal, given that the party had no organised presence in most of the state. Those BJP votes will now probably go back to their original parent: the CPI(M).
If we go back to the 2011 state elections, without any Modi Wave factor, the results are even more alarming for the TMC.
Here, the summation of the CPI(M) and Congress’ vote share surpasses that of the Trinamool, showing just how effective a CPI(M)-Congress alliance can be.
Effective CPI(M)-Congress alliance
Both state units of the CPI(M) and the Congress realise how impactful a tie-up will be. Even as the CPI(M) has taken to publicly calling for an alliance, the Congress state unit wrote to the high command on Thursday urging it to take an “expeditious decision in favour of a tie-up”. Even Congress part chief in West Bengal Adhir Chowdhary has recently called for an alliance claiming that “large section of Congress workers want to forge an alliance with CPI(M) in order to oust this undemocratic TMC regime”. The only obstacle to an alliance now is the Congress high command which has, till now, maintained an opaque silence on the matter.
Mamata Banerjee, of course, knows how precarious her position will be if the CPI(M) and Congress join forces. Not only is her vote share lead thin but her geographic spread in Bengal is also lopsided, with a huge presence in southern West Bengal but a weak presence in central and northern West Bengal.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Given her shaky position, during her four-year rule, Banerjee has tried out almost every trick in the book to maintain her votes. She has – almost to the point of being comical – courted the Muslim vote, with large posters of her in a faux Islamic prayer pose being used all over the state to burnish her pro-minority credentials. But it’s not only that – Banerjee has also suddenly recalled the memory of SP Mookerjee, one of the founders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a leading light of the Hindutva movement. And amidst old-style identity politics, she’s also given new age development politics a shot, flaunting improbably large investment amounts at gaudy “business summits”, bringing back memories of Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister.
In spite of her efforts, though, there is really no vote bloc that the Banerjee can count on. Even the Muslim voters that the Trinamool attracted both in 2011 and 2014 are really quite fluid and could go either way should a CPI(M)-Congress alliance materialise, given that both parties have the potential to attract Muslims.
In is against this background that we need to look at the sudden violence in Kaliachak, Malda and its fallout. Central West Bengal, which is where Malda is located, is an area in which the TMC has a limited presence. However, as Shuvojit Bagchi points out, writing in the Hindu, communal turmoil like the episode witnesed in Malda recently is likely to boost both the TMC as well as the BJP in this region. The ensuing polarisation will help the TMC mop up Muslim votes and the BJP attract Hindu voters. This should, of course, greatly worry the Congress, which has dominated central Bengal since 1947. Which is why the state Congress is so keen on an alliance with the CPI(M), which would ensure that its base remains secure.
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