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West Bengal polls: Can the 'unofficial' CPI (M)-Congress alliance dethrone Mamata Banerjee?

Raj Singh 20 Apr 2016, 10:28:36 AM IST
Raj Singh

New Delhi: It seems that ‘unofficial’ alliances are the flavour of the present electoral season. And if there is one party that is experimenting with this rarely used political strategy without any hesitation then it is the Congress party.

The Congress party has entered into ‘unofficial’ alliance with different political parties in at least two states – Assam and West Bengal - that are undergoing assembly elections.

In Assam, the party has struck what the party leaders call ‘ maha-understanding’ and not a ‘maha-alliance’  like Bihar, with the Badruddin Ajmal -led Assam United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

Under this unofficial alliance, Ajmal’s party is contesting only 66 out of 126 Assembly seats in Assam. Since AIUDF commands good following among Muslims of the state who constitute 34 % of the electorate, the party’s decision of not fielding candidates in a whopping 60 Assembly seats is expected to work in favour of Congress which is looked upon as the natural choice of Muslims if AIUDF is not in the fray.  

The two parties, very cleverly,  avoided an open alliance fearing the consolidation of anti-Muslim sentiments that would have given an advantage to the BJP-led alliance.

Same is the case in West Bengal where the Congress party has entered into an ‘unofficial’ alliance with one-time bête-noire CPM-led Left Front. The fear of Mamata Banerjee’s continuing dominance in the state forced the two parties to bury their previous violent rivalry and join hands for survival, if nothing else.  

Since the Congress and CPM are in direct fight in Kerala, another state that is going to polls simultaneously, they could not have gone for a formal alliance as it would have created confusion among their respective cadres in the southern state. Therefore, they decided to stitch an innovative ‘unofficial’ alliance in the state.

Under this ‘unofficial’ alliance, the Congress and the CPM-led formation have decided to ensure that there is only one candidate on their behalf in as many constituencies as possible to challenge the TMC candidate.

Out of a total of 294 constituencies, the CPM-led alliance is fielding its candidates in around 200 seats while the Congress is contesting elections in around 80 seats. They have decided to go for friendly fights in the remaining 14 seats where there is no consensus over which party has the better chance for victory. Since there is a broader understanding between the Congress and CPM in around 280 Assembly seats, the ‘unofficial’ alliance hopes to give a tough fight to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) in these Assembly elections.

Is the Congress-CPM alliance strong enough to dethrone Mamata-led TMC government in the state?

Well, a close look at the performance of these parties in 2014 Lok Sabha alliance would make it amply clear that a neck-to-neck fight between the two groups is inevitable in the state if the poll percentages of parliamentary elections are any indication.  

In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mamata Banerjee-led TMC swept the state winning 34 out of 42 seats. The Congress won 4 seats while the once-all powerful CPM could manage to win only 2 seats. The BJP also emerged victorious in 2 seats.

In terms of vote percentage, the TMC secured 39.3% votes while the CPM-led Left Front received around 30 % votes. The Congress, on the other hand, managed to get around 10% of the votes. The BJP, riding on the Modi wave blowing all across the country, registered an impressive 17% of popular votes.

Clearly, the combined vote percentage of the Congress and the Left Front is almost the same and this is something which has made Mamata Banerjee worrisome. Aware of the potential of the ‘unofficial’ alliance to succeed in consolidating anti-TMC votes in the state, Mamata Banerjee is getting more and more harsh on this alliance which she refers to as totally ‘immoral’ and ‘dishonest’. She makes it a point to remind the Congress cadres of how brutally they were treated by the Left Front government during its 34 years of rule.

The two parties have entered into an unofficial alliance but are the cadres of the two parties willing to forget their history which was full of bloodshed?

If political observers are to be believed, the fear of a clean sweep by Mamata Banerjee in the Assembly elections in the absence of a strong opposition has forced and convinced the workers of the Congress and CPM-led groups to bury their hatchet and focus on uprooting the common enemy i.e. Mamata Banerjee.

“Although there is no official alliance between the Congress and Left Front but the leaders and workers of the two formations are holding joint rallies in the state. And the unity of the workers is having its ramifications across the state. All those who are against Mamata Banerjee are gathering under the umbrella of Congress-CPM alliance even if it is not official and it’s not good news for TMC,” said a political commentator who has been observing west Bengal politics for decades.

If the anti-Mamata forces are opting for Congress-CPM alliance, where does it leave the BJP which was hoping to emerge as a force to reckon with in the state especially after its spectacular performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?

“ The BJP got 17% of votes in 2014 parliamentary elections but it was mainly because of the personal charisma of Narendra Modi. A good chunk of West Bengal electorate wanted to see him as the Prime Minister but he is not a factor in Assembly elections. And the BJP does not have a credible face at the local level who could inspire hope among its supports,” a senior journalist from West Bengal added.

Political observers further point out that the votes that the BJP got in 2014 Lok Sabha elections were largely anti-Trinamool in nature and therefore, there is a good possibility of a good chunk of these 17% votes passing over to the CPM-Congress alliance. It means that a loss in vote percentage for BJP would further boost the chances of the CPM-Congress alliance.

It’s not that everything is hunky dory for Congress-CPM alliance. Actually, the alliance has caused a rift in the Left Front as the RSP(Revolutionary Socialist Party), an important constituent of Left Front, has refused to join the alliance and it is no good news for the alliance given the fact that it’s a do-or-die battle for them in which each and every vote is equally important.

Similarly, the TMC is facing anti-incumbency in certain areas after its rule of 5 years and people are asking some tough questions from Mamata Banerjee led government. Everybody in West Bengal agrees that these elections would have been a cakewalk for Mamata Banerjee, had the Congress and Left not come up with this rather unusual and unofficial alliance.

What gives a slight advantage to Mamata Banerjee is the fact that while her support base in spread across the state, the Congress-CPM alliance has overwhelming support in certain pockets. It means that despite having almost an equal vote share, the Congress-CPI(M) alliance may not win as many seats as TMC under the present first-past-the -post system. But these are mere academic discussions based on arithmetic and those who understand politics know it very well that electoral arithmetic is more about chemistry where two and two can either be four or even get reduced to zero.

 The bottom-line is that the ‘unofficial’ alliance between Congress and BJP is succeeding in consolidation of anti-mamata votes and it’s a matter of great concern for the west Bengal Chief minister and her party.

Interestingly, the stage for CPM-Congress alliance was set in ‘Siliguri’ way back in October 2015.  And the man who devised this model was CPM leader Ashoke Bhattacharya who grabbed the chair of Siligur mayor after striking a ground-level understanding with the Congress in municipal elections.

Today, Ashoke Bhattacharya is CPI(M) candidate from Siliguri assembly constituency in these elections.  Little did he realise in 2015 that his party will be forced to adopt his innovative ‘Siliguri model’ for its electoral survival against a mighty  Mamata Banerjee.

Will this   ‘Siliguri model’ succeed in getting a thumbs-up from the people of West Bengal ? And will it be strong enough to dethrone Mamata Banerjee from Writers’ Building? Well, we’ll have to wait till May 19 to get a clear-cut answer to these probing questions.