Former West Bengal chief minister and veteran CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee offered a penetrating insight into the Left’s big worry this election season in the 5 May issue of Ganashakti. He warned people against supporting the BJP just to get back at the ruling TMC.
“Is it a good idea to jump from the TMC frying pan into the BJP fire,” he asked.
Although he did not make any direct reference to the CPI(M) supporters, the underlying message was hard to miss.
The apprehension that the Left supporters might be backing the BJP to help corner Mamata Banerjee-led TMC, and that the BJP’s possible electoral gains would severely dent Left’s presence in Bengal, made the veteran Communist leader ring the alarm bells.
Political experts believe that the erosion in the Left’s vote bank, which started in 2009, would gain further momentum in 2019. And this time around, the BJP is set to be the biggest beneficiary of the Left’s slide in Bengal.
BJP fills the vacuum
In West Bengal, the big Lok Sabha battle is between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with both the Left and the Congress being relegated to the fringe.
But how did the BJP rise to the position of the challenger? There is more than one reason for that.
It can be argued that where the Left has failed to represent people’s causes and take up their struggles, the BJP has come forward to fill the vacuum.
Last year, in Birbhum, CPI(M) district secretary Manasa Hansda gave a call for a protest march against the atrocities of the musclemen aligned with the ruling party. Almost immediately, Birbhum district president of the TMC, Anubrata Mondal, issued a warning against the protest march. The CPI(M) hastily called off the march.
The BJP local unit stepped in and said it would take out a protest march on the same day and at the same time, and dared the TMC strongman to stop it.
The BJP held the protest march, with no disruptions from the TMC local cadre. A CPI(M) supporter in Birbhum later lamented that those who were ready to join the CPI(M)’s march were later seen participating in the BJP’s rally. And, this is not an isolated incident.
Not voicing people’s concerns
The CPI(M) and its allies, after they were ousted from power in 2011, have made little effort to retain the principal opposition’s space.
It is true that Mamata Banerjee government’s welfare initiatives like Kanyashree, Sabuj Sathi, and cheap ration, coupled with construction of universities and hospitals in rural Bengal and new roads in several districts, made her immensely popular.
But at the same time, people also had to suffer the growing menace of extortion by musclemen and the high-handedness of local leaders.
The growing discontent and anger among the jobless poor in rural and urban areas of Bengal could not find a voice due to the shrinking opposition space.
When chit fund companies related to Saradha and Rose Valley groups went bust, millions of people, mostly poor, were badly hit. But the Left, barring a rally or two, was not seen much on the streets participating in public protests against the chit fund scams.
Similarly, on the issues of crisis in agriculture, growing unemployment and prevailing lawlessness, the Left protests were perfunctory.
Such is people’s disconnect with the Left that they don’t know that along with the Congress, it recently made attempts to move a no-trust motion in the assembly to highlight the ruling party’s failures.
According to Congress legislator Abdul Mannan, these motions were accepted in the house for debate, but the business advisory committee, which allocates time for the debate, scrapped them in violation of parliamentary practices.
No fire in the belly?
Perhaps, it is not out of place here to contrast the Left’s current state of inertia with the historic rise of the Communist movement in Bengal.
In 1962, after the China-India border war, the Communists, because of their ambivalent position on that issue, became unpopular. Most of the senior leaders were imprisoned and the party was pushed to the margins in the face of rising xenophobia.
Yet, in 1966, the Communists were at the forefront of the violent food movement that dealt a crushing blow to then-Congress regime in Bengal. As a result, the first United Front government led by the Communists came to power in 1967.
Perhaps, after being in power for straight 34 years, from 1977 to 2011, the Left in Bengal no longer has that fire in its belly.
The BJP Bengal unit, with active encouragement and support from the central leadership, has steadily started filling the void.
The tribal and other marginalised communities, who were traditionally associated with the Left for years in rural areas, initially switched over to the ruling TMC. After they realised that they were not given a fair deal by the TMC regime, they started joining the BJP.
Even a section of the Muslim community, that was traditionally with the ‘secular’ parties (be it the Congress, the Left or the TMC), has now started supporting the BJP in Birbhum. They see the BJP as a party that can protect them from the local musclemen, who are believed to be close to the leaders of the ruling TMC.
On the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, the Left gave a call to defeat both the BJP and the TMC, but no one took it seriously.
Because over the last few years, the Left has failed to mobilise its supporters at the grassroots. Its inability to form an alliance with other ‘secular’ forces in Bengal has reduced its slogan to a mere wish.
In the absence of a strong opposition, people are likely to channelise their disenchantment with the ruling TMC by supporting the other alternative – the BJP.
Former Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s frantic appeal against voting for the BJP shows that it’s a do-or-die moment for the Left in Bengal.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
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