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Left Wants Opposition Together, Mamata Playing Spoilsport—CPM’s Mohd Salim

S. N. M. Abdi |
The prominent Left leader explains why resistance to Trinamool Congress is rising in Bengal.
Mohd Salim

Mohammed Salim is the face of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal, a state the CPI(M)-led Left Front ruled for a record 34 years. He was elected secretary of the party’s state committee last year. Since taking over the reins of the party from his predecessor Surja Kanta Mishra in March 2022, the 65-year-old Marxist has left no stone unturned to mobilise and motivate cadres to dig in their heels and fight back the Trinamool Congress party and Bharatiya Janata Party. Salim is a politburo member, a former Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and a former state minister. He was the architect of the CPI(M)’s alliance with the Indian Secular Front before the 2021 Assembly election. He is one of the most well-known communist faces in the country thanks to his long parliamentary innings and appearance on national television as party spokesperson. He spoke to NewsClick about preparations for the upcoming panchayat election in West Bengal, next year’s parliamentary election and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brand of politics. Excerpts:

Panchayat elections—the last statewide test of strength in West Bengal before the general elections—were due this month. Do you think the Trinamool Congress government is deliberately delaying these polls? And when will they eventually be held, according to your information?

Mamata Banerjee was keen to hold the three-tier panchayat elections after the Assembly election. She wanted them advanced! But subsequently, she decided to delay the panchayat polls because of multiple corruption cases, discontent in rural Bengal and the resurgence of the Left. As the new rural local bodies must be constituted by mid-August, we expect the election dates to be announced in June. And going by the rule book, elections will have to take place by July. We also know that Trinamool Congress wants to give the CPI(M) as little time as possible to campaign before the voting.

In May 2018, the Trinamool Congress won 34% of the panchayat seats uncontested in an extremely volatile atmosphere. How well prepared is the CPI(M) to counter the ruling party this time?

Uncontested is a misnomer. Last time, we were not even allowed to file nominations. We are subjected to physical attacks, including by the police, to prevent us from submitting our papers. 2018 witnessed the worst political violence and biased governance; even the state election commission was partisan. But for the last year, people have been getting ready, under the leadership of a rejuvenated Left in Bengal, to reoccupy the lost democratic space and rights snatched from them. And this is vital for the return of grassroots democracy. People are disgruntled with corruption and loot in every sphere of governance. They want to get rid of it. This goal could not have been achieved earlier for two reasons—the weakening of Left forces and the rise of divisive forces, which impacted united people’s resistance.

A resurgent Left powered by the people’s movement, especially the resounding participation of the younger generation, has enhanced grassroots activism and the resistance movement. Rural Bengal is discarding the forces of disunity and communal politics and reuniting under the red banner. Today, red flags are being unfurled in areas which were terror-stricken and beyond the reach of the Left for over a decade. This has increased confidence levels and is motivating people to convert themselves from passive spectators to active participants in the resistance movement.

The CPI(M) is accelerating its activities and rejuvenating mass movements by enlarging areas of influence and incorporating newer sections in its fold. Earlier, ‘R’ stood for red volunteers. Now it stands for Re-vigoured Left. In many villages, corrupt ruling party leaders are being chased, and they are on the run.

What are the main issues that the CPI(M) plans to highlight to win over the panchayat electorate? Is the blueprint of seat-sharing with the Congress party and Indian Secular Front ready?

The rural economy has collapsed. Whatever gains were made during the Left Front rule have been lost. Every sphere of rural life has been shattered—agro-economy, employment, cottage and small industries, health and education infrastructure. A parallel economy fuelled by illegal activities has replaced the gains from the Left Panchayati Raj system and land reforms.

We have made some headway in broadening Left unity and are in the process of uniting all forces opposed to the Trinamool Congress-BJP. Left, Congress and ISF are getting mobilised, and we are finalising seat-sharing arrangements. These talks are being held at the block and district levels, and we are receiving encouraging reports.

Will the outcome of the panchayat election be an indicator of what will happen in the parliamentary elections? Or do you think that the two are unrelated?

In politics, we don’t compartmentalise panchayat, Assembly and parliamentary elections. But a big test awaits the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in the upcoming panchayat polls. That is why they were trying to avoid it. The panchayat election outcome will destroy the myth of the Trinamool Congress-BJP binary in Bengal. And that will definitely impact the 2024 [Lok Sabha] election.

In your opinion, how critical is Muslim support for the CPI(M) to stage a comeback in West Bengal? Do you foresee Bengali-speaking Muslims voting for the CPI(M) and the CPI(M)-Congress-ISF coalition?

