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  Bengal: A new history

Bengal: A new history

Published : Mar 10, 2016, 2:01 am IST
Updated : Mar 10, 2016, 2:01 am IST

Every cliché in politics is applicable to the “concrete conditions” (Sitaram Yechury’s favourite phrase) in West Bengal, especially that “there are no permanent enemies in politics”.

Every cliché in politics is applicable to the “concrete conditions” (Sitaram Yechury’s favourite phrase) in West Bengal, especially that “there are no permanent enemies in politics”. Marx has been proved right; history does not unfold along straight lines; there are moments when it leaps and zigzags. This is one such moment, when two old sworn enemies, at least in the state — the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) along with the Left Front it heads — have buried the hatchet and arrived at an “understanding” for “seat adjustment”.

United in their battle against the domination of the Trinamul Congress, which is a curious mix of considerable violence deployed to subjugate and a fervent loyalty to Mamata Banerjee, the two parties have suspended their hostilities and arrived at a surprisingly harmonious adjustment. The Left Front has kept 116 seats out of the 294 Assembly constituencies in West Bengal for itself and the Congress has earmarked 75 seats, in its first list, without naming the candidates. This is a jump from the number of seats — 68 — that the Congress was allowed to contest in the alliance with the Trinamul Congress in 2011, when negotiations went on interminably.

More notably, Left Front partners have been persuaded by the CPI(M) to make room for the Congress on turf that the Forward Bloc, the Communist Party of India and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) had held as if on indefinite proprietary lease. In Murshidabad, RSP has given up three seats to the Congress, which makes sense because the district is the stronghold of Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. The Forward Bloc has given up nine seats and the CPI is prepared to give up two.

In adjusting to the partnership with the Congress, there is notable absence of acrimony. More pertinently, there is pragmatism. Therefore, of the 11 seats in Kolkata, the Congress’ share is five, including the most important seat in the state — Bhowanipore. There the Congress has already announced that Omprakash Mishra will fight Ms Banerjee. There seems to be delicious malice in the choice because Mr Mishra is the originator of the “seat understanding strategy”. He wrote to Sonia Gandhi in December, kicking off the process.

Predictably, glitches that both sides are anxious to resolve have popped up, with the possibility of “friendly fights” likely in some seats, as in Domkal, Hariharpara and Nabagram in Murshidabad. In the Congress’ list of 75 seats, there is one, Joypur, that is an irritant for the Left since it had marked this seat as its own in its list of 116.

Big guns are being rolled out to smash the Trinamul Congress bastion. And even though the CPI(M) has said no to joint campaign, it has inserted a caveat — if there are places where the “seat understanding” candidate is being attacked by the Trinamul Congress, then there will be combined rallies, albeit without party flags. This tactic has already been deployed, with good effect. “No party flags” rallies were held in Raidighi in South 24 Parganas, where Mr Mishra walked six km with CPI(M)’s Kanti Ganguly, infusing new confidence among workers of both parties. In Birbhum, the two parties organised a joint rally in Rampurhat; in Hooghly there have been combined protests against Trinamul Congress’ tyranny. In Kolkata there have been “no party banners” rallies on issues like the chit fund scam and against the Bharatiya Janata Party .

West Bengal’s leap into the fluid dynamics of 21st century politics in India, where issues unite the unlikeliest of parties, marks the moment when a new history in the state is possible. The surge of the BJP after 2014 had deepened the sense of doom, but it has now pushed the CPI(M) and the Congress into a relationship.

The BJP’s gain in vote share in West Bengal rose to 16.84 in 2014 from 4.06 per cent in 2011 at the cost of the Congress as well as the CPI(M). While its popular appeal has dipped and the bellwether Kolkata Municipal Corporation proves this (the BJP ranked third, failing to oust the Left from second place in the 144 seats tally), the dread remains of a new surge in its favour should Narendra Modi redeem himself. If a consolidation of the Opposition does not take place now, if the Trinamul Congress is not challenged now, the small window through which the Opposition can escape from almost inevitable annihilation will have closed.

As much as the Congress, the CPI(M) has scoured its soul to do the unthinkable. Putting ancient rivalry and the bitter fallout in 2008 behind them, the two parties have separately and then jointly arrived at the same conclusion: fresh beginnings must be made to push back the Trinamul Congress in 2016 and the BJP in 2019. The West Bengal elections will be the foundation for the 2019 partnership, because the Congress is the BJP’s principal political enemy and the Left its ideological ally.

Almost the entire political capital of the two parties has gone into launching this partnership which is based on a reading of the undercurrents at the grassroots, as well as a grim acceptance by the CPI(M) that on its own it cannot challenge the Trinamul Congress. The Congress too knows that on its own it will be further reduced from the nine Assembly seats it has (it had just 9.6 per cent vote share in 2014).

The logic is simple. The Trinamul Congress has 44 per cent of the votes in West Bengal. The CPI(M)-led Left Front has around 33 per cent. The Congress has under 10 per cent, and the BJP has around 17 per cent vote share on the basis of its 2014 performance. Since the Trinamul Congress is not squeamish about using its power as the ruling party, it will do everything within and outside the code of conduct for elections to ensure that its dominance is not diminished. The combined votes of the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress almost equal the Trinamul Congress’. If the Opposition prevents votes from being split three ways, then the Trinamul Congress would have a harder time winning.

What has facilitated the “seat understanding strategy” most is the CPI(M)’s admission that it is no longer the party it was in 2009, when the slide became apparent. By admitting that 2016 is the year of “extraordinary circumstances” in West Bengal, the CPI(M) is working to stave off the fall from undisputed domination to inescapable decimation. In doing so, it has stepped over the line that had kept it apart from other parliamentary parties in India and accepted that to remain relevant it has to change tack when history serves up surprises.

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.