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Mainstream, VOL LII No 19; May 3, 2014

Towards Lok Sabha Elections 2014: Politics, Parties in West Bengal

Monday 5 May 2014

by Pratip Chattopadhyay

In Indian politics one of the most happening States at present is West Bengal for its own logic of politics, change and populism. While practical politics of different genres manifested in the evolution of Bengal politics from the extreme Right to extreme Left variations, the contem-porary political milieu is that of the rising aspi-rations of the people led by a positive and entre-preneurial government and a leader (Mamata Banerjee) with sufficient mass appeal eyeing to be a king-maker at the Centre to the extent that these days in the ‘official’ political milieu of the State the old slogan of ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’ has been once again revived.

In the context of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls the political situation in West Bengal can be described in a nutshell as that of a quadra-battle among the rising aspirations of the Trinamul Congress, face-saving strategies of the Left Front, reiteration of the mass base of the Congress and manifestation of the influence of the wave of national sentiments for the Bhara-tiya Janata Party. The preparations for the polls were kicked off with the holding of three back-to-back Brigade rallies by the TMC, Left Front and BJP between the last week of January and first week of February 2014 and then of course with the announcement of the names of candi-dates for the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State and the visit of the Deputy Chief Election Commissioner, Vinod Jutshi, reflecting the string-ent attitude of EC for speedy action against speeches and acts violating the norms of the model code of conduct. The present paper tries to understand the politics of the contending parties as revealed through the approach of candidate selection by the competing political entities.

People over Politics: The Logic of Trinamul Congress

Ever since it dreamt to capture State power in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) has been on the side of the people as against the party (read CPM) giving the process a shape of a ‘battle’ between the people (reflecting overall development, compassion, emotion and ‘partici-pation’) on the one hand and the party (reflecting selected development, politics, indifference and partycracy) on the other. After a long and hard ‘battle’ finally in 2011 the ‘people’s party’ (TMC) got the better of the ‘political party’ (CPM) and came to power in the State. In the last two- and-a-half years the situation in the State is like a new churning of the entire social and cultural spheres, a new promising and enterprising government and a hard working Chief Minister shouldering the responsibility of reaching out to the people in all possible manner (by taking the administration close to the districts of which an example is creating Uttarkanya, the North Bengal chapter of the State administration, providing financial help to unemployed youth through kanyasree and yuvasree programmes, announcing the fringes of the State like Digha and Sunderbans and associated places to be developed as tourist spots of international standards, providing relief to the people by not allowing entry tax on goods, by revitalising the ideas of Tagore, Vivekananda and other cultural and religious stalwarts of Bengal in a big way, commenting in facebook on important issues to be at par with modern social connectivity). With such a sustained effort to link the State and government with the people, the TMC announced its candidates for the Lok Sabha polls and the names of the candidates suggest that the logic of change, of difference is present here as well and the chairperson of the party, Mamata Banerjee, while announcing the candidate list declared: “Of the 42 seats in Bengal, we are fielding 11 women candidates which perhaps are the highest. Seven candidates are from the minority community. Several new faces have been inducted to give our candidate list a truly representative look.”

In comparison with the 2009 Lok Sabha elections this time TMC is not in any alliance with the Congress and SUCI party, which were given 14 and one seats respectively during the seat adjustment process; out of the 28 seats it contested, the TMC won in 19 seats. In this changing situation the TMC is contesting all the 42 seats in which 15 of the earlier 19 winning candidates have been granted a second candidature and in other seats debutants in politics from the fields of sport, culture, entertainment have been given a chance to contest along with a few recognised politicians.

In this list there is a balance of diversity between established politicians, 2009 Lok Sabha election winners (except Kabir Suman from Jadavpur constituency who is no longer in the good books of the TMC and Somen Mitra who has returned to the Congress) and new but prominent public faces including academic stalwart Professor Sugata Bose from the Jadavpur constituency, popular film-star of this era Dev from the Ghatal constituency, yester-years’ glamorous heroine Munmun Sen from the Bankura constituency, yesteryears’ film actress Sandha Roy from the Medinipur constituency, popular band singer in Bengali Soumitra Roy from the Maldah (North) constituency, theatre personality Arpita Ghosh from the Balurghat constituency, popular footballer of this era Baichung Bhutia from the Darjeeling consti-tuency (he has gained cold reception from the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha), young singing talent Anupam Hazra from the Durgapur consti-tuency—a diversity of popular personalities from across the society who are not close to the field of politics and hence seen as persons from within the society—a representation of the people themselves.

