West Bengal: How the Left diluted its own politics to try and outmanoeuvre TMC
On February 28, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M)-led Left Front kicked off its campaign for the forthcoming West Bengal elections with its customary rally in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds. Ironical as it may sound, the biggest newsmaker in the rally was not a Left or Congress leader—ally Rahul Gandhi chose to skip the event—but Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric of the shrine of Furfura Sharif in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Siddiqui has recently floated a party called the Indian Secular Front (ISF). After a meeting with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi, Siddiqui has decided to enter into an alliance with the CPI(M)-led Left Front.
The ISF has been given 30 assembly constituencies out of the 294 in the state. When read with the fact that the Congress is likely to contest on 90 plus assembly constituencies, this means that the Left Front will contest on the lowest number of assembly constituencies in West Bengal since 1977.
This development is in keeping with the trajectory of the Left Front continuing to dilute its own political agenda in the futile hope of outmanoeuvring the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state. Here’s why:
The Left Front drew wrong lessons from its 2009 and 2011 debacles in West Bengal
The CPI(M)-led Left Front suffered its first major reverse in a state or national poll, after having captured power in 1977, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Trinamool Congress, fighting in an alliance with the Congress managed to win 25 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, bringing the Left Front’s tally of 35 in 2004 elections to just 15. Apart from the CPI(M), which is the biggest constituent of the Left Front in the state, the Communist Party of India (CPI), All India Forward Block (AIFB) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) are the other major partners of the Left Front in West Bengal.
The AITC-Congress alliance in 2009 could not have been envisaged even a few years earlier. Mamata Banerjee had walked out of the Congress to form the Trinamool Congress in 1998. She had contested both the 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also, the Left parties were providing crucial support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre until 2008, when they withdrew support over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal issue. A section of the CPI(M) leadership has always blamed the CPI(M)’s all-India leadership’s decision to withdraw support from the Congress for the Left Front’s downfall in West Bengal. This, they believed led to an alliance between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, which gave the Trinamool Congress a decisive edge over the Left in the state.
Did the Left Front lose ground in the 2009 polls because of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance? A simple analysis of vote shares does not support such an argument. The combined vote share of the four Left Front partners went down from 50.7% in 2004 to 43.3% in 2009. This suggests that Left Front’s loss in 2009 was a result of its own voters deserting it, rather than its opponents being able to exploit the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. Why did the Left Front lose 15% of its voters in 2009?
When seen in the backdrop of the anti land-acquisition protests in Singur and Nandigram—14 farmers were killed in police firing in Nandigram in 2007—and the reverses the Left Front had suffered in the 2008 panchayat elections, the answer becomes clear. The Left Front suffered reverses because the peasantry and civil society, especially the former, who had been core supporters of the Left in the state, thanks to land reforms, had turned against it. The results of the 2011 assembly elections, when the Left Front lost more ground in terms of vote share and the Trinamool Congress consolidated its position, further underlined the problem with the theory it was Opposition unity rather than problems within the Left camp which were damaging the CPI(M) and its partners in the state.
The void in Opposition space in West Bengal allowed the BJP to gain ground in 2014 and 2019. The 2014 Lok Sabha election results provided further evidence that the theory of a Congress-Trinamool Congress tie-up having led to the Left’s defeat in the state, was incorrect.
After having allied with the Congress in the 2009 and 2011 elections, the Trinamool Congress contested on its own in the 2014 elections. Not only did the Trinamool Congress improve its performance in a big way—its seat-tally went up from 19 to 34—it was once again the Left which suffered the biggest damage. The Congress’s vote share went down from 13.5% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2014, whereas the Left Front’s vote share fell massively from 43.3% to 29.6%. The biggest gainer of the erosion in Left Front’s support-base was the BJP, which increased its vote share from 6.1% to 16.8% and managed to win two Lok Sabha seats (same as the Left Front’s tally) on its own in West Bengal for the first time.
The CPI(M) further compromised its position by allying with the Congress in 2016 elections.
Despite the 2014 results having shown that the Trinamool Congress was not vulnerable without the Congress, and the BJP was eating into the Left’s support base in the state, the CPI(M) made the political blunder of allying with the Congress in the 2016 assembly elections. The initial euphoria within the Left-Congress camp notwithstanding, the alliance was bound to damage rather than help the CPI(M) in the state. This author had argued on these lines in a Mint article published before the 2016 polls explaining why the CPI(M) did not stand to gain from the alliance; and risked losing even the Opposition party status to the Congress, which is exactly what happened.
The basic reason for this was that while the CPI(M) gave its stronghold assembly constituencies in north Bengal to the Congress, where the Trinamool Congress was still not a strong force and the contest used to be between the Congress and the CPI(M), it could not gain from the assembly constituencies it got from the Congress in south Bengal where the Congress was a marginal player and the Trinamool Congress was a dominant force.
