Doubts about whether Assembly election in West Bengal would take place in due time with the Coronavirus pandemic still raging have diffused after the successful completion of the Bihar election. Even as late as last month, political commentators in Kolkata were talking about the uncertainty of holding polls on schedule. “There was a big question mark, but the completion of the Bihar polls indicates that it can be done and the Election Commission has given the green signal for Bengal too,” says political scientist and psephologist Prof Biswanath Chakraborty. The state is now gearing up for polls over April and May 2021.
Indeed, in the past weeks, many other perceptions have changed too. No longer is it felt that the All India Trinamool Congress, which is ruling the state, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is trying to wrest control from it, will be the only relevant players in the coming polls. Both remain key contestants, but the fight is likely to get significantly complex with the introduction of other factors into the fray.
Chief amongst these is the likelihood of a tie-up or seat-sharing arrangement between the Left parties and the Congress party, if not an electoral alliance that will extend beyond these election. Not only have leaders on both sides discussed it, but unlike before the 2019 parliamentary polls, there is less equivocation. “No conclusion has been drawn yet, but yes, there have been talks between us,” senior Communist Party of India Marxist leader and member of the CPIM Polit Bureau, Mohammad Salim confirms to Newsclick. Yet, he points out, instead of focusing merely on the elections and keeping the goal of any possible union limited to gaining votes, before taking a final decision, the consideration now is how they can work on common programmes on the ground from which people can benefit. He says people do not care for a politics of convenience or alliances forged to satisfy the desire for power of political classes. “We want to present to people a viable alternative which addresses the issues that concern them,” he says.
Salim says the political dynamics have changed vastly since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and political pundits who had been predicting the 2021 Assembly election outcome on the basis of what happened in the 2019 parliamentary elections (in which Trinamool and BJP took centre-stage), are getting it terribly wrong. “Those who wrote off the Left or, for that matter, the Congress, and insisted 2021 will be all and only about the BJP and Trinamool, have missed an important fact: the entire year of 2020. This year has turned everything upside down and thrown up issues that expose the failings of the ruling parties at the Centre and in the state.”
Salim says the Left is getting together with other parties to address these issues before even considering asking people to vote for them. A whole gamut of pandemic-induced issues are included in this, such as the migrant workers who found themselves jobless and without money, and who were left to fend for themselves. They trudged back to their distant villages on foot from their workplaces in the city. The super cyclone Amphan, which hit West Bengal during the pandemic in May, doubled their misery and rendered thousands more villagers homeless and jobless. “Left parties have been working ceaselessly in the districts. We have undertaken hundreds of programmes for free distribution of ration and other relief. We wanted to stand by people, especially the working classes and the rural and urban poor,” he says.
The Left parties are continuing this work while raising other important issues, especially to provide people access to Covid-19 treatment, more hospital beds, creating jobs and income-generation schemes, price regulation, opposing the new farm laws, and much more. “Only when we build up trust and confidence among people would we consider asking them to vote for us,” Salim says. This, the Left believes, is a far more effective strategy than the Trinamool’s and BJP’s purely electoral focus on “Hindu” votes or “Muslim” votes. “The politics of division will no longer work in Bengal. Both Hindus and Muslims are suffering during the ongoing pandemic. The virus does not distinguish between them,” he stresses.
Political commentators, too, have moved away from the stance that Trinamool and BJP will be the only critical factors in 2021. “There has been a huge paradigm shift due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Chakraborty. When the BJP won 18 of 42 seats in Bengal in the last parliamentary election, projections for 2021 were based on this massive gain. In 2019, it was not just a gain of 16 seats from the two in 2014, but the BJP’s vote-share also shot up to nearly cross the halfway mark. With the Congress bagging only two seats and the Communists losing the two they had, the next fight was considered all but foregone between a defensive Trinamool and aggressive BJP. “But political dynamics change—and they have changed drastically over 2020. Those earlier perceptions are no longer applicable. Other issues have emerged,” Chakraborty says.
On 26 November, central trade unions went on strike making a host of demands including cash transfers of Rs.7,500 a month for all non-income tax paying families and 10 kilograms of free ration per person per month to all who need it. A joint statement from the ten trade unions, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress, All India Trade Union Congress, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, All India United Trade Union Centre, Trade Union Co-ordination Centre, Self-Employed Women’s Association, All India Central Council of Trade Unions, Labour Progressive Federation and United Trade Union Congress and many other independent forums, federations and associations of working classes took part in the strike. At least 20 farmers organisations took part in the nationwide strike in solidarity with farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan; as decided during a state-level convention of the All India Kisan Coordination Committee earlier this month.
As expected—and predicted by the trade unions—over 20 crore workers took to the streets and their anger spilled over in places, resulting in skirmishes with the state police. This only corroborated the strength of the movement and the shift in the political tide. Needless to say, it is the Left parties that overwhelmingly supported the strike. “A huge Opposition force has been building up to counter the policies of the present regimes and the strike has mobilised more of a support base. To think this will have no impact on the elections in Bengal is to live in a fool’s paradise,” says Salim.
Chakraborty, too, says, “Less than six months before a major election, the success of this strike could be an indicator of the way things will pan out in 2021.” It is true other entrants have created something of a buzz as the state hurtles towards these crucial elections, such as the Hyderabad-based national Asaduddin Owaisi’s All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslim, which is expected to field candidates. “Interestingly, while AIMIM is perceived to be a counter to the growing emphasis on Hindutva, and therefore in opposition to the BJP, because the Trinamool commands a larger part to the Muslim vote, the latter could see it as a threat as well,” he says.
Prof Om Prakash Mishra, who heads the Department of International Relations at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, and is a core committee member of Trinamool, had advocated a Left and Congress alliance before the 2019 Parliamentary elections, when he was a member of the Congress party. He attributes the BJP’s huge gains in the last election to the fact that the votes were divided. “If the agenda had been to thwart the BJP at any cost, the alliance would have taken place,” he says. Mishra feels that a Left and Congress alliance could stop the BJP. Their combined strength could also count towards Trinamool’s fight against the BJP.
While the Left is clear that BJP remains the political enemy, it also dismisses any idea of a direct or indirect understanding with the Trinamool. “There is no question of any kind of support to the Trinamool, advertent or inadvertent,” Salim quips. “That we are against the BJP does not make us pro-Trinamool.”
If indeed the independent space is building up in West Bengal, the Left and Congress are the ones to watch out for in the coming days.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal