Decimation of an Empire: Understanding the Left Front’s Debacle in West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021


As the counting of the West Bengal Assembly elections progressed in the morning of 2nd May, it didn’t take much time for one to understand that the Sanjukta Morcha (United Front) was heading towards a debacle. At the end of the day, the Morcha managed to win only a single seat in Bhangar constituency that went in favour of Noushad Siddique of the Indian Secular Front (ISF). The once formidable Left and the Congress were reduced to zero in the assembly elections for the first time since independence. The people of Bengal gifted a landslide victory to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) headed by Mamata Banerjee with the party gaining two more seats (213) than what it had got in the 2016 assembly elections (211). The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the main opposition after bagging 76 odd seats.

The results also meant that for the first time since independence, there won’t be a single member in the Bengal legislative assembly representing the Left front. The election results proved to be a disaster for the parties that composed the Left front- CPI(M), CPI (Communist Party of India), AIFB (All India Forward Bloc) and RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party). The results didn’t come as a shocker as almost all the opinion and exit polls that was conducted by professional agencies had predicted that the United Front would be able to get a maximum of 20-25 seats but none expected that Left Front’s tally would be reduced to zero. Even heavyweight leaders like Md. Salim ended up in third position behind TMC and BJP. One must note that while the Left in Bengal performed so poorly, the Left in Kerala created history by winning two successive terms after 40 years. So what exactly went wrong in Bengal, this article will discuss the reasons that are responsible for the Left’s disastrous results where they could manage to get only 5% of the votes polled in a state that was ruled by them for a record 34 years.

Alliance with ISF Proved to be a Tactical Blunder

The biggest mistake that was committed by CPI (M) was to include the newly born Indian Secular Front (ISF), a conglomeration of different parties that tended to represent the oppressed Muslims, Dalits and Adivasi sections of rural population. The ISF was headed by a Muslim cleric of the Furfura Sharif shrine known as Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui. Many had touted that this alliance of Left-Congress-ISF would ultimately become the kingmaker in the recently concluded assembly elections if no party is able to gain absolute majority or the magic figure of 148 seats. Such a hype was based on the assumption that the ISF would be able to cancel out the advantage of Mamata Banerjee when it comes to gaining the votes of the rural Muslim population. The popularity of Abbas Siddiqui became evident in the Brigade parade ground rally of 28th February.

Now that the results of the elections are out, it needs no saying that this alliance has failed to attract the voters on any count. The reason for this failure is the lack of foresight on the part of the Left leaders who thought that the inclusion of ISF would provide them the much-needed oxygen in the elections where almost 50% of the voting population was composed of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and members of SC/ST community. Pirzada was never the face of the rural Muslim population with no political background whatsoever. The theory that his popularity as a cleric would lure the Muslim population to vote for the candidates of the alliance proved to be wrong. In other words, the Muslims totally rejected the narrative created by Siddiqui that so far, they had been used as nothing but a vote bank and under his leadership genuine empowerment of the minorities will take place. Siddiqui’s acceptance as a political leader was next to zero as the Muslims never thought him capable of representing their interests in the political arena. There were even allegations against Siddiqui of misappropriating funds of the Furfura Sharif shrine. Members of his extended family never supported him as they remained committed to Mamata Banerjee.

Moreover, Siddiqui’s regressive speeches about women didn’t help him and the alliance at all. The widely circulated video of his speech about TMC MP Nusrat Jahan proved how conservative he was when it came to a woman’s agency to act independently. Allying with the ISF generated three negative outcomes for the Left, firstly their principled stand on communalism got compromised in a bid to encroach upon the minority vote bank of Mamata Banerjee. Alliance with a fundamentalist and regressive Muslim cleric was the last thing that the supporters and workers of the Left could have asked for. Secondly, Abbas Siddiqui’s regressive speeches about women meant that the Muslim women would never have differentiated him from the BJP leaders who had promised to create anti-Romeo squads had they come to power. Thirdly, Abbas Siddiqui’s entry into the Left led alliance accounted for polarization of the voters on religious lines with a considerable section of the Hindu votes shifting in favour of BJP.

Lack of a Coherent Strategy and Strong Leadership

What the Left lacked most was a coherent strategy and the vision of a strong leadership. It is true that the youth wing of the Left parties had done a lot of hard work during the lockdown period and provided much needed basic amenities to the people but the leaders of the parties failed to showcase or publicize it efficiently. Almost in all the public rallies of the Left Front parties, the main target of criticism was Mamata Banerjee and her party TMC. The arguments  of a BJP-TMC informal tie up and branding them as ‘Bijemool’ didn’t go down well with the people who have given a massive anti-BJP mandate in favour of TMC. The Left reserved only a fraction of their criticism for BJP, whom the people of Bengal have considered to be the greater evil. Even in the 2016 assembly elections the Left didn’t gain much by constantly attacking TMC on the charges of corruption i.e., the Sarada and Narada scams instead of providing any viable alternative themselves and this time too they repeated the same mistake by indulging in personal attacks against various leaders and the CM herself when she got injured in an unfortunate accident while campaigning for the elections in Nandigram. Several leaders of the Left front accused Mamata Banerjee of ‘playacting’ to garner the sympathy of the voters.