The CPI(M)’s base then suffered a two-way communal erosion in the 2019 elections.
The BJP had won just three out of the 294 assembly constituencies in the 2016 assembly elections in West Bengal. The reason it is being seen as a potential winner in the 2021 elections is its 2019 Lok Sabha performance, when it won 18 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 40.3% compared to the Trinamool Congress’s 22 seats with a vote share of 43.3%. The Congress was the only other party which could open its account in the state, winning two North Bengal seats of Maldah South and Baharampur with a vote share of just 5.6%. The Left Front’s vote share—it did not have an alliance with the Congress unlike in 2016 assembly elections—fell to just 7.5% and it was not even in a runner up in any of the 41 seats it contested in the state.
What explains the collapse in Left Front’s support in an election when both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP increased its vote share? There was a two-way communal split in the Left’s vote bank. Hindus supporting the Left deserted it for the BJP, while the few Muslims which were still supporting it moved to the Trinamool Congress. This is captured well in the 2019 National Election Study (NES) conducted by Lokniti.
Why allying with Abbas Siddiqui is a bad idea for the Left
By entering into an alliance with Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF, which has been floated on the eve of the elections and conceding 30 assembly constituencies to it from its own quota, the Left Front is hoping to gain among the Muslims in the state, who constitute close to 30% of the electorate. There are two reasons why this bet is unlikely to pay off.
One, in a communally polarised landscape which is what West Bengal has become at the moment, it is unlikely that Muslims would desert the Trinamool Congress which is the principal challenger to the BJP, currently at the cusp of capturing power. Siddiqui is not the only claimant to the Furfura Sharif shrine, and a part of the cleric’s extended family is supporting the Trinamool Congress. The West Bengal government announced a development grant of ₹2.6 crore for the shrine February 28, the day Siddiqui shared the stage with Left leaders in the Brigade rally.
Two, the CPI(M)’s decision to ally with a Muslims cleric who has often courted controversy in the past with his reactionary and fundamentalist views—he made derogatory comments against Trinamool Congress MP and actress Nusrat Jahan for example—is not the smartest move for a party like the CPI(M), which has seen a massive exodus of its Hindu voters to the BJP’s fold. The fact that the ISF will be the third-largest alliance partner in the Left Front-Congress-ISF alliance, much bigger than the CPI, RSP and AIFB which have been in the Left Front for decades, will send a clear message that the CPI(M) is willing to embrace religious conservative sections within the Muslims even at the cost of its ideological allies.
This is ironical given the fact that the Trinamool Congress has started a tactical recalibration of its politics in the state to counter the BJP’s “minority appeasement” charge. This was seen in its decision to field Nusrat Jahan from the Bashirhat Lok Sabha segment in 2019, which had witnessed communal riots in 2017. Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram against Suvendu Adhikari, who has defected to the BJP, among other things, rules out a Muslim Trinamool Congress candidate from this high-profile assembly constituency.
The contrast in ‘secular alliances’ in Assam and West Bengal
When Siddiqui climbed on the stage in the Brigade rally, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was addressing the meeting. He had to leave his speech midway to allow Siddiqui to speak, who, it is being said, played a major role in mobilising the crowd. To add insult to the Congress’s injury, Siddiqui did not utter a word in the Congress’s support in his speech and ended by criticising the Congress for not giving the ISF more seats in the alliance (out of the Congress’s own quota). There is now a debate within the Congress on the desirability of an alliance with Siddiqui.
ISF’s attitude in the Left Front-Congress-ISF is in sharp contrast to the dynamics of another “secular alliance” in Assam where the Congress has allied with the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party with a predominantly Bengali Muslim support base; the two parties have been long-time adversaries. Unlike Siddiqui’s bully-like behaviour, the AIDUF leader, Badruddin Ajmal, has adopted a conciliatory tone in alliance talks and spoken of being ready to make “sacrifices” in order to remove the BJP from power in the state.
It is always hazardous to make predictions about election results. However, alliances and political posturing of alliance partners do play a role in shaping public perception about political parties. By allying with the ISF, who is more interested in targeting Mamata Banerjee than the BJP—Siddiqui’s Brigade speech clearly shows that—and giving it far more importance than its left partners (in terms of seats) and the Congress (in terms of optics), the CPI(M) risks losing its perception as a party which has always maintained a Chinese wall between religion and politics.
The CPI(M) perhaps has the lowest stakes in the 2021 elections since its formation in 1964, and it could have tried to seek high moral ground, even in defeat, by accusing the Trinamool Congress and the BJP of indulging in competitive communal politics. By deciding to ally with a party led by a conservative Muslim cleric, it might have scored yet another self-goal in West Bengal’s politics.