Samir Mahato is the last communist in Bidri.

“We were very strong here once upon a time,” he said. “First we were attacked by the Maoists. Then the Trinamool Congress. And now, a lot of workers are joining the BJP.”

His village is deep inside the Sal forests of West Bengal’s Jhargram parliamentary constituency, close to the border with Jharkhand. He works for the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“Yes, it is very odd since the BJP is the opposite of the Left ideologically. But the BJP provides better protection against the Trinamool and the police,” said Mahato, smiling wryly at the paradox of communists joining the Hindutva party. “The police lodged a false case against me too. They accused me of stealing a generator. But I didn’t budge. I believe the Left is the only option for Bengal. And I will be in the party till the end.”

Samir Mahato’s ideological commitment is rare in Bengal. After a 34-year spell in power until 2011, the CPI(M) is now rapidly disappearing across Bengal. Its workers and even leaders are leaving. Compounding the situation, most of them are joining not the Trinamool – which has inherited much of the communist party’s language of leftist populism – but its ideological antipode, the Hindu nationalist BJP.

The shift may seem incongruous when seen from above, but things become clearer on the ground. As the Left fades and the BJP gains strength, buttressed by Narendra Modi’s image, deep coffers and a pan-India presence, communist workers see it as a more effective means of countering the Trinamool’s local leaders.

Samir Mahato is the last communist worker left in his Bidri village in Jhargram district of Bengal. Shoaib Daniyal

Left out

The communists lost power in 2011. But the crash in their support did not happen immediately.

In 2011, the Left’s vote share was 41%, more than the Trinamool’s, although it took fewer seats. By the 2016 Assembly election, the Left had fallen to 24%. A significant fall, but it still meant one in four Bengalis was voting for the Left.

Then, a curious shift started: the Left’s voters traded Marx for Modi. In 2017, an Assembly bye-election in Contai South saw the BJP and the Left swap their vote shares from 2016. The BJP went from 9% to 31%, while the Left went from 34% to 10%. Though the seat went to the Trinamool, this mirroring of the saffron and the red was the real takeaway about the future of Bengal’s politics.

The Trinamool's vote share in the Contai South Assembly segment remained constant between 2016 and 2017, but the the BJP and the Left swapped places.

‘Trinamool’s terror’

The strange Red-Saffron dynamic peaked in the 2018 panchayat election. Faced with significant rigging by the ruling Trinamool, the Left’s voters in many cases supported the BJP. The result was a big blow to the CPI(M) as it became clear the party was no longer the main Opposition party in Bengal – the BJP was, as it came second to the Trinamool.

In Jhargram, CPI(M) district committee member Pradip Kumar Sarkar agreed that the Left has haemorrhaged workers to the BJP. “People are leaving for security,” he said. “They believe that since the BJP is in power at the Centre, has more money, they will not suffer from the Trinamool’s false cases. Moreover, the media pays more attention when BJP workers are attacked.”

What about ideology? “The Left has the strongest ideology of any party in India,” he said. “But let me be frank: at the local level, Trinamool’s terror overrules everything. CPI(M) workers want to defeat the Trinamool at any cost and they feel joining the BJP will help achieve that goal.”

Communist workers want to defeat the Trinamool Congress at any cost and they feel joining the BJP will help achieve that goal, says Pradip Kumar Sarkar. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Core supporters leave

As the Left sinks, even its core voters are deserting it. Habibpur is an Assembly seat reserved for the Adivasis in Malda that the communists have held since 1962 – with only a two-year gap. For the last three terms, it has been held by veteran CPI(M) leader Khagen Murmu. But in March, Murmu moved to the BJP and is now the saffron party’s candidate for Malda North.

Murmu’s decision was driven by the fact that communists are now difficult to find in their former pocket borough. “There is no Left here anymore, only the BJP,” said Surendra Nath Burman, a former CPI(M) worker who himself leans towards the BJP now.

Surendra Nath Burman is a former communist worker from Habibpur. In this election, he will vote for the BJP. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Apart from the tactical reason of combatting the Trinamool Congress, former Left supporters cite the lack of rural development under the communists for deserting them. “This area had almost no roads until Mamata came,” said Nandadulal Mahato of the Matua Mahasangha, which represents the Matua religious order consisting mainly of Dalits of Bangladeshi origin.

Like all Hindu Bangladeshi migrants, Matuas were a core vote bank of the Left until 2011, when the Trinamool cleaved them away. “The Left took our votes but if we asked for anything, it was Marichjhapi,” said Nandadulal Mahato, a historian of his community, referring to the police massacre of Bangladeshi Dalit migrants in 1979.

Indeed, the narrative of the lack of rural development under the Left is widespread in Bengal. The “structural break” in agriculture as a result of the Left’s land reforms that led to high growth in the 1980s has been forgotten as against the stagnation of the late 1990s and 2000s.

This is exacerbated by an uptick in rural development under the Trinamool, ranging from village roads to housing (Bengal is among the top three states in implementing the Centre’s rural housing scheme). Ironically, such development has pushed voters further away from the Left, putting in sharp relief its lack of work in rural areas. “For 30 years, the Left did nothing in this area,” said Sarjul Hoq in Birbhum. “Now, with minimum development, the Trinamool has remained in power. People will not go back to the Left now.”

The CPI(M) headquarters on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

While workers from the Left are moving mostly to the BJP, some are going to the Trinamool as well, especially Muslims. In Murshidabad’s Bali village, former CPI(M) worker Abul Kasem Malitta plans to vote for the Trinamool this time. “The CPI(M) did no work and after Mamata, the entire village’s roads have been cemented and we get 100 days work,” he explained, referring to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. “In the end, how will people vote for the Left? They simply don’t exist here.”

In denial

Since the desertion of workers has become hard to ignore now, some communist leaders have begun speaking about it. In an interview published on May 6, former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya wondered if “it was wise to jump from the Trinamool’s frying pan into the BJP’s fire”.

But, officially, the CPI(M) has denied its workers are leaving for the BJP. Instead, the party is painting both the Trinamool and the BJP as equally evil. At the party’s iconic headquarters on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata, state committee member Sukhendu Panigrahi claimed it was the Trinamool that had invited the BJP into Bengal. “Both parties are working together in order to sideline the Left,” he alleged.

The party’s office is remarkably uncrowded for the middle of a general election. A few workers lounge about in front of a TV in the waiting room, toggling channels between the news and the 1990s Govinda-starrer Naseeb.

Just outside, on Alimuddin Street, there is not a single red flag. The lane is festooned only with the Trinamool’s twin-flower banner.

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