Bhawanipore bypoll exposes Cong-Left fault lines

While the Congress does not want to oppose Mamata Banerjee, the Left sees it as aiding the BJP

The by-election to the Bhawanipur (Bhabanipur) Assembly segment in Kolkata, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is all set to contest, will test the strength of the five-year electoral Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal.

Differences in the alliance have come out in open on whether to field a candidate against the Chief Minister who will be seeking re-election from the constituency she represented in 2011 and 2016.

The electoral experiment of the Samyukt Morcha, where the Left and Congress tied up with the Indian Secular Front, failed miserably in the 2021 Assembly polls — neither the Left nor the Congress could win a single seat for the first time in several decades.

Leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha and West Bengal Pradesh Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has made it clear that he is not in favour of putting up any candidate against Mamata Banerjee.

“The Trinamool Congress won the Assembly elections with a huge mandate and Mamata Banerjee has been elected Chief Minister. Elections at Bhawanipur are a foregone conclusion. Bhawanipur has been our seat and I do not see any rationale behind putting candidate against the Chief Minister,” Mr. Chowdhury told The Hindu.

As a part of electoral understanding with the Left, the Congress had fielded candidates at Bhawanipur in 2016 and 2021 Assembly polls. In 2021, Congress has fielded Md. Shadab Khan as the candidate of Samyukt Morcha from Bhawanipur who secured 5,211 votes, 4.09 % of the total votes polled.

A section of the Congress leadership in Delhi has always backed Ms Banerjee and with Mr. Chowdhury, five-time Lok Sabha MP from Baharampur and among the most vocal critics of Ms Banerjee, taking a soft stand, questions are being raised on the future of the Left-Congress alliance.

Narrowing voters’ options

Several leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are, however, of the opinion that if the alliance does not field a candidate against the Chief Minister, it would send a wrong message to the party supporters.

“There is no question of backing out from the fight. We cannot allow it to be TMC-BJP contest,” former Minister and senior CPI(M) leader Asok Bhattacharya said. The veteran leader said if the Left and Congress do not contests then all the anti-TMC votes would go to the BJP.

Mr. Bhattacharya is the leader credited with having first brought the Left and Congress together in an attempt to keep TMC out of power at Siliguri Municipal Corporation in 2015. The two parties had entered into electoral alliance in 2016 Assembly polls and contested 2019 Lok Sabha Polls and 2021 Assembly polls together. However, with every election, the vote share of both the parties has dropped further.

“Victory has many parents and defeat is an orphan. One can come up with various reasons for our defeat, an alliance with Congress, the setting up of Samyukt Morcha,” CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb said.

Like Mr Bhattacharya, Mr Deb also said the Left parties are not agreeable to the idea of not putting a candidate against Ms. Banerjee. As far as the alliance with Congress is concerned, both veterans of the State CPI(M) said it would be premature to say anything. The CPI(M) is likely to discuss the issue at its State Committee meeting on June 18 and June 19. Even five weeks after the poll results, the Left leadership and Congress have not come together to discuss on what led to the dismal results.

Widening rift

A section of hardliners in the CPI(M) are already raising the issue that the vote share of Left parties has plummeted despite electoral alliance with the Congress and thus there is no rationale to continue the alliance anymore.

All Indian Forward Bloc State Secretary Naren Chatterjee, who held a press conference in Kolkata on Saturday was more direct and said the time was right that Left parties should rely on their own strength and break electoral ties with Congress.

‘If we had pressurized before the elections and wanted the Left Front to severe ties with Congress, then we would have been blamed for defeat. The AIFB has been opposed to any alliance with Congress from the start,” Mr Chatterjee said.

Political observer Biswanath Chakraborty said with the near decimation of the Congress from minority dominated regions of Malda and Murshidabad for the West Bengal Congress and its leaders there is little hope but to warm up to Trinamool Congress. “The Congress leaders might be hoping that there is a possibility of a Congress -TMC alliance in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls against the BJP,” he said.

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