The Trinamul Congress is also seen to be gaining ground at the national level so far as networking is concerned. In Tripura, Jharkhand and Manipur, the Trinamul Congress has fielded its own candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Anna Hazare—the renowned social activist of this decade, who single-headedly revived the power of the civil society at the national scale during his anti-corruption pro-Lokpal movement—saw in Mamata Banerjee the prospect for a decent prime ministerial candidate and agreed to hold a joint rally with Mamata Banerjee at Delhi in March (which however ended with poor attendance raising question about the popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Anna Hazare and creating some distance between them). Mamata Banerjee has made it clear that she has no problem if Miss Jayalalithaa becomes the Prime Minister which has struck a chord in the AIADMK circles as well. The Trinamul Congress, under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, started to dream of controlling the Centre for the past couple of years by forming a Federal Front with Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar and other regional heavyweight leaders but that dream was dashed due to lack of commonality among these parties apart from their anti-Centre position. The Trinamul Congress as a party, like its leader Mamata Banerjee, is extremely focussed on a particular goal—after winning the State it’s trying to make its presence felt in a better way in the national politics and going with its previous tally of 19 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 and the present pro-incumbency and continuous impressive results at local level elections in the State, the TMC is keeping its options open for any post-poll situation in May 2014. This is flexibility or in other words prudence in politics or playing with the field. The TMC is playing politics but not like other political parties by clinging to politics, politicians and political ideas. It is exploring new possibilities, new actors and new formations in political, social and cultural spheres and people are looking toward the party and its leader for bringing the desired change in their life as the TMC slogan of Ma-Maati-Manush at least in West Bengal has been well received by the public and banking on its ‘Bengal line’, the TMC is aiming for ‘Delhi Chalo’. Starting as a regional party the TMC is now dreaming big and has sufficient reasons to dream so. It is due to its experimental politics or people oriented politics (the TMC and its leader announces every policy, every decisions and every programme in the name of the public [Ma-Maati-Manush]) that it has gained such an important status in the context of coalition politics of India.

Politics as Usual: The Logic of Left Front

After reigning for over three decades the leaders, members and supporters of the Left Front were given a big jolt by the unexpected defeat, or in other words by the total demise of the regime in 2011 at the hands of the TMC and after nearly three years they are still trying to explore the reasons for that defeat instead of evolving new strategies to combat the TMC-(The former Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee quite often in public rallies in the recent past accepts their wrong strategies and policies like the incidents at Nandigram and Netai as reasons for their defeat creating more confusion in the party leadership.) Tension creeps in within the party (CPM) due to the very existence of the same leadership after such a defeat, which is also interpreted as a huge loss of face in the public space. (Very recently veteran leader Rezzak Molla has been expelled from the party for his continuous caustic critical comments on the working of the party and the existence of its leaders. Now even long time CPI-M leader Lakshman Sheth has snapped his ties with the party by not renewing his party membership and openly saluting the leadership quality of Mamata Banerjee.) Overall the main party of the Left Front, that is, the CPI-M, is still grappling with the whirlwind of change that engulfed it in 2011 with quite limited critical comments on the working of the present State incumbent (like during the economic embezzlement of the Saradha group, the untoward violent incidents against women in places like Park Street, Madhyamgram, Kamduni putting question on the law and order situation of the State, some casual comments of the Chief Minister and other leaders of the TMC and on the state of violence in educational campuses across the State) and somehow such criticisms have not come with the evolution of an alternative policy, programme or platform as against the existing incumbent party in power. The other Front members—CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc—continue with their own logic—politics as usual—criticising the dominance of the CPM but sticking with it for the sake of ‘larger interest of the Left Front’! In these parties also the party leadership has remained unchanged and the search is on for finding answers to the causes of the defeat in 2011.

