Mounted on a white open-hood jeep on a sultry April evening in the industrial town of Kanchrapara, Biman Bose, the 78-year-old CPI (M) veteran and chairman of the Left Front committee of West Bengal, sported a wide grin – a rare gesture from him – as his vehicle moved through a sea of red flags.
Very few in the town remember when was the last time they saw such a mammoth procession being taken out in the Barrrackpore parliamentary constituency by a Left party – not in the past eight years for sure.
A similar riot of red flags painted with crossed hammer and sickle was seen at Nalhati last week at an election rally of Rejaul Karim, the Left Front-nominated CPI (M) candidate from Birbhum Lok Sabha constituency (polling to which was held on April 29).
Earlier this month, the CPI (M)’s office in East Midnapore’s Nandigram – considered the Waterloo of the Left Front in Bengal – was reopened after 12 long years.
The party office, Sukumar Sen Gupta Bhawan, was deserted in 2007 after it was vandalised and set ablaze by agitating villagers protesting against the then Left Front government’s bid to acquire 10,000 acres of land for a chemical hub and a special economic zone to be developed by the Indonesia-based Salim Group.
The Left is making its presence felt and its rallies in other constituencies are drawing reasonably good crowds, despite being squeezed between its rivals – the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP.
That the Left is not yet dead in Bengal was also felt in its rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground in February this year, just before the poll bugle was sounded. The crowd at the meeting surpassed all expectations, even that of the most-seasoned apparatchiks.
These are undoubtedly glad tidings for supporters of the Left Front in the election season and a good enough reason for the otherwise glum Biman Bose to grin. More so, given the steady decline in the vote share of the Left parties in the past few elections in the state. In the 2014 general elections, the Left Front had managed to secure only 29 per cent of the votes polled and just two Lok Sabha seats of the 42 in the state. In the 2016 Assembly elections, its vote share further dropped to 20 per cent — a massive fall for the conglomerate that ruled the state for 34 years until 2011.
Besides the CPI (M), the other key members of the 10-party Left Front are the All-India Forward Bloc (AIFB), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI).
The seasoned politician that he is, Bose knows that crowds in rallies do not automatically translate into votes. Moreover, it’s not so easy for the Left to undo the reverses it suffered in the recent past.
But the significance of the vast crowds at Left rallies is also not lost on him. “It would be hard to judge from here the bearing of this [huge turnout] on elections. As of now, I can only say people are not turning their faces away from us,” Bose said, aptly summing up the political trend.
Challenges before the Left
A large section of the people in the state are not happy with the performance of the TMC government, but they are also not very comfortable with the BJP’s brand of Hindutva politics. These are the people who, the Left Front leaders think, could veer towards them and are flocking their meetings.
To convert these potential supporters into votes, the party needs a well-oiled machinery. But faced with a leadership crisis, an exodus of cadres to the ruling TMC and a resurgent BJP, and battered in every elections since 2011, the Left Front is now finding it difficult to even rope in polling agents in many booths.
It lacks funds needed for the smooth running of the vote-catching election machinery. Most of its candidates rely on crowdfunding to finance their campaigns.
“Communism as an ideology has lost its charm across the world. Young people are no longer attracted towards communism and so the Left parties are left with ageing leaders to hold their crumbling fort in Bengal,” says author and political commentator Subir Bhaumik, who has extensively reported on West Bengal politics for the BBC for years.
The middle-class aspirational Bengalis, too, turned away from the Left Front because of the CPI (M)’s reluctance to share power at the Centre, he adds. In electoral democracy, Bhaumik says, this kind of unwillingness to share power at the Centre is a ‘hara-kiri’ of sorts.
Agreeing with Bhaumik’s contention, a senior CPI (M) leader admitted that many comrades who had left the party of late also expressed similar views.
Another challenge for the front is to regain its lost ground in rural Bengal and among the minorities. The TMC, with its slew of populist schemes and pro-farmer land policy, is trying its best to ensure that these people don’t go back to the Left.
Window of opportunities
Lack of employment opportunities, a dip in farm income, job cuts and rise of communal forces in the state have surely provided some window of opportunities to the Left parties that are struggling to remain relevant in Bengal politics.
The employment rate in the state (per 1,000 people) is 49, according to the fifth annual employment-unemployment survey (2018–19) of the Labour and Employment Ministry.
As of 2017, West Bengal had 15 million unorganised sector workers, mainly in labour-intensive industries, with construction at the forefront. With a slowdown in construction following demonetisation and new real-estate regulations, many of these workers lost their jobs.
In the past few years, the state has witnessed several communal riots, which was a rare phenomenon during the Left regime.
Bose, while recently campaigning for Gargi Chatterjee, the CPI (M) candidate from Barrackpore, highlighted the plight of the unorganised labourers and farmers. But whether such empathy will convince them to vote for the Left parties is a different story altogether.
As Bose’s jeep moved forward, his comrades shouted: Lodai, lodai lodai… bachte hole lodte hobe (struggle, struggle, struggle…To survive has to keep struggling).
Perhaps, in that slogan lies the survival mantra for the once-formidable Left Front in West Bengal.