IN a political development that is bound to have a major impact on the upcoming Assembly election in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress on February 16 announced an electoral understanding with the Indian Secular Front (ISF), which was recently floated by the influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. If the new alliance works out, it will upset several political equations ahead of the election. It may turn out to be a cause for concern for the ruling Trinamool Congress, which is hoping to shake off the challenge posed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and return to power for a third consecutive term.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, State Congress president and Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, said: “At the time the Left and the Congress were negotiating the seat-sharing arrangement, certain new political equations emerged like the Indian Secular Front… who have expressed the necessity to tie up with the Left-Congress alliance. For that reason, we have set aside some seats for them.” He said that the support for the Left-Congress partnership is growing in West Bengal. “An impression was created that the fight would be between the BJP and the Trinamool; but now people are saying the fight will be between the BJP, the Trinamool, and the Left-Congress alliance,” he said.
The seat-sharing arrangement is being worked out. According to the Left and the Congress, as of February 16, the tie-up has been firmed up for 193 out of the State’s 294 seats. According to sources privy to the seat-sharing discussions, Siddiqui has demanded 70 seats. However, he may have to be content with 40 or 50 seats. The Left and the Congress are also in talks with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
This development has been brewing practically from the time Siddiqui formed the ISF on January 21 and made clear his opposition to both the Trinamool and the BJP. At the time of the formation of his party, the charismatic Islamist leader claimed that his party would uphold the cause of Muslims, Dalits, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other “socially and economically backward Hindus”. His secular stance immediately opened the doors of communication with the Left-Congress combine, even though ISF theoretically threatened to divide the Muslim votes that the Left and the Congress were hoping to wean away from the Trinamool.
At a recent rally Siddiqui said: “If the Left-Congress and our party can get together for the 2021 Assembly election, then we may be able to form the government. I want to enter into a seat-sharing understanding with them… The BJP is coming to Bengal in 2021. Now it is up to you whether you want to stop them at 120 or 130 seats or just gift them 200 seats.” However, Siddiqui also made it clear in his speech that it was an understanding only for the election and nothing more. “After 2021, we will take our revenge on them [Left-Congress] as well, because they too have harassed us. I am speaking the truth, whether they [Left-Congress] will come after this I do not know; but at this moment, I want to enter into a seat-sharing understanding.”
Siddiqui’s words betrayed the fragile nature of the “understanding” with the Left-Congress combine should it ultimately come about. There is also the issue of the combine’s reluctance to enter into any kind of alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) – an old partner of Siddiqui’s. In January this year, Owaisi met Siddiqui and proclaimed his unconditional support for him. “I will do whatever he [Abbas Siddiqui] tells me,” he said. Now, it is a catch-22 situation. The Left-Congress combine stands to lose credibility if it continues in the alliance in spite of the presence of the AIMIM, which it has consistently labelled as an “agent” of the BJP. Siddiqui risks losing the support of the State’s Muslims if he severs his ties with Owaisi for the sake of keeping the Left-Congress alliance happy. However, Syed Zameerul Hasan, AIMIM leader from Bengal, told Frontline: “We do not think Abbas Siddiqui will accept the terms of the alliance without the AIMIM. He has already made that clear. As of now [February 16] the alliance between the AIMIM and the ISF is very much there.”
There is also a chance of Siddiqui’s tie-up with the Left-Congress combine foundering over seat-sharing. Siddiqui told his supporters on February 17: “You know that there is talk of an understanding with the Left-Congress. Until the talks are formalised, I am forbidding my supporters to go to any of their rallies.”
TROUBLE FOR TRINAMOOL
For Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress, the development is a serious cause for concern. With the BJP breathing down its neck in an already-polarised scenario, retaining its Muslim votes is of vital importance for the ruling party. Muslims account for over 27 per cent of the population in the State and are a determining factor in 130 Assembly constituencies. In the last 10 years, Mamata Banerjee was assured of their support. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, her party had a lead in 98 Assembly segments, and was ahead in 81 per cent of the segments in which the Muslim population numbered between 40 and 90 per cent (around 74). A unification of the Left-Congress and the ISF may well draw a substantial section of Muslims, who of late have been showing signs of disenchantment with Mamata Banerjee and her government.
The Trinamool leadership has been dismissive of this development. Senior party leader and Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy said: “The Left and the Congress are clinging to each other just to survive. But still they will remain a weak third force in the State. The Trinamool will win, the BJP will come second. It is not triangular fight.”
According to the well-known political commentator Biswanath Chakraborty, both Siddiqui and the Left-Congress at present need each other. “Siddiqui’s supporters are being targeted by the Trinamool. He needs the backing of the Left-Congress to put up a resistance. Siddiqui has mass support but no organisation. With the established organisation of the Left-Congress aiding him, the trio will definitely cut into the Muslim votes of the Trinamool. In fact, if the tie-up works out, then there is a possibility of the Trinamool not crossing even three digits in the coming elections.”
The BJP views the development as a welcome break. It feels a division of Muslim and other anti-BJP votes between its two opponents will give it a pronounced advantage. Joyprakash Majumdar, State vice president and head of the party’s political analysis department, told Frontline: “The mask these so-called secular parties were wearing for so long has now come off. On the one hand, the Left-Congress combine is tying up with militant Islamist parties, and on the other hand it is also being offered a proposal for a tie-up with the Trinamool just to keep the BJP out. The deep conspiracy between the Left-Congress and the Trinamool that we have been talking about for a long time has turned out to be true. The Left-Congress, the Trinamool and Abbas Siddiqui are trying to create a divide between Bengal and the rest of India.”