The intensely polarised politics in West Bengal is edging closer to an unorthodox flexibility as the Congress and the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), separately search for a way for the arch rivals to box in Mamata Banerjee.

The Plan A under consideration in Kolkata and New Delhi is to find a formula to unite against the ruling Trinamool Congress, by abandoning old enmities and establishing a sustainable collaboration for the 2016 assembly election. By extension, the collaboration may carry on till 2019 with the objective of overthrowing the Bharatiya Janata Party from the Centre.

As of now, there is no viable Plan B.

'Extraordinary situation'

Leaders of the Congress from West Bengal officially declared on February 1 that an alliance with the CPI(M)-led Left Front is the imperative of the times, as a response to the build-up of anti-Trinamool discontent. On December 27, at the Brigade Parade Grounds in Kolkata, the collective leadership of the CPI(M) raised the same issue, albeit indirectly, by referencing the twin threats to democracy and secularism.

Neither party has a fallback position, except for going their separate ways. If the election is fought on the basis of old political divisions, the Congress and CPI(M) know, the Trinamool Congress will win hands down. More importantly, a significant number of leaders in both parties feel voters may not forgive them for failing to desert old antipathies.

Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra, who kick-started what he describes in donnish jargon as the “discourse”, said “we feel there has to be an alliance”. His reason: “Neither the Congress nor the CPI(M) can dislodge the TMC on their own”. Quoting former CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat, he said there is an “extraordinary” situation in West Bengal and it was up to the leadership on both sides to respond with a positive battle plan. In the Congress, there is a clear and present realisation that it is the junior in the proposed partnership with the CPM.

Having consistently advocated that the Trinamool was not a natural ally of the Congress, Mishra’s position is that if the Congress contested in 100 seats and the CPI(M)-led Left parties contested in 194, then they could win 200 seats.

The assumption in this proposition is that there would be fluid inter-party transfer of votes, just as happened in Bihar. The transfer of votes would be done by conscious voters, aware of what is at stake and the consequences of sticking to rigidities, he explained. Like in Bihar, the Congress should expect a strike rate of about 80%-plus. What Mishra did not say is that this would put the Congress in place for a “well represented” role in a future government of the Left-Congress.

Tactical understanding

The sentiment in the CPI(M) is harder to gauge, for now. Its Central Committee, the highest decision-making body of the structured party, has listed discussions on the political scenario in West Bengal and the tactics that should be adopted in the forthcoming elections. The meeting is scheduled to enable the State Committee of the party to hold its own rounds of discussions and for the other Left Front partners to draft their resolutions on the situation.

Tension is consequently building as the CPM and its Left partners “explore what could be a state-level alliance or a tactical understanding with like-minded parties” for the purposes of the election.

“Till the Central Committee meets and decides, there is only speculation that the CPI(M) may enter into an understanding with the Congress in West Bengal for the elections,” Mohammed Salim, a member of CPI(M) Politburo, hedged. The party has been discussing the idea at different levels and internally and it will be discussed again at the State Committee meeting next week, he said.

There is a sentiment at the grassroots that if the two parties joined forces then it would be possible to dethrone the Trinamool Congress. The sentiment is shared by sections of supporters and members of the CPI(M), those who face violence at the hands of the ruling party on everyday basis in the rural areas, Salim acknowledged. At the same time, Salim conceded that it may not be possible to work out a formal alliance with the Congress. In a party as doctrinaire as the CPI(M), sentiments are not easily converted into officially-approved decisions.

Bold decisions

The dilemma for the CPI(M) is that if it ignores the opinion for a collective effort against the Trinamool Congress, then it puts itself in danger of alienating the voters and loses an opportunity to redeem itself. Still, to engage in a discussion with the Congress on forming an alliance is not something its leaders are comfortable about. Within the party, there is a division. In some districts and in Kolkata, there is a view that joining forces with the Congress is a tactical necessity which should be achieved either through seat adjustments or unwritten understanding. Opponents of this believe that if the CPI(M) were to work with the Congress, it would lose its committed voters. Questions on whether votes could be transferred between the parties are being debated, as are questions about what model of partnership can be created.

In the Congress, some leaders believe that an alliance based on adjusting winnable seats will get the best results. This is a model that has worked in elections to the district-level school boards, madrassa boards and as a tried and tested method has succeeded in defeating the Trinamool Congress at the grassroots level. But in the CPI(M), there is a squeamish resistance to replicating this success. A new formula is therefore under discussion.

If Mausumi Koyal of Kamduni were nominated as the unanimous choice of the CPI(M) and the Congress, if Rupa Ganguly were to contest as an Independent, if other such icons of resistance to the Trinamool Congress were to contest the polls, then all the parties could sink their differences and work together. The tentative list of independents supported by all parties in opposition to the Trinamool Congress is around 26, CPI(M) insiders said. If indeed this is the party’s strategy, then the Marxists could well end up in a bigger mess than before.

With at least three different lines of argument raging within the CPI(M), the state committee meeting next week and the central committee meeting the week after will produce no decisions that are tactically bold enough to win the next election.