After Independence, one of the first administrative acts by the Congress government of the new state of West Bengal was to ban the Communist party. And things only got worse from there. In 1972, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) accused the ruling Congress of letting loose a “semi-fascist reign of terror” by widely rigging the state elections. In protest, the Communists boycotted the West Bengal Assembly for five years. From 1972 to 1977, under chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, it is widely acknowledged that the Congress government unleashed the police on the Communists, kicking off West Bengal’s bloody culture of State-driven political violence. A day after Ray died, the CPI(M)’s newspaper Ganashakti bitterly called his rule the “darkest phase in West Bengal’s history”.
That was then. Today, the CPI(M) and the Congress are allies, putting a up a brave front against the ruling party, the Trinamool Congress. In West Bengal, to be out of power is a dangerous situation to be in – literally. The CPI(M) alleges that 170 of its workers have been killed in political violence in the past five years. Thus, as a survival strategy, the state units of the CPI(M) and Congress forced their Delhi high commands to form an alliance.
Since this adjustment is solely driven by opposition to the ruling party, in Murshidabad district, where the Trinamool is weak, the Left-Congress alliance has mostly unravelled. Without the pressure of the Trinamool snapping at their heels, the Left and Congress are back to their natural, historical position of fighting each other. Out of 22 assembly contests in the district, as many as 10 will see direct contests between the two “allies”.
Congress’s final stand
Murshidabad, along with Malda, is now the last bastion of the Congress party in West Bengal. Naturally, it is quite displeased with the fact that the Left has decided to contest in the area rather than let the Congress have its pick of the seats. State Congress party president Adhir Chowdhury, who hails from Murshidabad itself, even went so far as to accuse the smaller Left parties – such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Block – of being bribed by the Trinamool Congress in order to harm the Congress.
At the Congress office in the district headquarters Berhampore, party spokesperson Ashok Das was clearly agitated with the Left’s refusal to cooperate. “We are the strongest party in Murshidabad, we have the most number of sitting MLAs, how can the Left claim this district?” he asked. “Under the terms of the joat [alliance] the Left is supposed to help us, but they’re helping the Trinamool instead!”
While it is true that the Congress is the strongest party in the district, claims of the Left helping the Trinamool might be a bit stretched. The fact is that the Trinamool hardly has a presence in the district – out of 22 seats, it won 1 in 2011. Even worse, in 18 districts the TMC didn’t even feature in the top 3 parties. In many seats, even the perpetual Bengal minnow, the Bharatiya Janata Party beat the Trinamool Congress. Thus the Congress’ concerns are more self-centred, worried as they are with their small, prized base in Bengal.
Hariharpada: Left versus Congress
A place where the lack of a Left-Congress alliance, though, will make a difference is Hariharpada, a rural constituency where the Trinamool came in second to the CPI(M) by only 6,000 votes in the 2011 Assembly elections. The Trinamool candidate Niamot Sheikh is actually a defector from the Congress. Shekh was the Congress candidate in the 2006 Assembly elections, switching to the TMC only in 2009. A Left-Congress alliance in Hariharpada would have comprehensively shut out the TMC from winning the seat. But now, in a three-way fight, it could go any way – a costly risk to take for the already struggling Left-Congress alliance.
Alamgir Mir, the Congress candidate complains that if the Congress makes way for the Left in Hariharpada, its organisation would be destroyed. “We are the largest party in Hariharpada. The Trinamool won in 2011 because of our votes,” he argued [the TMC and Congress were in alliance in 2011]. “If now we don’t put up a candidate, all our workers will dessert us and the Congress organisation will be finished.”
Insar Biswas, the CPI(M) candidate is just as adamant. “I am the sitting MLA here and by the terms of the agreement, the sitting MLA should be the candidate of the alliance,” was his argument (the Congress, on its part, simply denied there was any such “sitting MLA arrangement”).
Biswas also spoke of Congress-Left tensions in the area. “I myself have got beaten up by Congress goons. In fact, by the same man who is now standing for election [Mir],” he complained, angrily. “Even then we are ready for the alliance; but the Congress won’t compromise.”
What after the election?
The fact that not only are the Left and Congress contesting against each other, but stories of beating and brawls are still fresh currency points to the fragility of the alliance, driven as it by a single agenda: Trinamool hatao, remove Trinamool.
Commentators have drawn parallels with the Bihar grand alliance for the 2015 Assembly elections but the Left-Congress coalition in West Bengal is qualitatively different. In Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are basically chipped off from the same party, the Janata Dal, and largely share a common Lohiaite ideology. The JD(U) and RJD split because of ego tussles – a barrier overcome somewhat easily given the existential threat the Bharatiya Janata Party presented.
With the Left-Congress alliance, issues are more visceral, and go down to ideology and history. Of course, in politics, an opportunistic alliance is not uncommon and both the Left and the Congress have made it clear that the have a simple one-point agenda: removing the TMC.
But an agenda so terse is not without its problems.
What if the alliance wins and needs to form a government? The Left and the Congress have simply said nothing about the government formation, treating the election as an end in itself. Without any plan or programme, the chaotic bickering in Murshidabad does not present an altogether encouraging example of what a prospective Left-Congress government might look like.