Another mistake committed by the Left and especially the CPI (M) was not to extend support to the No Vote to BJP campaign which has obviously proved to be of great significance in convincing the voters that BJP is the biggest threat to the peace and development of this state. The intransigence of the Left parties to support the campaign proved to be fatal to their electoral fortunes. The message that went to the common people was quite clear, the Left was again lobbying to oust TMC from power and helping BJP in their cause of ruling Bengal for the first time in history.

In a bid to promote fresh faces, the Left fielded candidates like Minakhi Mukherjee (Nandigram) and Srijan Bhattacharya (Singur) in constituencies where they had no chance at all due to the presence of heavyweight candidates of the opposition and their polarization tactics. The young turks of the Left had no connection with the ground realties of these constituencies at all. When it comes to leadership, it needs no saying that the Left, Congress or ISF didn’t have any leader in their ranks who can challenge the stature and match the appeal of Mamata Banerjee. The ageing leadership and their so-called experience wasn’t of much help.

Complete Disconnect with the Party Workers and Factions Within the Alliance

One more reason for such a dismal performance of the Left parties was the lack of coherent messaging to the grass root level workers from the leaders. Many workers of the Left parties had expressed their anguish over the alliance with ISF but the leaders turned a deaf ear to it and now they are not even willing to accept their failure. One wonders what logic actually propelled the Left leaders (with huge political experience) to invite a newly born party led by a communal cleric into an electoral alliance that was formed just a month before the elections started. The main architect of this alliance- the CPI (M) never bothered to know whether  the other Left parties like AIFB, CPI and RSP were on board. A month’s time is not enough to convey to the common people as well as to the party workers the benefits of the alliance with ISF. The Morcha didn’t even have a Common Minimum Program (CMP).

There were even factions within the alliance as the Congress was not at all willing to share seats with ISF and during the Brigade parade ground rally, Abbas Siddiqui even attacked the Congress on this ground. The alliance was never a united house, the Left leaders were became so elated with the entry of Abbas Siddiqui in the Brigade rally that they even asked Adhir Chowdhury, the State Congress President and Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha to cut short his speech and allow Siddiqui to address the crowd. The workers of Left even questioned the alliance with Congress, when these two parties had failed to put up a united fight against the BJP and TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Such inconsistencies were never addressed by the leaders of the Left leaders and their viewpoints never percolated down to the workers at the ground level.

Dole Policy and Bohiragoto Narrative

Apart from all these failures and mistakes on the part of Left parties, one must not forget the role played by Mamata Banerjee aided by her poll strategist Prashant Kishore in pricking the Bangaliyana sentiment of the Bengalis. The narrative of Bohiragoto was a huge hit and the Left’s ploy of sticking to basic issues of the people which was reflected through their slogans didn’t provide any electoral dividend as such. The lethal combination of dole tactics (that was provided to different sections of the population belonging to a range of identities) and the constant promotion of the Bengali sentiment proved to be formidable enough for Mamata Banerjee and the Left simply had no answer to it.

It is high time that the Left starts evaluating the mistakes committed by them and start the process of rectification. It is due to these mistakes that the Left has failed to promote themselves as a credible alternative to the common masses in these elections where they could have attained a high moral ground had they fought alone. They have already lost the support of the peasant class after the Singur and Nandigram agitations and now they have diluted their strong stand on communalism too. Hence, a lot needs to be done in order to rejuvenate the morale of the party workers and supporters.

The first and foremost priority is to win back the lost ground that has been conceded to BJP and build a strong organization where decisions should be taken unanimously and not arbitrarily. The morale of the party workers needs to be boosted. Many have seeked refuge in the BJP camp to flee the atrocities of TMC, these party workers should be brought back immediately. Secondly, the Left should continue promoting the young faces who contested in this election as they have been able to increase the vote share of the Left (though not significantly) in the constituencies in which they fought and thirdly, the Left parties have to become more inclusive when it comes to addressing the issues of women, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis. The people belonging to all these identities have their own set of problems that cannot be resolved through the singular model of class exploitation. On the birth centenary of the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Roy, it becomes appropriate to sum up the condition of the Left by borrowing the title of two popular films directed by him, if the Left remains Seemabaddha (limited) to their ideology and party line then it would cease to be a Pratidwandi (competitor) in all the upcoming elections just like this one.

Dhritiman Mukherjee, PhD Research Scholar, Presidency University, Kolkata.



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