By Dipankar Bhattacharya
People’s Democracy, the weekly journal of the CPI(M), has carried a political commentary in its 14 March, 2021 issue accusing the CPI(ML) of taking a ‘wrong turn’ in West Bengal. The same issue also contains a ‘PB communique’ issued by the CPI(M) Polit Bureau following its online meeting held on March 11, 2021. Apropos the forthcoming elections to the Assemblies of Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry and the Autonomous District Council of Tripura, the communique says ‘the main focus of the CPI(M) shall be to defeat the BJP’. Why and where does the CPI(M) then think the CPI(ML) is going wrong in West Bengal?
Let us first tell our readers the stand the CPI(ML) has taken in these elections. CPI(ML) is not contesting in Kerala and Tripura and is extending support to the LDF in Kerala and LF in Tripura ADC elections. In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, CPI(ML) is independently contesting a few seats (12 in TN and 1 in Puducherry) while extending support to the main opposition alliance against the BJP and its allies. In Assam, CPI(ML) and CPI(M) are part of the same opposition alliance (of course, with the Congress going back on its seat sharing proposal in Karbi Anglong, CPI(ML) will be independently contesting in the hill district).
In West Bengal, the CPI(ML) is contesting twelve seats independently. Lest anyone thinks the CPI(ML) has broken ranks with the CPI(M) in West Bengal, let us make it clear that the CPI(ML) has never been part of the Left Front in the state and has never had any electoral understanding with the CPI(M) in the past even as the party has generally supported LF candidates in many elections especially after 2011 when the LF has no longer been in power. Beyond the 12 seats where the CPI(ML) is contesting, the party has openly declared support to Left candidates on all those seats where they had won in 2016 and where MLAs have not defected to TMC or BJP (as many as 8 of the 32 victorious MLAs defected). Surely the CPI(M) can have no problem with this position.
Presumably, their problem is with the CPI(ML) position for the rest of West Bengal, where the party has appealed to the electorate to defeat the BJP without specifying any party or candidate to vote for. Strangely, the PD commentary has interpreted this position as an ‘indication’ that in ‘over 200 seats, their [CPI(ML)’s] support is for the TMC’! Does this mean that, in the CPI(M)’s own reckoning, in over 200 seats the electoral battle is really between the TMC and the BJP? The PD commentary then goes on to conclude: ‘It is unfortunate that the CPI(ML) is perversely considering the TMC as a better political force to fight the BJP than the Left Front in West Bengal.’
How on earth does this conclusion follow from the CPI(ML)’s stance? Even though CPI(ML) is not part of the Left Front or the larger electoral bloc comprising the Left Front, Congress and the newly launched Indian Secular Front (which apparently is fielding candidates in the name of some other party), CPI(ML) has supported LF candidates in at least two dozen seats while the CPI(M) is not reciprocating this support on a single seat. Shall we then ask the CPI(M) if it considers the Congress or ISF ‘better’ forces than the CPI(ML) to fight the BJP? For the overwhelming majority of forces concerned about the real threat of the BJP coming to power in West Bengal, electoral strength is the crux of the matter. While several opposition parties have openly supported the TMC against the BJP, the ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign in West Bengal and the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha campaigning against the BJP have left it open to the wisdom and choice of the electorate.
The CPI(M)’s real problem is with the fact that the CPI(ML) has exposed and questioned the glaring shortcomings of the CPI(M)’s tactical line and political role in West Bengal at this very critical juncture for Indian democracy. It is not difficult to foresee how the BJP coming to power in West Bengal would lead to a massive escalation of the Sangh-BJP fascist assault (by the way, we never put the word fascist within quotation marks in this context, something the PD commentary routinely does for reasons best known to the writer/editor). As a party which has been in power in West Bengal till only a decade ago and which had historically emerged as the biggest inheritor of the communist base and influence in the state built over decades since pre-Independence days, the CPI(M) cannot explain away this alarming rise of the BJP by just blaming the TMC. If TMC being in power is held exclusively responsible for the rise of the BJP in West Bengal, by the same token one could also hold the CPI(M) responsible for the rise of the BJP in Tripura.
