Trinamool's break with the Congress is encouraging the Left in Bengal to finally bestir itself. But it may be relying too much on the Trinamool's weaknesses rather than its own strengths, writes Ishita Ayan Dutt
Poker is fundamentally a game of mistakes, the winning strategy being to reduce one's own errors and increase the opponent's. Bereft of fresh ideas and robbed of its pro-popular stance, the Communist Party of India-Marxist is betting on this strategy in Bengal right now as it recuperates from its collapse.
Sometimes, enemies are better than friends. Arch-rival Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee became CPI-M's best friend -- metaphorically speaking -- on September 21, after she pulled out of the alliance with the Centre over fuel price hikes and foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.
Less than a month later, the by-election for Jangipur, an otherwise nondescript Parliamentary constituency made famous by current President Pranab Mukherjee, showed why.
The TMC did not field a candidate against Mukherjee's son in Jangipur, and the Congress just about scraped through with a margin of 2,500 votes against the CPI-M. On the face of it, the Communists did well, with a lead in four of the seven Assembly seats that make up the Jangipur constituency one in the last Assembly elections in 2011. But it lost the vote share by more than two per cent.
The implication: the CPI-M is yet to recover lost ground, it merely benefited from the division of non-Left votes. And, it has only Banerjee to thank for this. The gains in the vote share went, surprisingly, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which garnered 10 per cent against two per cent in the Assembly elections. It is clear, however, that had the TMC fielded a candidate, it may not have won with two minority-backed parties (Welfare Party of India and Socialist Democratic Party of India) garnering eight per cent of the votes.
All this may be good news for the CPI-M, the biggest of the four-party Left Front that ruled Bengal for 34 years (1977-2011). With Banerjee hijacking its long-entrenched political agenda with ruthless efficiency, the Left Front's current focus is somehow maintaining the vote share it garnered in the fateful 2011 Assembly elections that ended its reign. The Left had 41 per cent of votes and the TMC-Congress alliance about 47 per cent. With the alliance gone, the CPI-M is harbouring hopes of a comeback with a division in its opponents' votes.
Maybe she sensed the danger because Chief Minister Banerjee wagged her finger and cautioned the Left not to celebrate her break-up with the Congress. But who is listening? Insiders at Alimuddin Street, the CPI-M headquarters, confide that "Buddha smiled after many months". They were referring to the habitually taciturn Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the former chief minister.
He is well aware that even the tiniest vote swing can presage a major change. In 2001, for instance, Banerjee may have flashed the victory sign prematurely but the results showed that anti-incumbency had hit the Left. Overall, the Left's vote share eroded by just 0.33 per cent -- but in some districts (like Darjeeling) the erosion was as high as eight per cent. Who knows what would have happened had there been a Congress-TMC alliance.
Of course, the Left is not sitting pretty, waiting for Banerjee to wreak her own destruction. The recent Left rallies, especially the CPI-M's, have seen huge turnouts. This may have been a cause for concern for TMC leaders, but they know that the Left is yet to win back supporters who deserted them for Banerjee's party.
Meanwhile, both parties are preparing the ground for the Panchayat elections due in January or February next year and many think it will be a bloody battle. The Herculean task is to field candidates for all 61,000 seats, many of which will be reserved for women and tribals and not necessarily hard-core supporters.
The question, of course, is what platform the Left will choose to fight from. Its pro-industrial policy, as promoted under the enlightened Bhattacharjee, proved a spectacular failure -- as much because of Banerjee's ultra-Left populism that usurped it traditional base as opposition within his party and allies Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Now, it is becoming increasingly clear that TMC's Ma, Maati, Manush (mother, land, people) agenda has failed to deliver any progress for the hapless 91 million people in Bengal. So the hitherto dejected, depressed and weak CPI-M is finally raising its pitch against the TMC, Banerjee in particular. Inevitably, industrialisation, or the lack of it under the current regime, is among the CPI-M's favourite punches.
At the forefront of this offensive is Bhattacharjee, who was transformed from industry's poster boy to tragic hero after the Left Front lost power in Bengal. Singur, location of a proposed Tata Nano factory that was relocated to Gujarat as a result of protests organised by Banerjee, had become a symbol of Bhattacharjee and the Left's failures. Yet Singur was intended to be a showcase project of the Left's new pro-industry stance. It was expected to generate jobs and put Bengal back on the road to prosperity. It foundered on the sword of land acquisition. Some discontented land-losers provided Banerjee a populist issue with which to beat the Left.
Yet at a recent party rally, Bhattacharjee thought fit to utter the forbidden "S" word. "Singur has become a graveyard," he said. Significantly, the former chief minister has found some leaders within the party to bat for industrialisation. Among them is former Housing Minister Gautam Deb, who is not exactly Bhattacharjee's best friend. He recently said the party would definitely acquire land for big industrial projects, a sign that the party is no longer shying away from the reality that industrialisation is the need of the hour for Bengal.
The question is whether the CPI-M have its other allies on board. The Forward Bloc is understood to be opposing land acquisition for a Power Grid Corporation project in North Dinajpur. That's not surprising -- Bhattacharjee once used his veto powers to renew a licence for German wholesaler, Metro Cash & Carry, when the Forward Bloc minister in-charge refused.
That was 2008. The allies have just 22 Assembly seats to the CPI-M's 40, so the Left's best bet would be to carry its allies down the path of economic reforms. That may just be the turning point Bengal badly needs.