On Tuesday, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announced candidates for 13 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal. In all, the party has now declared nominees for 38 of the state’s 42 parliamentary seats.
The move all but closed the door on a Left Front-Congress alliance in Bengal. This is quite significant given the absence of such an alliance is likely to help the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bengal – a key focus state for the saffron party as it looks to make up expected losses in the Hindi heartland.
The first public sign of the proposed alliance not materialising came on March 15, when the communist party released its first list of candidates for 25 seats. That it included a Congressman angered the grand old party. “How can they decide who will be our candidate? Our medical cell chairman’s name was declared as their Birbhum candidate without taking permission from our side,” Bengal Congress chief Somen Mitra told News 18. “This is absurd. So what is the use of negotiations if Left Front declares candidates on our behalf?”
Two days later, the state Congress announced it had called off the alliance and ended seat-sharing talks with the communist party.
But it seemed the communist party had not given up. On Tuesday, even as the party announced more nominees, it left alone four seats, those won by the Congress in the previous election. The Congress still reiterated its rejection of the alliance. The next day, the Bengal Congress blamed the Left for refusing to enter into a formal alliance and only seeking a seat-sharing arrangement.
The communists wanted each party in the proposed alliance to contest the seats they won in 2014. By this formula, the party hoped to retain two seats in North Bengal it won the last time – Raiganj and Murshidabad. This arrangement was not acceptable to the Congress, however.
Biswanath Chakraborty, political commentator and professor at the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, said the Congress’s central leadership was keen on an alliance but its state leaders were stymieing the move. “Both Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury [former state Congress president] and Deepa Dasmunsi would be personally hurt if an alliance takes place,” he added.
There were rumours that Deepa Dasmunsi, wife of late Congress grandee Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, would join the BJP if she was not given the Raiganj seat. The Congress announced that she would be its Raiganj nominee on Monday.
On the other side, Chakraborty pointed out, its smaller Left Front allies are creating problems for the CPI(M). “In Purulia, both the Congress and the Forward Block are strong but the latter does not want to give up its seat,” he explained. “In Basirhat, the Congress has its own MLA, but the Communist Party of India has fought there for a long time and does not want to give it up.”
Their ongoing chaotic manoeuvring comes as both the CPI(M) and the Congress are at their lowest ebb in Bengal. The communist party won less than 10% of seats in the 2016 Assembly election. In the 2018 panchayat polls, it slid to third place, behind the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, a sharp downturn in fortunes for a party that had ruled the state for 34 years until 2011.
The Congress seems to be losing the grip on its bastions in North Bengal, which it held on to even when the Left exercised near hegemonic control in the state. In January, in fact, one of the Congress MPs from the region, Mausam Noor, defected to the Trinamool.
The absence of a partnership will likely be disastrous for both the communist party and the Congress – and beneficial to the BJP. Until now, the saffron party’s politics in Bengal has revolved around Hindu identity. Now, though, the lack of another viable Opposition voice could allow it to attract the anti-Trinamool vote as well. Given voting in Bengal is often driven by local factors, disgruntlement with the sitting MP and the ruling party machinery could work in the BJP’s favour.
It might help the Trinamool as well, allowing the ruling party to completely dominate the Muslim vote. This is especially relevant in North Bengal areas where Muslims are in the majority. The Trinamool has not done well in the north until now, but this new situation could allow it to pick up seats in the region, helping it offset potential losses to the BJP in South Bengal.
Bengal is not the only state where the Congress is struggling to stitch up alliances. In other electorally crucial states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi, the party has so far been unable to reach an understanding with other members of the Opposition to take on the BJP. In big states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, while alliances are fixed, seat-sharing is yet to be worked out. This even while the BJP has created a robust National Democratic Alliance across most major states.