In 2008, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance government after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to sign the nuclear deal with the US. At that time, the Bengal unit of the CPI(M) begged and pleaded with then general secretary Prakash Karat to ignore the rumpus and continue to expand the party’s sphere of influence inside India. Who cares about America, the Bengal comrades said, when we have to constantly deal with the slings and arrows of our domestic (mis)fortunes?

Last month, the Bengal comrades seemed to have finally been vindicated.

The highest decision-making bodies in the CPI(M) – the Politburo and the Central Committee – had decided that the party would have no truck with either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (known as “twin evils” in inner circles) in the West Bengal assembly elections. But the Bengal faction of the CPI(M) threatened a revolt if Delhi did not pay heed to its demand to tie up with the Congress, arguing that it was the only way to have a fighting chance of defeating Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Delhi eventually gave in to Bengal.

Twin factors

The big difference between 2008 and 2016 is that the CPI(M) is a much weaker party today. In 2008, it had 62 Members of Parliament and ran three state governments – in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Today, the party has just nine MPs and controls the tiny state of Tripura in the North East.

Kerala was lost by a narrow margin to the Congress-led coalition in 2011. In West Bengal, the CPI(M) was thrashed in its own backyard after 34 years, winning only 62 seats out of 294.

The other big difference since 2008 is that the CPI(M) has a new leader. Sitaram Yechury was unanimously elected to the all-powerful post of general secretary at the party’s conclave in Visakhapatnam last year. But there were a few heart-stopping moments as the Prakash Karat-Pinarayi Vijayan faction in the party withdrew their nominee, SR Pillai, from the contest.

A master theoretician and brilliant ideologue, Karat had run the party for ten years. Vijayan is said to be the most powerful Left leader in Kerala – but not the most popular, an accolade that must go to former Kerala chief minister Achuthanandan.

But both comrades had to bow to popular will in the Politburo and in the Central Committee, which leaned in favour of Yechury.

Survival tactics

And now, it was Yechury who was leaning in favour of the Bengal unit of the party (and against his own Politburo), which demanded a “tactical understanding” with the Congress against Mamata Banerjee.

While Yechury refused to be interviewed for this story, several Left leaders from Bengal explained that allying with the Congress, an erstwhile political enemy, had become a matter of survival.

“The Trinamool cadres have killed several of our comrades, especially those who were the link between the grassroots and the lower and middle rungs of the party,” said a Left leader from Bengal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When the party’s top leadership cannot rely on its own grassroots, we know we are in serious trouble.”

The Left leader acknowledged that several CPI(M) comrades had switched loyalties to the Trinamool Congress when the Left Front lost power in Bengal after 34 years. This meant that the new Trinamool cadres were fully aware of the strategies they once employed to win elections in their earlier incarnation in the Left Front.

The math

On the face of it, the Left’s chief ministerial candidate Surya Kanta Mishra put the foolproof electoral math on the table, showing how its vote-share had diminished in recent years – from 48.4% in the 2006 assembly elections to 39.68% in 2011, to 29.95% in the 2014 general elections.

Even the Congress vote share declined, from 14.71% in 2006 to 9.79% in 2011 to 9.69% in 2014.

Contrast these numbers with the Trinamool Congress, whose vote share grew from 26.64% in 2006 to 38.93% in 2011 to 39.79% in 2014.

The numbers tell an interesting story. The Trinamool Congress’ vote share was actually lower than the Left Front in the 2011 assembly elections. Even so, Mamata Banerjee’s party won 165 seats more than the Left and formed the government courtesy the first past the post system.

Another promising statistic for the alliance is that if the vote share of the Left and the Congress in the 2014 assembly elections is combined, it falls short of the Trinamool by a mere 0.15%.

As the Bengal unit told Yechury and Bengal Congress leaders told Rahul Gandhi, an alliance between the two could give Mamata Banerjee a scare.

Common cause

The math on paper may not mean much on the ground, especially given that the Congress stronghold is concentrated in the Murshidabad-Malda belt and it may not be able to transfer its vote to other parts of Bengal. But as things stand, the Left and the Congress have taken the unprecedented decision to fight in 200 and 98 seats respectively in the 294-member assembly.

Despite misgivings at the top in both parties, both Yechury and Rahul Gandhi eventually conceded to the demands of their Bengal units. Yechury realised that the key to his success as general secretary would be expanding the party’s power and influence, not diminishing it.

Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, went with the argument that all good men and women must come together to defeat the BJP. The approach ties in with the party's strategy in other states. The Congress had joined hands with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal to bounce back in Bihar late last year. In Tamil Nadu and Assam, and later Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress will tie up with other non-BJP parties to create a rainbow coalition.

As for Kerala, both Yechury and Rahul Gandhi agreed that it would be a separate matter. Fighting each other in Kerala and supporting each other in West Bengal was both necessary and natural.

As a Left leader put it: “If the Left is being slowly vanquished across the political landscape, what is the use of spinning ideological arguments against the Congress? If there is no party left at the end of the day, what will we fight for?”

How the wheel turns, albeit slowly. Twenty years ago, the CPI(M) did not let then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu become prime minister because it would involve allying with “bourgeois” parties like the Congress.

Basu had later termed the decision a “historic blunder”. Several party comrades today admit that if Basu had become prime minister, the Left’s influence would have spread far and wide across the land.

Today, they add, the party simply cannot afford to make the same mistake.