Groping in the dark in Kerala and West Bengal

Groping in the dark in Kerala and West Bengal

Kerala and West Bengal share many common strands–communism, food habits, football craze, among others. The upcoming Assembly election, nevertheless, has thrown up a strange paradox for the Congress and the CPM in the two states.

 Congressmen in West Bengal are pushing for an electoral alliance with the CPM. Call it a desperate survival instinct in the face of a deeply entrenched Trinamool Congress, state Marxist satraps such as former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee also favour a tie-up with the Congress.

 CPM general-secretary Sitaram Yechury is not averse to the suggestion, but the majority in the Polit Bureau led by the Kerala lobby have vetoed the proposal. And complicating matters, the Congress leadership in Kerala has also rejected a poll-pact with its principal tormentor in the state.

 So, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Yechury have a tough task ahead negotiating the political landmine. A final call on the alliance issue will be taken shortly to fine tune electoral strategy for Bengal and Kerala. The decision will have a bearing on the electoral strategy, of both the Congress and the CPM, for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

 The dilemma before the CPM is that it cannot dislodge the Trinamool without the Congress’ support. The Mamata Banerjee government does not suffer anti-incumbency despite the bad law and order situation. In fact, the Trinamool has been winning all the bypolls over the last few years (it won six while the CPM lost two and the Congress three).

 A section of the All India Congress Committee leaders argue that an alliance with the Trinamool will be more beneficial for the Congress. The Trinamool is, after all, an ideological offspring of the Congress and if left unfettered, Mamata can do business with the BJP, post poll. The CPM has just seven MPs in the Lok Sabha as against the Trinamool’s 34 and by hooking Mamata, the Congress can bolster Opposition numbers in Parliament in the remaining three years. In contrast, a tie-up with the CPM in Bengal will undercut the Congress in Kerala.

But there is a counterview, that Mamata is unpredictable. The Trinamool has usurped the original Congress’ space and the Congress could regain it only if the ruling party in Bengal is decimated. For 2019, Mamata will not cede any of the 34 Lok Sabha seats from her kitty to the Congress even if there is an alliance, whereas the CPM with just two seats could be quite generous. 

Barring the Indo-US nuclear deal row, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I experiment was better than UPA II, sans the Left. It was only because of the brinkmanship of the CPM’s Kerala lobby that the Left pulled out of UPA I, paving the way for Congress-Trinamool alliance that wrote the epitaph of the CPM in West Bengal, ending its 34-year reign. The Congress in alliance with the Trinamool bagged 42 seats (out of 294) in the 2011 Assembly polls, pushing the CPM to the third position with 40 seats.

In Kerala, a reverse of sorts happened. The CPM emerged as the single-largest party bagging 45 seats (out of 140) against the 38 of the Congress, but lost power to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) which secured 72 seats. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) could muster 68 seats, short by four MLAs and one percentage in vote share – 46.03 per cent for UDF and 45.06 per cent for LDF.

Anti-incumbency factor

Circa 2016, the UDF is suffering from severe anti-incumbency and image loss thanks to the solar and bar bribery scams, linking Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and some of his cabinet colleagues.

Emergence of the BJP as a credible factor has altered the political dynamics in both the states. The BJP which polled just 4 per cent votes in 2011, increased its share to 16 per cent in 2014. Determined to provide an alternative platform, the BJP has stitched up a Third Front comprising some fringe parties and the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, an offshoot of the powerful Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a socio-cultural organisation of the numerically strong OBC Ezhavas led by Vellappally Natesan, a controversial liquor baron.

All eyes are now on the 20 per cent Ezhavas, traditional CPM supporters, barring a section in the southern parts. If the BJP can substantially poach the Ezhava votes and if the upper caste Nairs and the minorities stick with the Congress, the CPM will be in trouble.

The recent panchayat election results, however, offer some solace to the CPM and the BJP. Both did well while the Congress lost some ground, indicating that by and large, the Ezhavas have stuck around the CPM while a section of Nairs dumped the Grand Old Party for the BJP. The CPM may have also benefited from the campaign of its the most credible and popular Ezhava face, the 92-year-old energetic former chief minister V S Achuthanandan, famous for his anti-graft crusades.

If the 27 per cent Muslims and 18 per cent Christians resort to tactical voting to stop the BJP, they may en bloc opt for the stronger of the two secular formations, the LDF or the UDF, as the case may be. Projecting a Nair or Ezhava as the chief ministerial candidate could help Congress cut some losses.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)

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