West Bengal Verdict and After: Lessons for the Left

 

Of the five states that went to the polls in March and April, it was West Bengal which attracted the maximum attention. Here was a state where the BJP had recorded a spectacular rise in 2019 winning 18 out of 42 LS seats and bagging a vote share of 40%. From an election schedule meticulously designed to benefit the BJP, stretched over a month and as many as eight phases, to an armoury complete with captive central agencies, central forces, and massive money- and media-power, conditions were nearly tailor-made for the BJP to conquer Bengal. But it turned out to be so near, yet so far for the party. From the high point of 2019, the vote share dropped marginally by 2% and the seat tally could not exceed 77.

Compared to the 121 assembly seats where the BJP led in 2019, this was a significant fall, but a great leap compared to the 2016 results of the party – nearly fourfold jump in vote share (10.16% to 38.1%) and twenty-five times increase in seat tally (from 3 to 77). What is more ominous is that the BJP has now emerged as virtually the only opposition within the Assembly. The party will obviously relish this ‘new balance’ in West Bengal’s legislative arena, try and consolidate this position and use it to sharpen communal polarisation in the state. It has already sought to rubbish the verdict as a ‘Muslim veto’ and unleashed a virulent and concerted campaign to overturn it, with the Governor, Union Home Ministry and central agencies working in tandem with the Sangh-BJP brigade on the ground.

To return to the election results, the prospects of the BJP depended essentially on its twin strategy of identity-based social engineering and anti-Muslim polarisation, the latter drawing on the former and cementing it within an over-arching framework. On both these counts, the BJP did achieve considerable success, but not enough to give it the kind of decisive edge it had hoped to secure. The TMC managed to stop the BJP with a vote margin of nearly 10% which meant a seat tally nearly three times larger than that of the BJP. The BJP swept the four northernmost districts of Darjeeling, Coochbehar, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri, won a big majority of seats in the western districts of Purulia and Bankura with significant Adivasi population and half the seats in the Bangladesh bordering districts of Nadia and South Dinajpur. In the rest of West Bengal, especially in the greater Kolkata region, the TMC swept the elections.

Unlike many other parties, the TMC was alert enough to read the writing on the wall and did some course-correction and damage-control. This mass outreach in the face of growing anti-incumbency helped the party to check the BJP’s inroads in many areas. The traffic of TMC turncoats to the BJP also helped the TMC to shed considerable baggage and transfer part of the anti-incumbency to the BJP. Of the dozen-odd TMC MLAs who had changed sides and contested on BJP tickets, only two managed to win and that includes the narrow and controversial victory won by Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram. Rather than increasing its vote share by triggering defection in the TMC, the BJP actually managed to achieve a net decline of 2%. The TMC on the other hand managed to increase its vote share by nearly 5%, clearly attracting significant sections of non-TMC voters who voted for TMC to ensure the BJP’s defeat. Contributing to this consolidation of anti-BJP votes was a concerted anti-fascist campaign that began with the CPI(ML)’s clear identification of the BJP as the main target immediately after the Bihar elections and the crystallisation of a #NoVoteToBJP buzz across the state.

The third camp comprising the CPI(M) and its old Left Front allies, the Congress and the newly launched Indian Secular Front finished a distant third with a combined vote share of around 10% and just one seat, which was won not by the CPI(M) or the Congress, but by the debutant ISF (which actually fought in the name of a Bihar-based party called Rashtriya Secular Majlis Party). The combine, named the Sanjukta Morcha or United Front, had projected itself as the alternative and political future of West Bengal. Inscribed on the backdrop of the stage at the combine’s February 28 Brigade Parade Ground rally was the declaration: Amrai Bikolpo, Amrai Dharmonirkpeksho, Amrai Bhobisshot (we alone are the alternative, we alone are secular, we alone are the future). At the least, the combine had promised to make the contests triangular in West Bengal, but that hardly became the case, with the Morcha candidates losing their deposits in about 90% of the seats.

Before the elections, when we had raised the issue of identifying the BJP as the number one target and emphasised the primacy of foiling the BJP’s bid to conquer Bengal, the CPI(M) argued that it was an Assembly election and that politics in the state revolved around the people’s anger against the TMC misrule. ‘Defeat the TMC to defeat the BJP’, ran the CPI(M) call which only conveyed the idea that defeating the TMC was the immediate goal. As the elections approached this idea of presumed unity and equivalence between the BJP and the TMC led to the formulation of a fictitious hybrid entity by lumping the BJP and the TMC together. It was called ‘Bijemool’ and the party’s election campaign harped endlessly on this imaginary target. Even when questions were raised about what the party’s approach would be in the event of a hung assembly, the party never said it would consider how best to keep the BJP out of power. Let the BJP and TMC join hands and form the government, was the party’s flippant reply.

