Kolkata: Though it was a Rajya Sabha election and though circumstances turned out to be fortuitous, yet the election on March 17 of Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, backed by the Congress, is politically significant.
According to some senior Left Front and Congress leaders, there was a distinct political message in the election of Bhattacharya, a former city mayor and former advocate-general of Tripura.
Efforts to reach an understanding between the CPI(M) and Congress actually picked up pace in last September and took final shape in January this year, some leaders told Newsclick.
The Left and Congress coordinated their efforts for smooth sailing for Bhattacharya on the strength of their available first preference votes (49 required) for the fifth seat, in case there was a contest.
Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee apparently tried to spoil Bhattacharya’s chances by fielding an active TMC leader, Dinesh Bajaj, as an ‘Independent candidate’, in a bid to ensure that Bajaj also got support from Bharatiya Janata Party to sail through. BJP, which did not have enough numbers to field a candidate of its own, would not ‘openly’ support Bajaj if he were in the fray as a TMC nominee.
Ultimately, however, voting was not required as the authorities found Bajaj’s nomination papers incomplete and rejected his candidature. Bhattacharya was declared elected to the Upper House.
This, in a nutshell, explains how the CPI (M)’s candidate became a member of Parliament. (Incidentally, Bhattacharya happens to be the second city mayor, after Prashanta Chatterjee. Chatterjee was also elected to Rajya Sabha as a CPI (M) nominee ).
When asked what the political message of this election was, senior CPI (M) leader Mohammed Salim told NewsClick: “We have been able to expose Mamata’s tactics. Principles and ideology are words missing in her dictionary. Last September, she mended her ties with BJP by meeting Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in New Delhi. Now, after refusing to attend several important meetings called by the Prime Minister and even not asking a minister or senior bureaucrat to represent her, she goes to Bhubaneswar to attend the meeting of eastern region states convened by the Union home minister. She is once again proving that BJP is acceptable to her”.
Senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya saw the victory of Bhattacharya as the first sign of a “turning point” in West Bengal’s politics, as the understanding was clinched in a matter of months after the eleventh hour failure of Left and Congress to work together in the Lok Sabha 2019 elections “due to the obstinacy of some leaders”.
The Congress leader said in this Rajya Sabha election, “we had to proceed very cautiously as Mamata and BJP were out to hurt the combine’s (Left-Congress) interest. Our Assembly members had to be regularly briefed on the do’s and don’ts in the event of voting. They had to be convinced about the acceptability of Bikashbabu”.
Shareing some “inside information”, the Congress leader, who was in the thick of this exercise in New Delhi and Kolkata, told NewsClick: “After the CPI (M) politburo rejected the West Bengal unit’s proposal to make Sitaram Yechury the candidate for the fifth seat, Yechury, the party general secretary, got in touch with me and suggested the name of Bikash. He urged me to persuade my party top brass to accept Bikash as the combine’s candidate. I briefed our leaders, particularly about the suitability of Bikash as a candidate. After the spade work had been done and I was satisfied that our top brass was amenable, Yechury put in a word to Rahul Gandhi in favour of Bikash. The matter then came to a close”.
For the first time since Independence, the West Bengal CPI(M) has no representation in either House, which had been a matter of much angst in Left circles. Pointing this out, Swapan Banerjee, state general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), told NewsClick that this was where lay the significance of Bikash’s victory.
The causes dear to the Left and matters of interest to West Bengal would now be taken up by the newly elected Rajya Sabha member. “So long, we have been fighting one undemocratic force, the TMC. Now, we have to contend with a second undemocratic force, the BJP. Our current tie-up with the Congress has to be viewed against this backdrop,” Banerjee said.
Ashok Ghosh, a central secretariat member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and general secretary of its labour arm, United Trade Union Congress, said the victory of CPI(M)’s candidate would help improve Left-Congress understanding, coming as it did before the state-wide civic elections (which have been put off due to coronavirus scare).”
Chanchal Chakraborty, general secretary of Save Democracy, a non-party political outfit, saw the CPI (M) candidate’s Rajya Sabha entry as a positive, “as in the days to come communalism, fascism and authoritarianism will intensify, necessitating continuous struggle by the downtrodden, workers and politically conscious people”
Chakraborty informed Newsclick that Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya was a founder-member of Save Democracy, which was launched on November 14, 2014.
According to senior state BJP leader, Shamik Bhattacharya, “Bikahsbabu is a committed CPI(M) worker; he is an eminent lawyer and a well-known public figure. His participation will enrich debates and discussions in the Upper House. He has won on the basis of the combined Left-Congress first preference votes. But that may not help CPI (M) in West Bengal. People have shifted away from the Left; we have stepped in.”
With the Left-Congress understanding inching toward stability and BJP having succeeded in increasing its membership base, will the ground realities force TMC, which is now aggressively projecting Mamata Banerjee as “the pride of Bengal”, restrain its workers from resorting to violence during the civic elections, when held?
CPI(M)’s Salim disagreed, saying that TMC goons would do everything to create political space with their money power. At best, TMC’s “fire power” may weaken somewhat, he said.
Congress’s Pradip Bhattacharya believed that the first signs of Mamata’s stranglehold over state politics weakening were showing, adding that her police force was aware of this slow change. “This time round, the police won’t protect TMC activists practising violence,” he added.
RSP’s Ghosh was of the view that the non-BJP opposition was better placed this time round to resist TMC’s machinations and attempts to resort to violence. “I hope Mamata takes note of the emerging situation. It won’t be surprising if she finds it more convenient to “strengthen her secret understanding with the BJP”, he added.
CPI’s Banerjee, however, said “the TMC and the BJP would persist in their efforts to undermine democracy. This is inevitable when political parties are afraid of people and they do not take up their cause, stand by them in their sufferings.”
BJP’s Bhattacharya observed: “It’s certainly not going to be a cakewalk for TMC in the civic polls. People are turning against them; they will see that agents of the Opposition parties can discharge their role at the booths”.
Meanwhile, it may be mentioned that in the then TMC-promoted environment of violence and intimidation and the state administration’s aversion to any form of dissent, the Opposition parties could not even file nominations for 34% of the seats in the 2018 panchayat elections. As a result, all TMC candidates were declared elected unopposed.