The Left Front’s three-decade-long supremacy in West Bengal finally seems to be under threat. There have been moments of widespread disillusionment before — especially at the turn of the century, around the time Jyoti Basu demitted office. But this time, on the back of the debacles in the panchayat and municipal elections last year and the recent set-back in the assembly by-election polls, the prospects are unmistakably bleak.
It’s not just die-hard anti-Left Bengal watchers who are seeing the signs. Even party insiders concede that the impending general elections could throw up a result worse for the Left than the 26-16 Left-Congress seat division of 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. A 50-50 division or worse for the Left Front would be surprising. But no longer is it beyond the realms of the possible.
It is in this context that the grand opposition alliance — that includes the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Congress, and some bit players — has to be seen. The fundamental point to note is that the Congress has its bases in north Bengal, while the Trinamool has its bases in the southern parts of the state. Even a fairly casual observer will figure out that even without an alliance, the Left’s 2004 tally of 35 will shrink.
The Congress is more than likely to hold on to its six seats in the north and add at least one by default in Malda district by way of delimitation. The TMC, down to one seat in 2004 from nine in 1999, is bound to make major gains in both East and West Midnapore districts. Their not insubstantial bases there have been overwhelmingly strengthened by the Nandigram and Singur agitations in East Midnapore and Hooghly districts respectively and the tribal unrest against the Left in West Midnapore. The tribal agitation may well have knock-on effects in the rest of the tribal belt in the districts of Bankura, Birbhum and Purulia.
The TMC is also likely to regain seats it lost in 2004 in Kolkata and its environs — the districts of North and South 24-Parganas and Howrah — while making fresh gains in Hooghly district, home to the Singur agitation in particular and the movement against forcible land acquisition in general. These are the portents prefigured in the results of the panchayat elections.
This foray into political-cum-geographical detail is to belabour the point that even without an opposition alliance, the Left Front would have been in trouble. With the alliance in place, CPI(M) headquarters on Alimuddin Street would do well to stock up on sedatives, as marginal seats are going to become tough propositions. The silver lining for the Left will be the history of uneasiness characteristic of TMC-Congress relations, even (especially?) when in an alliance. Saboteurs are easy to come by in the surreal landscape of opposition politics in Bengal.
So what does this all mean in the medium term? For the Left, it’s the very real prospect of losing leverage at the Centre — either in its attempts to put together another ‘Third Front’ or in relation to a new edition of a UPA government, at the moment the likeliest and most desirable proposition, especially with significant erosion of seats in Kerala very much in the works. Then there are the 2011 West Bengal assembly elections. That one, surely, is much too early to call. But a 50-50 split in the general elections could be the first credible sign of a much-needed regime change in the state.
For the Congress, any result will entail the exercise of acrobatic skills. It will need all the help it can rustle up to form a government in New Delhi. And for the TMC, this will be yet another ‘semi-final’ on the very long road to power in West Bengal. But to make it to that destination, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee will have to be way, way more sagacious than she has been in the past.
(Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based journalist)