A comic aspect of Communist politics is the insistence of the party of the red flag that its mundane political manoeuvres are always guided by lofty ideological consideration, not the least of which may be the “world situation”. It may be a reflection of the growing “normalcy” of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that the desire of its West Bengal unit to forge an alliance with the Congress for this summer’s Assembly election isn’t premised on mumbo-jumbo assumptions such as the crisis of global capitalism.
When the West Bengal State Committee of the CPM meets on February 12/13 to discuss its electoral strategy in a state which was regarded as an unassailable “red fort” until five years ago, it will be guided less by ideology (or whatever remains of it) and more by the imperatives of sheer survival. The grim reality that confronts the veteran leaders in Kolkata’s narrow Alimuddin Street is not appetising.
First, the CPM has recognised that the existing Left Front (that includes parties such as Forward Block, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Communist Party of India) are not in a position to defeat Mamata Banerjee. At one time it appeared that the Left Front could lose its status as the principal Opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party. But while that challenge has been averted — thanks in no small measure to the BJP’s own remarkable short-sightedness — the CPM has been unable to mount any challenge to the Trinamul Congress. In a direct fight with the the Trinamul Congress, its defeat seems pre-ordained.
Secondly, the CPM is inclined to view the 2016 Assembly election as more than a political contest. The vicious political culture of the state — whose origins date back to the three decades of Left rule — has left very little space for Opposition parties. Under Left rule, Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress loyalists found it extremely harrowing to operate politically; under the present dispensation, little or no room is given to the Left.
Many of those who symbolised the Left at the local level before 2011 have now switched over effortlessly to the the Trinamul Congress. They have changed affiliations but maintained the same culture of muscle flexing and intolerance. Consequently, the CPM fears that a second consecutive political defeat will result in the near-total decimation of its already fragile political base. For the party in West Bengal, it is also a battle for physical survival.
In a curious sort of way, the Congress is confronted by problems that are similar to those faced by the CPM. Following the slow and steady erosion of its support base, the Congress is today a sub-regional party that exists in the border districts of Murshidabad, Malda and the two Dinajpurs. In the rest of the state, not least in Kolkata, Howrah and southern Bengal, it exists as a rump made up of individuals who have fallen out with the Trinamul Congress. As long as the Congress was in power at the Centre, the local Congress maintained a nominal presence centred on its ability to secure and distribute political largesse from New Delhi. However, even that pipeline has been choked since 2014.
In 2011, the Congress was the junior partner in a mahajot with the Trinamul Congress. Consequently, following the landslide victory, the Congress managed to win a sprinkling of seats in areas other than its North Bengal strongholds. Today, these are threatened by the Trinamul Congress that showed its independent clout in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The Congress has the necessary independent standing to win handsomely in North Bengal if the Left transfers its votes. The Trinamul Congress is still a relatively new phenomenon in North Bengal, as was demonstrated by the CPM winning control of the Siliguri municipality last summer. Ms Banerjee could do with Congress support, just as the Congress could do with the Left’s votes.
As a former Congress leader who broke away from the parent party in 1997 because of its lack of seriousness in confronting the Left, Ms Banerjee does not have any real ideological aversion to the parent party. She is on excellent terms with Sonia Gandhi and is fully aware of the fact that — owing to its direct fight with the Left in Kerala — the Congress would rather ally with the Trinamul Congress than the CPM.
Indeed, if there is a real chance that the Congress-CPM entente in West Bengal will materialise, Ms Banerjee will travel an extra distance to persuade the Gandhis to revive the 2011 arrangement. She is aware that the local leadership of the Congress seeks a formal alliance with the CPM but she also knows that she can bring more to the table for the Congress in national political than the Left.
The CPM Politburo that will take a final call on the subject later this month may feel that its West Bengal unit is over-doing its politics of pragmatism. But whereas Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may be viewing the issue through the narrow prism of state politics, the state unit’s larger conclusions correspond with the instincts and inclinations of the comrades who see themselves in the mould as Harkishan Singh Surjeet rather than Prakash Karat.
Since it withdrew support from the United Progressive Alliance in 2008 and then went on to lose Kerala and West Bengal, the CPM has found itself an increasingly marginal force in national politics. In 2016, the national influence of the Left is at its lowest point since Independence.
Its natural ability to punch above its weight thanks to its influence among intellectuals and in the media has also been compromised, not least by the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party that has stolen some of its thunder. The CPM desperately needs to piggy back on either the Congress or other regional parties to regain a foothold in the national power equation.
At one level Mrs Sonia Gandhi is willing to embrace a party of radical social democracy but she has her eye firmly set on a robust grand coalition that can overwhelm the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2019.
In that calculation, Ms Banerjee matters much more than Sitaram Yechuri.
If the CPM took the Yechuri line to its logical conclusion and subsumed the party into the Congress, life would have been much easier. But for that to happen, the CPM probably needs to experience its obsolescence a little more profoundly.