The anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram and Singur led by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee further eroded its vote bank in rural Bengal. In 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Left suffered a set back for the first time as its tally dropped to 15 in the state.
Once a formidable force in West Bengal politics, the CPI(M)-led Left Front will be fighting one of its toughest political battles in this Lok Sabha polls to prove its political and electoral existence in the state. The Left Front which had ruled the state for 34 long years since 1977 is now just a shadow of its past. Faced with steady erosion of its vote bank, leadership crisis and exodus of cadres to the ruling TMC and resurgent BJP, it struggles to hold on to its ground with the saffron party replacing it as the main opposition to the ruling party. As the state probably faces a four cornered contest among the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the BJP, the Left Front and the Congress, the Left would fight a lone battle.
“This election indeed will be one of our toughest political battles in Bengal. We had never thought that we would be in such a position in state politics. We hope things will change in the days to come once people realise that only the Left, and not the BJP, can provide an alternative to the TMC,” CPI(M) politburo member Hannan Mollah told PTI. “It is a fight to prove our political and electoral existence and hold ground against the BJP. It’s true that you can’t wipe out the Left, but at the same time you need to be electorally significant to make your voice heard in parliamentary politics,” another senior CPI(M) leader said.
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Besides the CPI(M), the 10-party Left Front has All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Communist Party of India (CPI) as its key constituents which contest Lok Sabha polls in the state. The CPI(M), as well as the Left Front, has won only two of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2014 polls. The Left Front had initiated a seat sharing deal the Congress but the talks failed at the last moment and both the sides decided to go it alone. “Had we been able to clinch the seat-sharing deal, results in various seats would have been different. We could have been a more credible secular alternative to the TMC,” CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty said. Party insiders said, after the failure of seat sharing dialogues, the CPI(M) is at its wits end on how to retain its two seats.
Over the years, the party has lost its vote bank of the minorities and rural Bengal to the TMC and refugee vote bank to the BJP. Adding to its woes, the present Left leadership lacks the dynamism of Jyoti Basu and former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who despite being ill is still the tallest leader of the CPI(M) and the Left in Bengal. According to an internal party report, the CPI(M) does not have organisation to arrange for polling agents in at least 30 per cent of the 77,000 polling stations of the state. “Being in power for three long decades probably led to decay in our organisation.
Had we lost once and returned to power during this period, the situation could have been better,” Mollah said. Major party programmes of the Left Front, like its Brigade Parade Ground rally last month, still attract a large number of workers and supporters but that success could not be translated into votes. As the CPI(M) with its depleted strength fights to retain its ground, it also helplessly watches TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee taking over its earlier role of uniting the opposition forces against the BJP. The slide of the CPI(M) in Bengal is quite astonishing given the fact of its long history of mass movements during the ’60s and ’70s.
Over the years since Independence, the Left has witnessed a steady growth in the state. The undivided communist party, the CPI, became the main opposition party in the state after the 1952 general and assembly polls with Jyoti Basu becoming Leader of opposition. In 1964, after the split in the party over ideological issues and formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the latter outsmarted the CPI to establish itself as the prime Left force in West Bengal. During the tumultuous days of Naxalite movement, the CPI(M) along with the Bangla Congress, a splinter group of the Congress, formed two short lived governments in the state in 1967 and 1969.
The party under the leadership of Basu and Promode Dasgupta has become an alternative to the Congress in Bengal. After the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power in 1977, its key programmes ‘Operation Barga’ – giving land to landless farmers which benefited lakhs including Muslims – and setting up of three-tier pancahayat system cemented its support base among the minorities and the rural Bengal. These two vote banks turned to be blank cheques for the Left for next three decades to win one elections after another in the state. In the 1980 general elections, the Left Front won 38 seats in the state – its highest tally in West Bengal – and since then, its vote percentage hovered around 50 per cent in the subsequent polls. The Left Front in 1996 and 2004 with its bloc of 33 and 34 MPs respectively, played a deciding factor in the government formation.
But things started falling apart for the Left Front after the Sachar Committee report in 2008 painted a dismal picture on the condition of minorities in the state. The anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram and Singur led by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee further eroded its vote bank in rural Bengal. In 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Left suffered a set back for the first time as its tally dropped to 15 in the state.
With the fall of the Left Front government in 2011, it came down to an all time low of just two seats in 2014 when it polled 29 per cent votes. Since 2016 assembly polls, vote percentage of the Left dropped below 20 per cent in by-elections and panchayat polls. On the Left’s downfall, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said people have lost faith in its “obsolete policies” during the 34-year-long “misrule”. TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee felt that people have rejected the Left as they think the TMC is the only secular and democratic force to take on BJP.