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In Bengal, the Left offered an alliance that served up only anti-Mamataism and lost

In Kerala, the Left offered a campaign rich in content and won the state

Written by N.S. Madhavan |
May 23, 2016 12:20:54 am
west bengal, kerala, west bengal elections, west bengal polls, kerala polls, poll results, cpim, prakash karat, elections 2016, assembly elections 2016, cpim, bengal left parties, bengal cpm congress alliance, bengal news, india news, latest news It now appears that the electorate felt that the jote had nothing much to offer to them other than anti-Mamataism. (Source: CR Sasikumar)

United front is an idea as old as communism; once again tested, with opposite results, in Kerala and West Bengal. The idea of an united front found its way into communist texts from the thesis of the Comintern’s fourth world congress. It said, “the united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups. to defend immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.” In about nearly a century of the life of the tactic, it has gone through several mutations, from causing revolutions to fighting wars, or for contesting elections, each time accompanied by intense ideological churn within the communist parties of different countries. In the Indian context, the phrase is now reckoned to be another way of saying electoral coalitions.

The big idea of the 2016 elections in West Bengal was the coming together of two old enemies, the Congress and the CPM. The sheer improbability of it initially stunned Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, but as the election results show, the electors were either too dazed to react, or were not impressed with the jote (alliance). This time, going solo, Banerjee has improved upon her 2011 mandate, which she fought along with the Congress. The verdict seems to suggest that the electorate was not yet convinced about the feasibility of peaceful coexistence among former warring parties, and that governance could become a major casualty.

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The run-up to election was tough for Banerjee. A sting operation, followed by the collapse of a flyover in the heart of Kolkata, raked up issues of corruption and smeared the reputation of most of the Trinamool leaders, except Banerje. A major media house, with nearly monopolistic readership in the Bengali and English press and viewership on TV, was putting out memes against the government on a daily basis.

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That Banerjee could weather all these and come out with conch shells trumpeting louder than the previous election naturally trains the spotlight on her opponents, the jote. Probably they came together a little too late, with hardly any time to rebuild their party machineries at ground level, smashed to dust by the Trinamool brigades. Synergy between the Congress and the CPM did mutually reinforce each other, but not to an extent to reconstruct the political infrastructure they lost to the Trinamool. The Election Commission notwithstanding, till the end, they remained vulnerable to muscle power and the reach of “clubs” that the Trinamool controlled. In her reign, Banerjee saw to it that these nominally cultural and sports organisations are well-financed and nurtured, initially to match, and subsequently to eclipse, the CPM branch committee offices.

In the end, the jote was all about arithmetic. In the 2014 parliament election, when all the three players contested separately, the Trinamool got 39.7 per cent and the Left and the Congress together got almost the same at 39.6 per cent and the BJP 16.9 per cent. The jote’s talismanic formula was that the erosion of BJP votes, which they garnered in a Modi-led campaign and for a national election, would come now into their kitty. This did not happen; a chunk went back to the Trinamool, from where they came. In this election, the Congress just about succeeded in keeping its forts in North Bengal, and also helped the Left pick up some seats there. Even in their little islets of influence, the jote is no longer safely ensconced. Banerjee has caused fissures there too.

It now appears that the electorate felt that the jote had nothing much to offer to them other than anti-Mamataism. If in West Bengal the absence of a programme, among other things, did the jote in, in Kerala, a campaign rich in content, helped the Left score a spectacular victory. The assassination of M.M. Kalburgi, the killing in Dadri for suspected possession of beef, and other instances of intolerance had set in a season of restlessness in Kerala. The CPM and its front organisations were in the forefront of the protests against intolerance. For about six months prior to the election, hundreds of meetings were held in village libraries and halls, sponsored by the CPM’s front organisations, in which prominent citizens participated. The CPM’s unrelenting campaign made many Muslims see them as a bulwark against communalism and the BJP.

The Congress on the other hand appeared, initially, ambivalent about the BJP. Oommen Chandy’s fantastic claim that the fight in Kerala was between the UDF led by him and the NDA did not help. A.K. Antony’s damage-control effort about the Congress wanting a BJP-free Kerala came in late. The result suggests that Muslims, outside Malappuram district, the stronghold of UDF ally, the Indian Union Muslim League, had voted for the LDF, giving it a massive mandate. The hypocrisy of the prohibition policy that restricted places for drinking and reduced the number of vends, but not the actual consumption, may or may not have helped the Left, but, certainly did not get any votes for the UDF. About corruption being an issue in the election, there is statistical ambivalence. Of the three ministers perceived to be the most corrupt, two have won.

Kerala has once again stuck to its pattern of yo-yo politics. In a way in Bengal also the pattern is not broken; there it takes more than three decades for anti-incumbency sentiments to sink in. What has been laid to rest finally is the fear of an alliance between the Congress and the Left impacting politics elsewhere. When it comes to elections, sometimes different states in India behave like different countries. Now it can be said that the jote was not an issue with Kerala voters.

Ideological stir within the CPM regarding its relations with the Congress is likely to continue. A day before the Kerala election, the CPM mouthpiece, People’s Democracy, carried an article that warned about the dangers of the CPM becoming the “tail of a bourgeois party”. Prakash Karat, the editor, quickly denied knowledge about how this controversial piece got printed.

Drawing up grand narratives about election results is best left to old-fashioned TV commentators, who change their stories with every flicker on the screen. Political parties could do well by following one of the philosopher Louis Althusser’s many suggestions given to an Italian communist party candidate in the 1968 election. “Politics is a protracted war. Try to see things far in advance, and know how to wait. Don’t live in terms of subjective urgency. Know how to put your defeats to use,” he said.

In Kerala, the BJP finally got a seat. They ran a campaign much like the other two fronts, without raising contentious issues of beef and communalism. But at the northern end of Kerala, a BJP candidate was accused by his opponents of having spoken like his rabble-rouser counterparts elsewhere about eating beef. This is a portent; a Plan B. In Bengal, Banerjee, during her campaigns, had promised to take revenge “inch by inch”. Whatever fledgling political activities were started by the opposition parties, so essential for democracy, may once again get suppressed. As new regimes take over, clouds of disquietude hang over both states.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Two Lefts, one right’)

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Madhavan is an acclaimed Malayalam author

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