Place: Niyamatpur, near Kulti in Burdwan district
Time: Around 1 pm, April 2
The slogan “Rahul Gandhi, lal salaam” rose from a thousand lips under a merciless sun on Saturday, drowning the Congress leader’s own microphone-enhanced voice and opening a new chapter in the annals of West Bengal’s politics. Before him, thousands of red flags fluttered alongside the Congress tricolour – making for a spectacle that was never witnessed before in the state’s history.
Five months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a situation where a prominent member of the Gandhi family was being hailed with a slogan as leftist as this. But then, times have changed, bringing two eternal rivals – the Congress and the CPI(M) – together to take on Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Whatever be its outcome, the 2016 Bengal assembly elections will be unique.
Interestingly, a completely different scenario is playing out in Kerala. The two parties are at each other’s throats in the southern state, with the Left trying every trick in the book to ensure that a Congress-led government does not come to power again.
There is yet another dimension to the unique Bengal experiment. The Bihar model of grand alliance in 2015 will become complete in the state, with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal United (JDU) – fringe parties in the state – joining hands with the Congress and the Left. The Bihar experiment did not have the Left, and observers say this may just mark the birth of an anti-BJP platform in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “We are fighting together, and have become a part of the grand alliance. We are trying to get Lalu Prasad to campaign in favour of the alliance,” Binda Ray, Bengal president of the RJD, told HT.
JDU state president Amitava Dutta, on the other hand, said he has already spoken to Left Front chairman Biman Bose and Congress leader Somen Mitra on Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar campaigning extensively in the state.
Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College and a political science expert, marvelled at how two parties with completely different ideologies had come together before the elections. “It was not imposed from the top… it happened in response to a convergence that took place at the ground level. Ordinary political workers were the real sufferers under the Trinamool Congress rule. The urge and push came from the bottom rungs,” he said.
“I believe we will see a tough fight in the polls. If nothing else, we will at least see a strong opposition breathing down the ruler’s neck,” he added.
The alliance makes arithmetic sense. In the 2011 Poriborton vote, the Congress and Left Front bagged 8.91% and 41.05% of the votes respectively, as opposed to the Trinamool Congress’ 39.08%. However, while 49.96% is indeed a winning combination, it remains to be seen if the vote shares from five years ago can be repeated in a process as dynamic as politics.
Working in the alliance’s favour would be anti-incumbency against the Trinamool Congress. Another aspect to look out for is the BJP vote share of 4.06%, which has risen to 16.8% now. If the alliance weans away a few saffron votes, it would be able to deal the Trinamool quite an electoral punch.
The 2014 Lok Sabha vote share – wherein the Trinamool got 39.02%, Congress 9.7%, the Left 29.6% and BJP 16.8% – is interesting in this context. The alliance may see a silver lining in the fact that the Trinamool Congress never got more than 40% votes since 2011.
AICC member Om Prakash Mishra recently wrote a 27-page letter to party chairperson Sonia Gandhi, explaining how the combine can topple the ruling party with the help of some swing BJP votes. Though this projection may seem a little too adventurous, it is clear from Mamata’s recent speeches that the tie-up is worrying her considerably.
Significantly, the idea of the alliance – which took root about three months ago in the corridors of the Left – has gained ground despite all the scepticism surrounding it. While many, including Front chairman Biman Bose, were unsure of putting up a united front, political leaders as well as workers from all the parties were seen campaigning hand-in-hand.
Ask 92-year-old Congress MLA Gyan Singh Sohanpal, who is trying to win Kharagpur Sadar for the 11th time, for his thoughts on the alliance. “The support given to me by the Left was more than what I expected. They are working sincerely for me all the time,” he told HT.
For the voters, the show of unity seemed nothing short of dramatic. Five-time Congress MLA Manas Bhuniya was seen addressing rallies standing under a red umbrella made by Left supporters. On the other hand, CPI(M) state secretary Suryakanta Mishra was garlanded by Congress supporters. At the CPI(M) party office, Deepa Dasmunshi – the Congress candidate against Banerjee – was seen discussing future poll strategies under photographs of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Two recent incidents – the Narada sting operation and the Vivekananda flyover collapse – have further strengthened the alliance’s cause against the ruling party. While the first showed at least 13 Trinamool leaders accepting money from representatives of a fictitious company, the other depicted an instance of faulty infrastructure construction under the present government.
Leaders of both the parties attacked the government in tandem over the two issues, knowing well that the Trinamool Congress has found itself in a vulnerable position just before the elections. After all, what could be a better time to strike than when the iron’s hot?