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How the Left could veer to the Congress

By T V R Shenoy
May 15, 2009 12:46 IST
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As far as the Left Front is concerned the magic number is 14. That, you see, is the number that signals danger to the Communist bastion in West Bengal.

The Communists are more or less reconciled to a sub-par performance in Kerala when the assembly election is due in 2011. If you look at the history of the state you shall see a revolving-door pattern as Congress-led and Communist Party of India-Marxist-led ministries exchange places. (The Left Democratic Front won in 1987, the United Democratic Front in 1991, the LDF in 1996, the UDF in 2001, and the LDF in 2006). And if that factor were not enough, well, you can always count upon Chief Minister Achuthanandan and party boss Pinarayi Vijayan to give additional reasons to spurn the Left.

The potential loss of Kerala gives an edge to the Marxist desperation to hang on to West Bengal. The Left Front swept the state in 2004, conceding only seven of the state's 42 two Lok Sabha seats. (The Congress won six, the Trinamool Congress ended up with a solitary seat.)

That was even better than in 1999, when the Trinamool Congress got eight seats, the Congress won three, and the Bharatiya Janata Party succeeded in two places. Going a little farther back, in 1998 the Trinamool Congress won seven seats with the Congress and the BJP each winning a single seat. And in 1996, the last election before Mamata Banerjee formed the Trinamool Congress, the Congress won nine seats.

The point is that the non-Left Front parties have collectively failed to win 14 seats, precisely one-third of West Bengal's 42 seats, for several elections. You have to go back all the way to the great sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi's assassination, in 1984, when the Congress did reasonably well, winning 16 seats. But that was under exceptional circumstances, and in any case 16 out of 42 is not exactly a gold medal performance. (The CPI-M on its own won 18 in 1984, and its partners picked up the rest.) Kerala's affections may waver but West Bengal has been steadfast.

So what is different this time? For one thing, the Congress leadership has done a fair job of patching up differences with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress. (Yes, there was conflict in plenty even before she walked out of the parent party.) I understand that the CPI-M and its junior partners are genuinely worried in the wake of the Nandigram and Singur crises; they fear that the Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance could pick up more than a third of the seats from West Bengal. And that in turn could lead to a snowball effect when the assembly elections are due two years from now.

The Marxists have already perceived the weakness in their opponents, that everything hinges on the Congress and the Trinamool Congress setting aside their differences. Banerjee may change her stance on any given issue seemingly at whim but there is one article of faith in her politics -- she is consistently against the Left Front. So what would happen should the CPI-M and the Congress come together in Delhi?

Even if you assume that it will lose half the seats it won in 2004, the Left Front will be sitting pretty on a handy chunk of seats.

Whether it wins 30 seats, 50 seats, or anything between is irrelevant; the point is that the Congress shall be desperate for support if there is a reasonable chance of forming a government.

Should that happen then you can be equally certain of Banerjee breaking with the Congress. After all, she created the Trinamool Congress precisely because she thought the Congress high command had reduced the local unit to becoming the 'CPI-M's B-Team.'

The CPI-M's West Bengal unit is all set to sacrifice ideological purity to save itself. The Left Front will thus offer support to the Congress in Delhi in the calculation that this shall shatter the anti-Left alliance in West Bengal. And once that happens, the Left Front is assured of retaining power in the state.

Please note that Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made the first move even before the last phase of polling. The chief minister of West Bengal spoke publicly of a 'meaningful role' in the next Union government.

He did not speak explicitly about a Congress-CPI-M coalition but everybody understood the thrust of his remarks. An excuse will not be hard to find, the Left and the Congress can always come together under the cloak of 'secularism'.

Who else might join this grouping? How about that new ally of the CPI-M's, namely J Jayalalithaa? The price of her support, it goes without saying, would be the Congress pulling the carpet from under Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ministry in Tamil Nadu.

The antipathy between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the DMK is mirrored in the antagonism between the CPI-M and the Trinamool Congress. If the Congress-Trinamool Congress wins one-third of the seats from West Bengal, the Marxists will cynically exploit Banerjee's feelings, rushing to join hands with a power-hungry Congress in order to shatter the anti-Left coalition in West Bengal.

Some pieces have to fall in place before the Left Front puts the plan into operation. The Congress has to win substantially more seats than the BJP yet still fall well short of a majority. Enough Congressmen have to be greedy, or desperate, enough for power that they will break their alliances with the DMK and the Trinamool Congress rather than sit in the Opposition. Above all, the Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance has to do well enough in West Bengal for alarm bells to go off in the CPI-M headquarters.

The Marxists are reluctantly reconciling themselves to losses in Kerala. But they are also putting together a Plan B to ensure that they do not lose West Bengal as well. Will the Congress fall into the trap?

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T V R Shenoy