Kolkata: There are no prizes for guessing that of the five states who are scheduled to go for assembly elections this year: West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala & Puducherry, the first one has all the makings of being the most fiercely fought one. It looks to be a two-horse race with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) exercising all it’s might to build on the gains of last Parliamentary elections and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) hoping to beat the anti-imcumbency hurdle for the second time.
Where does it, then, leave the born-again alliance of CPI(M) and Indian National Congress – the two parties who dominated the political spectrum of the state for decades? The CPIM-led Left Front ruled the state for a record seven terms across 35 years (unbelievable, as it may sound), with Congress a permanent fixture in the Opposition benches - till Mamata Banerjee signalled the tectonic shift for a ‘Poriborton’ (change) with her party’s historic success in 2011.
Well, that was then as 10 years can be a long time in the political landscape for a state. If West Bengal had remained a Left bastion for more than three decades – even with it’s red hue fraying at the edges towards the end – what contributed to it was the lack of a credible opposition or leader in whom the people could see an alternative. Hence, it was the larger-than-life CPIM patriarch Jyoti Basu who was at the helm for 25 years while his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya continued for another decade.
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The scenario is much different now as the TMC, faced with the growing odds of a defection wave with the elections due in April-May, face what’s clearly an inequal battle against the party in power in the Centre. The BJP, which had seen an exponential rise in it’s vote share in four years since the 2016 Assembly elections (10.3%) to the 2019 Parliamentary elections (40.3%), realise that they probably have one foot on the door.
The upcoming elections in West Bengal hence has been been branded as the one between ‘Didi’ and the might of the BJP – but this is where the emerging Third Front feels that the media may just be scratching the surface in gauging the people’s mood in the state.
‘’It’s not going to be a two-horse race as the perception is. This is due to the mainstream media looking at things with a telescopic view,’’ remarked an upbeat Mohammad Selim, a frontranking CPIM leader in the state and a former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP. And he was merely echoing the words of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress MP and party’s leader at the Lok Sabha who had been driving the discussion on seat-sharing for the 294-strong assembly.
It’s not going to be a two-horse race as the perception is. This is due to the mainstream media looking at things with a telescopic view..
Speaking to Gulf News over phone, Selim admitted that talks are on between the main stakeholders – his party and Congress – with an extended session talking place in Kolkata on Sunday itself. ‘’The process is on and we are taking it step by step. There are a few regional players also (read: Indian Secular Front headed by Abbas Siddiqui) who want on to come on board with us and we will finalise things in due time,’’ he revealed.
One, however, cannot help but get a feeling of déjà vu at the prospect of these two erstwhile bitter political rivals in regional politics of the country coming together once again. The now on-now off relationship between the two had not yielded much dividends in the 2016 elections – where TMC swept back to power with 211 of the 294 seats at stake. The Left Front-Congress combine managed to win 74 seats in all, but the CPIM had to surrender the status of the main opposition party in the state assembly to Congress - having only 26 seats to the latter’s 44.
With every by-election in West Bengal since 2016, the BJP had gained in vote share and political observers feel it’s been at the cost of the Left Front. This vote shift from the Left to the BJP peaked in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, with the BJP winning 18 of the 42 seats in the state. The BJP’s vote share shot up from about 10% in 2016 to over 40% in 2019, with the Left Front’s vote share collapsing from 27% to 7.5%, the Congress’s vote share declining by nearly 7% and the TMC’s by about 2%.
Instead of being once beaten, twice shy, the two old forces in the state have made an announcement of coming together again. With the election dates set to be announced anyday now, the alliance still looks ill-prepared with the seat allotments yet to be finalised and no common agenda in place, but the Left camp sees enough reasons to be hopeful. ‘’The decision to come together came late last time but our leadership had been stressing on the need of all the anti-BJP forces coming together in this elections,’’ said Selim.
Interestingly, the CPIM had recently showed some resurgence when during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests, they drew large crowds. The party had also taken up crucial issues like agrarian distress, labour laws, rising food prices and local corruption. There seems to be also a perceptible rise in the young cadre - a system which groomed their leaders in the past.
The Congress, on the other hand, are bereft of any mass support - barring a few pockets in the state. The coming months, will, hence decide if the combination can be a potent one to make any dent into the prospects of the ‘Big Two’ or are there to make up the numbers.