"Where is the need for a declaration of alliance? It has already taken place at the ground level. People forced us to join hands" - Ritabrata Banerjee, CPI(M) leader (second from left in pic)
Late in 2014, the CPI(M) celebrated its 50th year. But there was little cause for cheer. The party was in a mess. Electorally, it had lost two of its strongholds—West Bengal and Kerala. The party organisation, too, was a shambles, with the Polit Bureau having the last word on party and policy matters, instead of the central committee—its highest decision-making body. Members were forced to toe the party line, without due discussion or voting. Several leaders were expelled, without being given the chance to explain their side. The party control commission, which examines complaints regarding the functioning of the party, became a mere titular body.
Hence, a section of the CPI(M) leadership, especially from West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, decided to revisit its core philosophy—democratic centralism—where members would have the freedom to discuss and differ but would have to stand by the majority vote in the central committee. And, the philosophy was put into practice early in 2015 when it was time to elect the party general secretary. A section of the Polit Bureau wanted S. Ramachandran Pillai, its senior most member, to succeed Prakash Karat. But many leaders, especially in West Bengal, were in favour of Sitaram Yechury. The CPI(M) in Bengal didn't want a repeat of its 2011 defeat at the hands of the Trinamool Congress. So, by late 2014, the state unit was planning to ally with the Congress to counter Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. But state leaders knew they would need support from the top leadership for their plan to work. And, Yechury was their man as they thought he would understand their predicament. So, they put their might behind Yechury at the party congress in Visakhapatnam, where he was elected general secretary.
By mid last year, Bengal leaders had become vocal about an alliance with the Congress. The idea for the alliance was first mooted by Gautam Deb, a member of the central committee, in 2014 when the Saradha scam was making headlines. Months after the Lok Sabha elections, in which the BJP gained more than 17 per cent votes in Bengal, Deb reportedly told the state party leadership that voters would ditch the Trinamool Congress for another party if they found the right alternative. But CPI(M) on its own cannot be the right alternative, he said, and so should ally with the Congress. “Being a responsible party, we cannot let millions of people suffer because of the misrule of the Trinamool Congress,” he said. “We have to save the state.”
Though leaders in Delhi were not too happy with Deb's pro-Congress tilt, senior leaders in Bengal like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Biman Bose, Surya Kanta Misra and Mohammed Salim came out in support of Deb. Last month, Bhattacharjee publicly asked the Congress high command to take a stand on the alliance, which earned him the wrath of CPI(M) leaders in Delhi and Kerala. When the state committee met this month to discuss the alliance, some leaders from Burdwan and north Bengal opposed it. “I am really surprised to see some of the leaders going out of their way to have an alliance with the Congress,” said Amal Haldar, a leader from Burdwan. But little more than half of the 84 members of the state committee favoured an alliance with the Congress—a first in the history of the party.
But the likely backlash of such an alliance created a flutter down south. CPI(M) leaders in Kerala, where the Congress is in power, openly criticised the Bengal unit and its senior leaders. Leaders in Bengal, however, told the party’s central leadership that they either “respect the desire of the state committee or face the consequence”. Could the party then see a split? “If needed, it would. But we hope that the issue would not go to such an extent,” said a state committee member in Bengal.
However, a day before the Polit Bureau meeting on February 16, sources said the opposition to the alliance had mellowed out. Senior leaders from Kerala said their statements were “misconstrued”. “This is clearly an issue of our electoral tactics nationally. It has got nothing to do with division between Bengal and Kerala,” M.A. Baby, a Polit Bureau member, told THE WEEK. “Though we will give our views to the central committee and the Polit Bureau, such views can be modified. If we get educated by the views of the other side, we may modify or alter our own views.”
The CPI(M) leadership, therefore, is working on an alternative way out. And though it may not enter into a direct alliance with the Congress, it is definitely looking at a seat-sharing arrangement. “Even that would work,” said senior Congress leader Somendra Nath Mitra. “Let there be seat sharing at least. The situation will still go in our favour.” Mitra said the ground realities have left the two parties with little option. “If an alliance is not drawn up, we will not be able to post agents in 50 per cent of the booths in south Bengal. In the case of the CPI(M), the number would be around 80 per cent,” he said. “So, it is a matter of existence for both the parties.”
While working on a strategy, top leaders of the two parties have been jointly protesting against the Mamata government over the Saradha scam, the deteriorating law and order situation and violence at educational institutions. “Where is the need for a declaration of alliance? It has already taken place at the ground level,” said Ritabrata Banerjee, member of the Rajya Sabha and the CPI(M) state committee. “People forced us to join hands. We [have no option] but to listen to them.”