The TMC reign in West Bengal has of course been marked by terror, violence and corruption on one hand and a spate of populist slogans and welfare schemes on the other. The migration of CPI(M) ranks and even MLAs towards the BJP was initially seen as a response to the TMC’s terror as the CPI(M) was not considered to be in a position to offer any effective resistance. But since 2016, the erosion of the CPI(M) base has assumed alarming proportions and in 2019, only one CPI(M) candidate could save his deposit and the vote share dropped to single digits (7%). Even as the experience of Tripura should have warned the CPI(M) in West Bengal, large sections of the party in West Bengal got lulled into the ‘aage ram, pare bam’ (first Ram and then Left) trap. Even after the alarming 2019 decline, there is no visible effort by the CPI(M) to combat the suicidal “Ekushey Ram, Chhabbishey Bam” (Ram – i.e. BJP in 2021, Left in 2026) formula.
The PD commentary tells us that to draw the attention of the people in West Bengal you must first furnish your anti-TMC credentials. Certainly, the CPI(M) is not to be found wanting in this respect! Yet if CPI(M) voters have been gravitating towards the BJP as the stronger and more viable alternative to the TMC, is it not time for the CPI(M) to reconsider its approach and correct its course? Rather than anti-TMC credentials, the issue is the anti-BJP edge of your campaign. The PD commentary tells us that the CPI(M) is not underestimating the BJP or equating the BJP and the TMC. Yet, every political observer following the CPI(M) discourse in real life can cite any number of statements and speeches by CPI(M) leaders, and slogans raised in CPI(M) rallies that equate the TMC and the BJP.
Since the TMC had joined the NDA for some time during the Vajpayee period, the CPI(M) wants to treat the TMC as a virtual NDA constituent even now. The fact is the TMC-BJP alliance never found much resonance in West Bengal. In fact, the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2006 Assembly elections marked the lowest point for both BJP and TMC, and the CPI(M)’s best Assembly performance happened in 2006. The PD commentary reminds us that as late as 2014, Modi had indicated TMC as a potential ally. True, but real life took a different turn. While Nitish Kumar in neighbouring Bihar went back to the NDA fold, the West Bengal government refused to follow that course. Today when circumstances have driven even erstwhile NDA allies like the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal away from the BJP, what purpose does it serve to bracket the TMC with the BJP?
It is one thing to expose the TMC as an inconsistent force in the fight against the BJP and establish the Left as the consistent vanguard in the anti-BJP battle, but it is an altogether different proposition to club the TMC with the BJP and even lump them together as ‘BJmool’. Even in the face of the BJP’s frenzied post-Pulwama 2019 campaign, the TMC polled more than 43 percent vote share. Who are these voters? Large sections of the rural and urban poor population in West Bengal, millions of women and arguably the majority of the state’s Muslim voters. Many of them have been Left voters and supporters in the past, and even now they refuse to buy into the BJP’s theme of communal polarisation and corporate control. How does it help to treat this base at par with the sections of people who have already been lured and numbed by the vicious communal campaign of the BJP?
The PD commentary reminds us that West Bengal is facing a State Assembly election. Of course, it is an Assembly election and the state government must be held accountable. But we must also remember that this Assembly election is being held in 2021 when the Modi government is rapidly centralising all powers and is trampling upon the Constitution and the ideas of secularism, democracy and diversity which are central to our constitutional values. West Bengal is one of the last surviving opposition-ruled states and the BJP is desperate to conquer it. At stake is the inclusive ethos and progressive legacy of West Bengal, and the BJP capturing West Bengal will further shrink the opposition space and dent the federal framework in the country. This is why the entire country is so keenly watching the West Bengal elections. To underplay the extraordinary all-India significance of the West Bengal elections at this juncture can only be seen as a most unfortunate mechanistic response.
