A few months before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu was hospitalised because of an indisposition. A concerned Sonia Gandhi, who was readying the Congress poll machinery to take on the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, flew down to Kolkata to visit the ailing communist stalwart. It was a time when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was supremely confident of returning to power at the Centre. But Basu told Sonia to prepare well, as he was certain that the BJP would lose the election. He had another piece of advice for the Congress president: “Improve your Hindi. If you want to get votes in the Hindi heartland, you have to speak to voters in their language.” It is debatable how much Sonia improved her Hindi, but Basu was spot on about the election result.
Twelve years down the line, when an electoral partnership between the CPI(M) and the Congress in Bengal suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress on May 19, many in the CPI(M) missed Basu. The alliance failed not only to stop Mamata, but also to arrest the erosion of the CPI(M)'s vote base. In fact, the party got fewer seats than the Congress, which has now become the main opposition party.
Obviously, the CPI(M) was clueless about the pulse of the people. All senior party leaders had declared that the alliance would surely come to power in Bengal. “We failed to understand the 15 per cent voters of Bengal who silently voted for the Trinamool Congress. We accept the defeat,” said CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra.
The defeat did not come without warning. Many senior leaders were sceptical about the merits of the alliance with the Congress. Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front, had strongly advised against “any joint campaign”. And, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar had cautioned it would benefit only the Congress. But then, the party did not have much of a choice, and the alliance looked good on paper.
But, it failed to overcome Mamta's popularity. Experts might have reservations about her development model. But she at least had a model, and she played to the gallery. She gave bicycles to youths, bangles to girls and school uniforms to students. And, she built roads and bridges all over the state using the money from the 14th Finance Commission and other grants. “I must say she did a cosmetic change in Bengal rather than the changes Bengal needed,” said economist Amal Mukherjee. “Illuminating streets, freebies or temporary road constructions here and there are all cosmetic changes. One could not accept such a development model.”
But it is this model that earned her votes. The government's massive pro-poor measures were a big hit. And the Narendra Modi government’s 'look east policy' ensured enough funds. Modi increased the allocations to the state by around 4 per cent in 2014. In 2015, he almost doubled it. Mamata spent it well.
Lok Sabha member Sultan Ahmad, who is Mamata's adviser on minority issues, said the money always helped. “But our chief minister had planned the work well in advance,” he added.
A major reason for the Trinamool Congress's good show is the continuing support of Muslims. The communist agitations in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Jadavpur University in Kolkata did little to improve the CPI(M)'s relationship with Muslims in the state. In fact, the Congress fared better among Muslims, sweeping the districts of Malda and Murshidabad.
Interestingly, the support of Muslims did not alienate Hindus from the Trinamool Congress. “That is the biggest achievement of Mamata. She received the Muslim votes, but on the other hand, she maintained such a relationship with the BJP that it helped her get Hindu votes as well,” said Ashok Chakarborty, a political science lecturer in Kolkata.
Ahmad, however, interpreted it in a different way. He said all sections of society were impressed by Mamata's programmes like rural electrification, road construction and distribution of drinking water. “She travelled to rural districts 105 times in the last five years. Tell me how many chief ministers have done it. Muslims in Bengal don’t vote on religious lines. They vote for performance. The left used to have a huge Muslim vote bank but they did nothing for the community,” he said.
Ahmad admitted that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had gained ground in Bengal. “But that is not because of us. It had always been there in Bengal. It got energised because of the BJP government in Delhi,” he said. The BJP won three seats in the election.
Mamata said she had received congratulatory calls from Modi and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Is there something going on between her party and the BJP? “I am ideologically opposed to the BJP,” she said. “But for the sake of functioning, we will give issue-based support to the Central government.”
Mamata has promised that she would bring big-ticket investment to Bengal. “Just wait and see; I will speed up the development more aggressively,” she said. Ironically, attracting investment was the CPI(M)-Congress alliance's election plank.
None of the corruption charges the opposition raised against Mamata—from Saradha scam to Narada expose—worked. But the voters did not spare her ministers—eight of them lost. It shows Bengal voted for Mamata, rather than her government. “No leader in Bengal today can match her,” said Ahmad. “She understands people and people understand her.”
On the Congress-CPI(M) allianceIt is without ethics and morality.
On supporting the Congress in future They have closed the door by aligning with the CPI(M).
On the corruption charges against her partymen People gave them fitting reply for running such a malicious campaign against my party.
On bringing more investment Yes, that is what we will work for. I will make Bengal the greatest state in India.