Bright red flags of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and their Left partners were swaying in the wind as supporters marched through roads in lush green villages. In West Bengal’s Nandigram and Khejury, which were at the centre of the movement led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) that culminated in her defeating the Left Front government in West Bengal in 2011, this has not been a familiar sight in the past 10 years.
However, over the past several months, the Left parties have been on a mission to help distribute relief in these areas. Thousands of people have been left devastated, not just by the ongoing health and economic crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic but also the destruction caused to daily life and livelihoods by the super cyclone, Amphan, which struck Kolkata and the coastal areas.
Left party leaders, cadre, and other supporters have been distributing free food, ration and other relief material, such as soap, sanitisers, tarpaulins and plastic sheets to those whose houses have got blown away in the storm and have been taking out rallies and marches in these remote districts to express their solidarity with people in these times of need.
“In West Bengal, this is the time for the Left to bounce back,” said a member CPI(M) member. He clarified that before the next Assembly elections, to be held in less than a year in the state, the party, which headed the Left Front government in the state for 34 years as late as a decade ago, is endeavouring to rebuild the organisation, which suffered a setback in the days leading up to the Assembly elections of 2011.
“We should utilise this time, when the COVID-19-induced pandemic and the resultant lockdown as well the super cyclone has created an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis, to slowly and steadily regain lost ground by reconnecting with the people in distress,” said the member.
Indeed, having erupted at a time when West Bengal is gearing up for an election, which has been termed by a political commentator as “the most important state election for the Bharatiya Janata Party in its second term at the Centre,” (because BJP is making a bid for power in a state which has proved elusive compared with other Eastern states) the coronavirus-caused crisis has given political parties a contentious campaign issue that could make a difference in terms of a swing in the way people vote.
“Until even six months ago, it appeared that the West Bengal state elections would chiefly be a battle between ruling Trinamool and BJP,” observes Biswanath Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based psephologist and political analyst. The BJP, having made a gain of 16 seats—from two in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to 18 in 2019—in the last parliamentary polls, is currently at number two position in the state.
“However, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the political dynamics in the state. There is no certainty even about whether elections can take place at the scheduled time next year, given the unpredictability of the way the pandemic will pan out, far less any clear-cut indication about which political party is currently at an advantage,” says the professor.
The issues which were earlier at the centre of the tug of war between TMC and BJP have been pushed to the periphery, as pandemic took centre-stage.
Before COVID-19 struck, BJP was banking heavily on anti-incumbency as a poll plank to campaign against TMC, highlighting issues such as corruption (the chit fund scams, for instance). The TMC, on the other side, had been bringing to the fore the apprehensions of the people of Bengal, which has a nearly 30% Muslim population, about the BJP’s plans to implement NRC and CAA.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), propose, respectively, a citizenship count and the granting of citizenship to specified religious communities, other than Muslims, fleeing persecution in their a few neighbouring countries to reside in India.
This divisive CAA-NRC duo, along with the plans for a National Population Register or NPR, generated a controversy with the BJP-led Centre being accused discrimination against Muslims and weaker sections of the country.
Prior to the cyclone and the pandemic, it is the CAA-NRC-NPR on which the Left outfits had launched strident campaigns against TMC and BJP. Now, in the post-COVID scenario, the political rivalry between BJP and TMC has seen both parties attack each other’s ability to handle the crisis.
BJP’s Bengal president Dilip Ghosh has blamed the Mamata Banerjee government of corruption in distribution of ration and relief in remote areas. Banerjee, while denying the charges and clarifying that her government has taken punitive action against errant officials who misappropriated funds, has criticised the Central government’s decision to impose a hasty lockdown, resulting in hundreds of labourers and migrant workers getting stuck in various parts of the country far from their homes.
The migrant worker crisis is something that neither BJP nor TMC could tom-tom as successes, providing the Left and Congress ample opportunity to target the ruling parties at the state and the Centre.
In any case, in West Bengal, TMC and BJP are busy trying to outdo each other over relief efforts, from food to funds. Both the TMC-run state government and BJP-led Central government have announced schemes, such as free ration and direct cash transfers to the bank accounts for BPL (below poverty line) families.
However, both TMC and BJP have also realised that management of a state in distress due to a pandemic and a cyclone storm is not easy. There is also the question of whether and to what extent their efforts would amount to votes.
“I had received around Rs 2,000 in my bank account,” says Niyoti Mahato, a farmer’s wife from a remote village in Jhargram district. “I don’t know who (state or Central government) deposited it, as local leaders of both these parties claim that they gave it,” she says.
In this scenario, the CPI(M0 and other Left parties’ decision to engage in relief work in remote districts and villages, is being perceived as an attempt by the Left Front to re-establish contact with people on the ground, especially as elections are not too far away.
Senior CPI(M) leader and politburo member Mohammad Salim says: “It must be remembered that traditionally the communist movements in the state have been focused on working for the people, especially the downtrodden. Taking up the cause of the working classes, whether it be to stand by them and ensure they are provided the basic rights of food, health, land, etc., or leading organisations of urban labourers’ unions and rural agricultural workers, have always been on the agenda of the Left parties. The response of the Left parties to the devastation suffered by the people of West Bengal after Amphan or due to COVID-19 should be looked at from this perspective. The process of participation in elections has been only to take forward the work, not for the sake of power itself.”
The Left parties in the state say that they are not deterred by rivals’ or political pundits’ scepticism about the Left’s chances of making an electoral comeback in the next Assembly elections. “We are only trying to stand by the people in need.”
In these uncertain times, perhaps voters will remember that a friend in need is a friend in indeed.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.