In this context the Lok Sabha 2014 candidate selection for the 42 seats by the Left Front is termed as a ‘list of balance’ — a balance between women, youth and experience, Muslims and Hindus, SCs and STs. Out of the 42 candidates 12 are Muslims (from five in 2009 election and compared to six in the TMC list of 2014), 13 SCs/STs/OBCs (as against eight in the TMC list of 2014) and seven women (as against 12 in the TMC list of 2014). In this list the average age of the candidates is lower than 50 years with the youngest being Rinku Naskar (26 years in the Mathurapur constituency) and the oldest being Basudev Acharia from the Bankura constituency and also experienced leaders being Ashim Dasgupta (former State Finance Minister) in the Dum Dum constituency. The most important inclusion is of late Lakshmi Sehgal’s daughter, Subhashini Ali, from the Barrackpore constituency; she is not a resident of the State but reports say that due to inner-party feud between important leaders regarding the candidate selection Subhashini has been given the ticket for this seat. In the list of the Left Front preference has been given to represen-tatives from teacher-student-youth-labour organisations of the party that will be able to carry on the struggle in and out of Parliament for a just, social, humane economic and social order. In contrast to the inclination for popular film and cultural faces by the TMC, the Left Front remains within the safe cocoon of party ideology supporters, party members and party workers and party believers (while the TMC selected for Rajya Sabha nomination in 2014 popular Bengali and Indian film-star Mithun Chakraborty, a long-time associate of the Left Front, particularly of late CPI-M leader Subhas Chakroborty, the Left Front nominated its youth leader Ritobrata Bandyopadhyay who was reportedly involved in heckling the incum-bent State Finance Minister of West Bengal in New Delhi last year!). But going with its public image in Bengal—that party means politics—the list of candidates by the Left Front for the Lok Sabha 2014 from that logic gives credence to politics.

The Left Front, led by the CPI-M, is seen to be losing ground both in the State (as reflected by its continuous poor performance in the local-level elections and also a sense of defeat among the party workers as witnessed in the Assembly by-elections a couple of months ago in Nadia and Burdwan districts where the local leaders and supporters boycotted the elections anticipating their poor result) and at the national level. Prior to the Lok Sabha elections every time the Left Front starts to think afresh about the prospect of a Third Front but in 2014 their hope were nipped in the bud when Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK even after much talk dismissed the proposal to join the Third Front and reportedly it was because of the inconclusive seat-sharing conversations or non-conversations on the part of the Left Front leaders. Even the non-compromising attitude of the State party leadership to an erstwhile Left Front partner Samajwadi Party regarding conceding seats led to the end of the bonhomie of the Left Front with the Samajwadi Party at the State and national levels. Even at the State level an electoral alliance for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with the PDS got cancelled again on the seat- sharing issue.

The CPM-inspired Left Front is playing normal politics—taking strong and uncompro-mising positions to make its presence felt, searching for partners aiming to evolve an alternative from among parties that are ideolo-gically not in the same boat, having faith in the party structure and party leadership for bringing the desired change in the social order, and particularly in West Bengal looking for the ‘magic of the anti-incumbency wave’ to set in and the associated realisation of the public about their mistake in the State Assembly elections of 2011 and their desire to rectify it. So at least in West Bengal the Left Front, and particularly CPI-M, is looking toward the public to do the work for them, that is, to bring them back to power while the party sails in the messy waters of ‘politics as usual’. In their desire to continue the national party status, the Left Front led by the CPI-M is trying to be present everywhere—in the south, in west, in north and in east of the country—with the result that it is being reduced actually in terms of seats and vote percentage to a very localised party these days. So politics as usual has not yielded positive results for them but as of now they seem to be not interested in trying something new in terms of political or strategic line in the context of the coalition politics of India.

Politics of Survival: The Logic of Congress and BJP

 

The two national parties with their coalitions contending at the Centre for the magic figure of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha to govern the country at the end of the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014 are facing a tough situation in West Bengal. The Trinamul Congress has been an erstwhile coalition partner of both the Congress and BJP while the Left Front is an erstwhile coalition partner of the Congress. So in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal, the Congress has to fight it out against two erstwhile partners and one permanent antagonist (BJP). The BJP, on the other hand, has to fight against one erstwhile partner and two antagonists (Congress and the Left Front). Given that for quite some time it has been a battle between the Left Front and Trinamul Congress in the State, both the Congress and BJP are looking for ‘whatever comes by’ as an extra for their road to Delhi.