Normally in Bengal, we never used to divide voters on religious lines. But the Trinamool Congress-BJP binary politics is dividing voters religion-wise. In particular, Bengali Muslims are disillusioned and disenchanted. They feel deceived by Mamata Banerjee, who has not fulfilled her promises to the community with regard to madrassa education, the Aliah University, the Waqf administration and employment. She even dangled baits like setting up a separate medical college and nursing institute for Muslims! Many Muslims are angry with her use and abuse of their religious motifs, symbols and practices, which they feel are feeding and nurturing Hindutva. After experiencing deception, the Muslims are flocking back to the Left and even the Congress and ISF, where they are strong.

What’s your current assessment of your tie-up with the Indian Secular Front? Will the jailing of ISF legislator Naushad Siddiqui impact the Muslim vote in the panchayat and parliamentary polls, or do you think public memory is short and the treatment meted out to him has lost relevance?

We did have seat adjustments with the ISF in the 2021 Assembly election. Since then, we have had many joint initiatives with them. Particularly after the manhandling and arrest of Naushad Siddiqui, the Left Front took to the streets with the ISF and other democratic forces to protest. In 2021, we had a very small window to pool our supporters. Now, through struggles on the streets in various districts, our supporters are working hand-in-hand. It is up to the leaders to take it forward.

In 2024 in West Bengal, if the 30% Muslim vote is divided between CPI(M)-Congress coalition and Trinamool Congress and the 70% Hindu vote is divided between the BJP, Trinamool Congress and CPI(M)-Congress, what will be the outcome? How many Lok Sabha seats can each win out of the 42 in the state?

It is too early to comment. Let us have faith in the political acumen of the West Bengal electorate. The Sagardighi Assembly by-election result is a pointer. The BJP in West Bengal is nothing but a recycled Trinamool Congress. Sadly, the people of West Bengal are not realising that. The fight in West Bengal in 2024 will be between the Trinamool Congress-BJP on the one hand and the CPI(M)-Congress-ISF on the other. The undeclared seat sharing between BJP and Trinamool Congress is already getting exposed. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] is at work, communalising the electorate, which we are fighting tooth and nail, whereas the Trinamool Congress’s kid-glove treatment of Hindutva forces is for all to see.

Why, according to you, is the Chief Minister vehemently against a Congress party-led opposition even after Congress swept the Karnataka Assembly election? While hosting Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in Nabanna on 23 May, she gave a call to the non-BJP ruled states—Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Telangana—to confront the Centre. But she left out the Congress-ruled states. She even mentioned CPI(M)-ruled Kerala but not a single Congress-ruled state. How would you interpret her psyche?

There is a scheme behind her madness. The RSS is keen to disrupt Opposition unity, and Mamata Banerjee is a known enabler. In fact, last month, she publicly announced she would not be a part of any anti-BJP front. Earlier, she described herself as a natural ally of the BJP and gave the RSS character certificates.

When all well-meaning parties are trying to mobilise anti-BJP forces without emphasising who would lead it, Mamata Banerjee wants to exclude the Congress, undermine the Left and project herself as the leader. Her three-pronged approach is hindering Opposition unity.

Do you think communists should ally with the Congress party at the national level as openly as the CPI(M) under your leadership aligned with it in West Bengal?

The CPI(M) has made it very clear there is no possibility of a ‘grand alliance’ at the national level, given present-day political realities. State-level adjustments based on prevailing situations will work out better for pooling anti-BJP votes. In 1996 and 2004, this approach worked.

With your long experience and access to inside information about twists and turns in national politics, what’s your explanation for the Trinamool Congress not opposing the BJP-led NDA’s candidate Jagdeep Dhankhar in last year’s vice-presidential election, despite Dhankhar relentlessly gunning for the Trinamool Congress for four years as the governor of West Bengal?

Time and again, Trinamool has proved it is at the beck and call of the RSS to render its services from Goa to Tripura and to help the BJP wriggle out of odd situations inside and outside Parliament. I have repeatedly said that the media in Bengal was spreading a fake narrative of the Mamata-Jagdeep Dhankhar Chief Minister-Governor ‘war’. While they crossed swords publicly, they were not working at cross-purposes. Do not forget that Dhankhar’s candidature as Vice-President was announced after he, Mamata Banerjee and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma met clandestinely in Darjeeling—which I had exposed then.

(S. N. M. Abdi is an independent journalist.)

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