Indeed, it is the BJP which desperately wants to keep the West Bengal elections confined to the state context. It knows that today the clamour for change within West Bengal can primarily favour the BJP. The deepening communal polarisation and the call for giving a new party a chance are both working in favour of the BJP. The Left election campaign must challenge this BJP-promoted common sense of delinking West Bengal from the national context and put the Modi government and the BJP squarely in the dock. But the 28 February Brigade rally of the LF-INC-ISF combine conveyed quite a different message. Even against the extraordinary backdrop of the historic farmers’ movement, and acute economic crisis marked by unprecedented price-rise, unemployment and corporate aggression, the rally posed the dethroning of the TMC as a more important goal than saving West Bengal from falling in the BJP’s hands. The pronouncements of the ISF, for which the rally virtually became the launching pad, seem to be directed almost exclusively against the state government.
The PD commentary has reminded us that the TMC is no RJD. As a communist party playing an independent opposition role we have had to pay heavy prices in almost all our major states, whether RJD-ruled Bihar, Congress-ruled Assam, BJP-ruled Jharkhand, or even Left-ruled West Bengal. We have had to suffer any number of massacres in Bihar, but the 1993 Karanda massacre in Bardhaman in Left-ruled West Bengal and the 1980 Hurua killings in Tripura were no less barbaric. We have lost several leaders in political violence perpetrated by feudal forces and our political opponents in Bihar, and also in Assam, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Comrades Mani Singh, Chandrashekhar and Manju Devi in RJD-ruled Bihar, Comrade Mahendra Singh in BJP-ruled Jharkhand, Comrades Anil Barua and Gangaram Kol in Congress-ruled Assam and Comrade Abdul Halim in Left-ruled West Bengal were some of our most prominent and promising leaders who were killed by our political opponents. But this has not made us lose sight of the BJP as the principal threat to the Left movement and to the very foundations of democracy in India. The key defining feature of fascist forces worldwide is their politics of unleashing hatred, discrimination and violence by the state and non-state actors against minorities and ideological dissenters. It is the BJP and its efforts to turn India into a Hindu-supremacist nation that constitute the crux of the fascist danger to democracy in India.
As an independent communist party, we played a consistent oppositional role in Bihar during the fifteen years of RJD rule in Bihar and the 34 years of Left rule in West Bengal. Yet we never helped Nitish Kumar after he joined hands with the BJP. In West Bengal we are the only Left party outside of the Left Front with no record of any cooperation with the TMC. You can recall no example of Mamata Banerjee thanking us when she came to power replacing the CPI(M). Today if she thanks us for our bold anti-BJP stand it only points to the totally changed context. And it is strange that while the PD mentions Mamata Banerjee thanking the CPI(ML), it says nothing about BJP leaders openly thanking the CPI(M) ranks for the help extended in 2019 with appeals for greater help in 2021. Today when West Bengal is in acute danger of an outright fascist takeover, as a communist party our primary concern is to save the state from this imminent threat.
We had expected that post-2011, and more particularly post-2014, the political alignment in West Bengal would be conducive for the development and consolidation of a broader Left unity. But the CPI(M)’s focus on staging a comeback by stitching an alliance first with the Congress and now with the newly formed ISF has diluted the thrust on Left revival. The Left can only revive in West Bengal today by playing a powerful anti-BJP role on the ground. Unfortunately when Left and democratic forces across India expected the Left in West Bengal to discharge its historic responsibility as a bulwark against fascism, the CPI(M) is more obsessed with its anti-TMC credentials. We still hope the people of West Bengal will stall the BJP’s ‘double engine expedition’ and rebuff its fascist offensive and the Left in West Bengal will be able to find its bold voice to surge ahead again as a champion of democracy. (IPA Service)
** The writer is general secretary of CPI(ML)