The Congress has been associated with the evolution of politics in Bengal being in power in the State most prominently under the leaderships of Bidhan Chandra Roy, Atulya Ghosh, Siddhartha Shankar Roy, among others. The Congress suffered its first and perhaps biggest setback in 1998 when the then State Youth Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, left the party to form a new one—the Trinamul Congress. Within a decade-and-a-half in the State the Trinamul Congress has mostly shattered the Congress base, particularly in South and Central Bengal, with pockets of North Bengal still under the original Congress party. Otherwise mostly the Congress leaders and supporters have switched sides to the Trinamul Congress and the move has been on the rise after the TMC-Congress alliance won the State Assembly elections in 2011. Although such shifts continued in the lower levels, leaders at the upper echelons of the Congress party got disgruntled with the reportedly haughty and uncompromising behaviour of the TMC and finally shed ties with the latter. Particularly in the Congress leaders like Adhir Chowdhury (the present State President) and Dipa Das-munshi were most vocal against the Trinamul Congress leadership and it was under the continued requests from them that the national party policy forum (CWC) agreed that the Congress will go without alliance with the TMC in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

On March 8, the first list of candidates was released by the Congress leadership and it shows seasoned Congress leaders getting tickets for various constituencies (only 17 seats were announced). Prominent among them are Sukhbilash Barma (Jalpaaiguri constituency), Dipa Dasmunshi (Raigunj constituency), Mousam Noor (Maldah, North), Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury (Maldah, South), Abhijit Mukhopadhyay (Jangipur), Adhir Chowdhury (Baharampur), Somen Mitra (Kolkata North). Very important State party leaders like Abdul Mannan and Manas Bhuiya were reluctant to join the electoral list but after the request of the Central party leadership they are now participating. Rahul Gandhi in his visit to the State also set out a negative campaign through the ‘blame game’—money from the Centre not utlised by the State Government—that was countered by the statement of the Chief Minister. In these Lok Sabha polls there are three things for the Congress to settle in the State—(i) that the Congress can survive without alliance and support of the TMC, (ii) that the spread of hard-core anti-TMC feeling under the leadership of Adhir Chowdhury is a key to survive in the State, (iii) that the leadership of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi at the national level with their associated economic and social policies is okay with the public at large. Though Rahul Gandhi gave a call for ‘change of change’ in these Lok Sabha elections (from the LF to the TMC and now from the TMC to the Congress), overall it is politics of survival rather than politics of success that is at the heart of the 2014 Lok Sabha election strategy for the Congress in the State.

Being a new and young entrant as an electoral power compared to the Congress and Left Front in the history of independent India and compared to the TMC in the history of West Bengal, the BJP started to fill in the vacuum created by the diminishing power of the Congress and the failure of the Third Front to sustain themselves at the Centre in 1996-98 and slowly the BJP became a power to reckon with in India’s coalitional politics under the successful completion of the full term by a coalition government under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Backed by its full tenure at the Centre, in 2004, both at the national level and in West Bengal, the BJP went to polls with much fanfare but it fared rather poorly. At the State level just a year-and-a-half before the 2004 elections the TMC shed its alliance with the BJP on the George Fernandes issue and in the 2004 elections the BJP fought alone in the State and secured one seat while in the 2009 polls its alliance with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha helped it to get one seat from the State.

In 2014 after nearly a decade the BJP is once again going for the national elections with a win-win mentality given the strong anti-incumbency factor against the ten years of UPA rule and also by the charismatic leadership of Narendra Modi projected as the prime ministerial candidate. As a result the list of candidates in West Bengal is full of celebrities like singers Babul Supriyo (Asansol consti-tuency), magician P.C. Sarkar (Barasat consti-tuency), actors like Geroge Baker (Howrah constituency) Nimu Bhowmick (Raigunj) and Joy Bandopadhyay (Birbhum), eminent columnist and political commentator Chandan Mitra (Hooghly constituency). State BJP party leaders like Tapan Sikdar (Dum Dum constituency), Tathagata Roy (Kokata South), Shamik Bhattacharya (Basirhat constituency), Rahul Singha (Kolkata North), K.D. Biswas (Bongaon constituency), Badsha Alam (Tamluk constituency) are also included in the list. Now even a diehard supporter of the BJP knows that it is extremely difficult to win seats in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections 2014. This is reflected in the fact that even famous singer Bappi Lahiri desired to contest from West Bengal but reportedly it was not happening as the State BJP leaders could not find a sure winnable seat before he was given the Sreerampur consti-tuency. In a last moment adjustment the BJP has aligned with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha for the Darjeeling constituency and also in the coming Assembly by-elections seat adjustment has been made with another group claiming separate State in North Bengal—the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation. Hence the main emphasis is on what extent they get the share of votes and whether based on the Modi factor the public at large vote for the BJP in one or two seats and that too by getting aligned with political forces claiming a separate State!. Again it is politics of survival tactics for the BJP— more of face-saving—rather than politics of gaining majority of votes.