In keeping with its idea of projecting a ‘viable alternative’, the CPI(M) formed a new and expanded electoral alliance, with the newly launched ISF being highlighted as the ‘game changer’. The February 28 Brigade rally almost became a launching event for the new party. The CPI(M) endorsed the new party as a platform of social justice and bahujan assertion in the context of West Bengal, accommodating it as the third biggest party in the alliance. It should be noted that the ISF was earlier in discussion with the TMC and also the AIMIM. The Congress refused to own the alliance with the ISF and the latter ended up fielding a number of candidates against the Congress.

A close look at the new party’s performance shows that its top twenty seats, where it has polled votes in above 10,000 range, are almost all seats that the CPI(M) and its LF allies had contested in 2016. While the Left candidates had polled 1,223,871 votes from these constituencies in 2016, the ISF/RSMP has polled 757,979 votes. Only in two constituencies of South 24 Parganas (Bhangar, the seat where its candidate eventually won, and Canning East where its candidate finished second), did it manage to improve upon the votes polled by the Left candidates in 2016. In other words, we can say that the ISF/RSMP has effectively occupied the Left space in these constituencies rather than making any inroads in the TMC base.

Ironically, it is the BJP which feels let down by the ISF performance. Much of the BJP’s electoral calculations were based on the division in Muslim votes that the ISF and hence the Sanjukta Morcha would be able to achieve. This did not materialise. The debutant ISF could make only limited inroads riding primarily on the CPI(M)/Left support, the MIM failed to make any impact and the Congress too lost much of its traditional Muslim support in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda and North and South Dinajpur to the TMC, giving the TMC an unprecedented overall edge. The BJP of course took advantage of the prominence given to the ISF in the Sanjukta Morcha to propagate its own plank of anti-Muslim polarisation, dashing the CPI(M)’s hope of regaining its own lost ground.

There is now a stark change in the post-poll explanation offered by the CPI(M). The party now accepts that it was an anti-BJP vote in West Bengal and the TMC swept the polls because the electorate found it more viable. Why did the party fail to assess it before the elections and position itself accordingly as a determined anti-BJP force? TMC has been in power in West Bengal for ten years now. If it has successfully managed to overcome the natural accumulation of anti-incumbency, this should be attributed primarily to its anti-BJP political stance and the influence of its welfare schemes. The CPI(M) narrative, which increasingly sounds like rhetorical phrase-mongering that hardly convinces even its own ranks, rubbishes both these points of TMC strength. It constantly harps on presumed collusion or ‘match-fixing’ between the BJP and TMC and trashes the welfare schemes as theft.

It is absurd to expect the TMC to show the ideological conviction and consistency that one would associate with the communists in the battle against the RSS; it is equally absurd to pit the welfare schemes against the agenda of substantive socio-economic development and transformation. The CPI(M)’s own narrative while in power used to revolve around fighting for more power to the state and giving relief to the people, and in its own way TMC too is focusing on the twin planks of federalism and populism. By trying to rubbish the TMC government just as a gang of thieves and goons, the CPI(M) has just ensured its own failure as an effective opposition party whose job is to offer a credible alternative while holding the government to account.

This failure does not stem only from the CPI(M)’s grudging refusal to accept the reality that it is now out of power and can only rebuild itself the hard way of people’s movement and opposition politics. In fact, it reflects a framework that led to the CPI(M)’s exit from power after three decades of uninterrupted rule. In 2004 the Congress had returned to power and the UPA was formed. That was also the Left’s best electoral performance in the parliamentary arena. The two factors that had propelled the ouster of the NDA government of the Vajpayee-Advani era were the Gujarat genocide and the cruel contrast between the BJP propaganda of ‘India Shining’ and the grim reality of farmer suicides and starvation deaths. The Congress got the message and even while following the essential neo-liberal direction of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, it focused on the corrective complement of ‘human face’ and safety net and brought in a set of welfare legislations. The CPI(M) in West Bengal instead chose to focus on land acquisition, SEZs and big investment.

2006 had been the CPI(M)’s biggest ever victory in West Bengal. How the scale of that victory fuelled a combination of theoretical absurdity and behavioural arrogance and precipitated a rapid and massive decline will remain a lesson for the Left for years to come. The spontaneous protests at Singur had alerted seasoned leaders and intellectuals of CPI(M). Jyoti Basu had wondered aloud if the Kisan Sabha leaders were all asleep. Ashok Mitra had very persuasively argued against the ill-advised Singur model, suggesting alternative sources and ways of investment and employment generation. But all these ideas were arrogantly brushed aside with lectures on Luddites and Narodniks. Nandigram had brought to the fore the question of democracy and dialogue, but it was answered with threats of ‘Dumdum Dawai’ (the popular 1960s slogan of action against hoarders and profiteers) or disdainful sneers of ‘Amra 235, ora 35’ (we are 235, they are only 35).

The demand for restoration of democracy was what had brought the Left Front to power in 1977. Land redistribution and Operation Barga, however partial, had cemented that power with a big rural social alliance. Institutionalisation of elected panchayats and close ties with the people had expanded and sustained that alliance. In the wake of Singur and Nandigram, all those gains were frittered away, the alliance started breaking on the ground, the support of the rural poor and democratic intelligentsia that had sustained the Left for three decades in power started shrinking. This election campaign showed that after fifteen years, the CPI(M) still remains cocooned in the smug arrogance and insensitivity of the Singur-Nandigram period. The party continues to chide the people for being ‘misled’ on Singur-Nandigram much like the BJP is now blaming the people for committing a big blunder by not voting the BJP to power.

With the ‘Singur model of development’ had come the absurd slogan: ‘agriculture is our foundation, industry is our future’, the slogan that the CPI(M) repeated this time as well. Today farmers, workers and jobless youth across the country are questioning the corporate model of ‘development’ and are responding to the reality of agrarian crisis and deindustrialisation and job loss through powerful movements; privatisation is becoming a social concern, and resisting it a social need and agenda beyond the confines of trade unions; and the demand for secure and dignified employment is growing hand in hand with the demand for realisation of ‘health for all’ and ‘education for all’ not as lofty goals but real rights.

The same Hooghly district, where the CPI(M) wanted to showcase Singur as a symbol of an 'industrial future' had a significant 'industrial past'. Apart from jute, paper, chemical and engineering industry, the district had two major automobile related units – the Hind Motor factory of the Birla group which used to turn out Ambassador cars and the Dunlop tyre factory at Sahaganj, both of which have long closed down. Meanwhile, the Nano car is no longer available in the market and the Tata group itself has abandoned it as a flawed idea! It is time the younger generations of CPI(M) cadre were helped to come out of the obsessive ‘Singur syndrome’ as the missed bus that must be boarded to secure industrialisation and employment generation in West Bengal.

While the elections are over and West Bengal has given an emphatic verdict against the aggressive BJP bid to conquer power by hook or by crook, the Sangh-BJP aggression has only intensified in the post-poll situation. From the fake propaganda of anti-Hindu violence and collapse of law and order in West Bengal to the brazenly partisan use of CBI in the Narada case, the BJP is running a relentless campaign of destabilisation, with the Governor himself leading the charge in open collaboration with BJP leaders in the state. The Left in West Bengal will have to see through this game plan and boldly oppose this sinister BJP ploy to overturn the verdict and capture power through the backdoor.

Apart from the tactical challenge of foiling the fascist design even while holding the state government to account for all its omissions and commissions, there is a deeper and more fundamental challenge for the Left at this juncture. The RSS has made deep inroads in West Bengal. The TMC may well claim that the BJP’s seat tally would have been much lower if the Election Commission had not been so biased in favour of the BJP. But it will be a huge folly to underestimate the BJP’s massive vote share in 2019 and 2021 elections and to miss the huge RSS role in this enormous electoral expansion and social consolidation. The historic relevance of the Left at this juncture lies in countering the RSS through sustained ideological and socio-cultural work and renewed intensification of everyday work among, and close ties with, various deprived sections of the people.

If we take a close look at the pre-election build-up, campaign and eventual outcome of the West Bengal elections, we can identify a few elements that have blunted the edge of the Sangh-BJP campaign of communal polarisation. Class still remains a powerful bulwark against communal divide. Even though class consciousness and cohesion have been much weakened in recent times, the element of class mobilisation against the pro-rich pro-corporate character and policies of the BJP remains a major rallying point.

Women, across age groups and educational profiles, have been vocal against the pronounced misogyny of the BJP, whether represented by Dilip Ghosh's tasteless remarks and threats, Modi's catcalls against Mamata Banerjee or Yogi Adityanath's espousal of the UP model of anti-love draconian measures like the so-called 'anti-Romeo squads' and legislation against inter-faith marriages. The resilience of Bengal's progressive and inclusive legacy and vibrance of cultural protests have also played a key role as has the deep popular influence of communist ideology and the remarkable historical legacy of the freedom movement in West Bengal. These components need to be properly cultivated and harnessed to counter the toxic influence of the Sangh-BJP brigade and deepen and widen the popular resistance against fascism.

The elections and the deepening Covid crisis have clearly shown that it is absurd to try and delink politics in non-BJP ruled states from the overwhelming national context and to treat the BJP as a secondary factor simply because it is not in local power. This lesson is all the more pertinent for a major state like West Bengal. Even as the BJP seeks to destabilise West Bengal through its vicious politics of vendetta, central aggression and communal polarisation, the Left should ensure that West Bengal becomes a major theatre in the battle against the utterly callous and incompetent Modi government and the stunning defeat of the Modi-Shah duo in West Bengal should be taken as an inspiring message to energise the anti-fascist resistance and opposition initiatives on the national plane.

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