Critical Comments on the Political Approach to Lok Sabha Elections

It is being argued in the psephology circles that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal are going to see a battle between unequals—with the TMC highly placed in the favourable position to win most of the seats followed by the Left Front and Congress. Some also anticipate that in this quadra-battle the Left Front can gain some extra seats to regain its stature in the State based on the anti-Left vote-sharing between the TMC, BJP and Congress. However, in the respective party circles all the four parties in question are keeping high hopes about their prospects in the coming polls.

Based on the latest trend of vote-division, my hunch is that the BJP in West Bengal will get two seats, Congress three, Left Front 18 and TMC 19. However, there could some change in the TMC’s favour in the last lap.

Keeping aside such arithmetic, if one ponders deep into the underlying political logic, especially of the TMC, one finds some interesting reflections that can be debated further as the elections come closer and even after the elections. What was the necessity for the TMC to bring in so many celebrities into the political arena? Do these celebrities truly represent the public and are they neutral or are they close to the TMC leadership? Is it a reflection of the sense in the TMC circles about the declining popularity of the TMC’s politics and marked TMC leaders that led them to fall back upon the popularity of these celebrities to win the elections? Even very recently Professor Sougata Ray, standing MP of the TMC from the Dum Dum constituency, urged party workers to pay back the CPI-M following the latter’s ways and means. Does this haughty comment from an otherwise decent TMC leader show that the TMC is fearful of winning the Lok Sabha elections if it relies on the ballot alone? Such questions arise not because one nurtures a negative attitude towards the TMC but out of a fear regarding the possibility of the creeping of such anti-political logic into the rank and file of an otherwise interesting new political party in our country like the TMC. The only political logic of such questions can be somewhat like this: the TMC is well aware that in a Lok Sabha election State-based anti-Left Front issues won’t be useful and anti-Congress sentiment is well spread and being cashed in by the BJP on a nationwide scale. So in this context the TMC wants to fall back more on the grandeur of the celebrities (even in New Delhi yesteryears’ film star Biswajit Chatterjee has been given a party ticket) rather than on issues and in the future local and State level elections it will bring back its own battalion of trusted party workers and leaders dedicated as they say for the cause of ‘Ma-Maati-Manush’ (mother-earth-people) rooted in specific State-based issues. It gives pleasure to see that the TMC is not becoming calculative in its steps. In other words surprises in its sleeves always make the functioning of the party meaningful and attractive and the TMC is treading that path.

Analytically critical this election may be for the TMC, but politically this election is critical mostly for the Left Front and its supporters. This is the first time after the 2011 Assembly elections that a major election is round the corner and the Opposition parties are divided among themselves. This opportunity must be used to the fullest by the Left Front leaders but do the leaders have that astute strategic mentality still left in them? In an informal discussion with a well-known young national leader who was expelled from the party but who still remains a diehard supporter of the Communist path—its ideology and programmes, an interesting revelation came which I think may be an exaggeration but in a sense it is spreading across the supporters of the Left Front (I’m not talking about party card holders) at present given the circumstantial evidence of decreasing popularity of the Left Front in the State (I’m not taking into account the recent increase in the breadth of the Left Front rallies mainly as per reports due to the public getting disgruntled by the acts of the ruling party in the State to some extent). This person said that only with the demise or disappearance of the present leadership that a new beginning can be made in the Left political strategy in the country. The onus is on the present leadership to prove this wrong. However, a readymade answer from party-members of the CPI-M reposing their trust on the present leadership [I’ve had informal discussions with some of them] is that three decades is a long time in which the party slowly became attuned to malpractices and three years is not long enough to redeem this error in the party-machinery as such and more time is needed by the leadership. It can also be said that because of the failure of the Left Front at the national level, that parties like the AAP are emerging hijacking the Leftists’ slogans and programmes. In this context, members or supporters or former members—all must look forward to the resurgence of the Left Front by becoming more contemporary in its policy proposals, through more decent and compassionate ways to approach the people for votes during campaigns, more prudent in coalition partner selection and by taking the correct political line to be a decisive factor at the Centre in the post-2014 elections and through that position rekindle the dim light of struggle for democracy, socialism and freedom in their own manner in West Bengal. As of now people, politics and parties are getting linked together for the Lok Sabha polls and it is on the nature of this mix that the West Bengal results for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be shaped.

Pratip Chattopadhyay is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Kalyani, West Bengal and can be reached at chatterjee23_pratip@yahoo.co.in