Desperate times breed desperate measures. In the remote villages on the banks of the Meghna, which flows through West Bengal’s Nadia district, a political tie-up of immense significance has taken place. To outsiders, it almost defies logic, and is certainly more incredible than the unlikeliest of unions between traditional foes—like, say, the one between Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The region’s local leaders from the CPI(M) and the BJP have joined hands to fight the upcoming panchayat elections against the ruling Trinamool Congress.
“Yes, BJP and CPI(M) have come together here to fight the Trinamool,” confirms a BJP candidate from nearby Karimpur, who is contesting the rural polls for a panchayat committee seat. “The CPI(M) has not fielded its candidate from this seat, just as we will not put up contestants where it has.”
He informs Outlook that the decision was taken at the local level, without consultations with party high commands in New Delhi or Calcutta. “We felt there was no need to complicate matters by informing party leaders who would possibly drag their feet on it. We understand the ground situation much better. This had to be done.”
Other local leaders tell Outlook that they are aware of the tradition of political ‘untouchability’—as a CPI(M) contestant called it—which exists between the two parties at the national, state and even regional levels, but say that the compulsion to unite in the face of the Trinamool onslaught far outweighs matters of ideology. “The two parties have diametrically opposite ideologies and such an alliance is unthinkable for some,” the CPI(M) leader admits. What justifies the tie-up, he says, was that a divided opposition had become so vulnerable to attacks from the TMC that the only option for survival was to join hands.
In early April, after the state election commission (SEC) announced the dates of the panchayat elections—originally scheduled in three phases on May 1, 3 and 5, but which now hangs in a curious limbo, as the revised date for polls (May 14) announced by the SEC has been termed only a ‘proposed date’ by the Calcutta High Court after fears over security were expressed by the opposition—the rural Opposition got together to chalk out a plan to defeat the TMC.
The CPI(M) is fine with all-party protests, but baulks at the very idea of allying with the BJP. They will review the move.
According to the local leaders, the immediate trigger was the unprecedented violence that opposition candidates faced across all districts when they tried to submit nomination papers. “Hundreds of our members didn’t even get to enter the block development officer’s chamber to submit papers,” says a CPI(M) candidate. Such complaints reverberated throughout rural Bengal. Not just that, having been intercepted on their way by weapon-wielding thugs allegedly with the TMC, those who did manage to reach the offices were dragged out and beaten up. Television cameras captured the candidates, both men and women, being thrown on the ground, beaten with sticks and rods, and well as being kicked, slapped and punched. At least one opposition leader was stabbed; in the state-wide violence, several died. Psychological intimidation did its infernal work too, spreading terror. “They even sexually assaulted the women, pulling them by the hair and molesting them,” the CPI(M) leader says.
But what prompted this region, specifically, to take such a step, when other districts too witnessed the violence on the opposition?
Among the explanations are those offered by local leaders active in the region for decades. They include Nagen Biswas (62). He says that Nadia, close to the India-Bangladesh border, had earlier been a CPI(M) stronghold. “The proximity to the border and the resultant influx of people made it a votebank,” Biswas states. When Trinamool came to power in 2011, party workers and cadres shifted loyalty en masse; votebank politics continued under a different banner. The one major change the BJP’s Lok Sabha victory in 2014 brought to Nadia was that the border was sealed. “Since then, the menace of cross-border crime has completely stopped,” Biswas says, while explaining the growing ‘saffronisation’. “Truth is, there is hardly any CPI(M) left here. The fight is really between the BJP and the TMC. The alliance one sees is the CPI(M)’s desperation to jump onto the BJP bandwagon for survival. As for the BJP, which is trying to gain ground, they are not averse to allying with anyone to give Trinamool a challenge.”
So what prevents CPI(M) members from openly declaring themselves saffron? “It’s a matter of prestige, of pride,” Biswas insists. The leaders who materially benefited during the Left regime didn’t change colours in 2011 even when cadres were abandoning the party like rats from a sinking ship, he says. “But where is the Left today? There is talk of re-emergence. But to do that they have to hold the hands of a party that has growing relevance.”
As the afternoon sun slants westward on the villages by the Meghna, locals gather at the neighbourhood teashop. The 53-year-old owner claims to have seen it all. He says that in rural politics changing a party is like changing one’s shirt. “BJP, CPI(M), Congress or Trinamool, it’s really a different colour. You wear one, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try another. You see what suits you best.” He thinks people here are now willing to give the BJP a chance. “We’ve seen the Congress in power, followed by CPI(M). Now Trinamool rules. They are curious about BJP.”
A CPI(M) supporter, silent till now, snaps at Biswas: “Who told you there are no CPI(M) here? What are we?” He argues the BJP needs the CPI(M) more. “We have deep roots here. You are trying to make use of that.” A villager stops them. “See, they are now showing their true colours,” he says, drawing laughs.
Of course, the hard-nosed villagers don’t see the fuss if the BJP gets together with the Left. Openly and unapologetically, they flaunt the alliance they were the first to forge. BJP and CPI(M) flags, tied together, hang from trees and bamboo poles and flutter in the wind. The setting sun catches the freshly painted saffron and bright red on white-washed walls.
All this prompts TMC leaders to invent a catchy caption: Baam korchhey Ram naam (the Left is chanting Lord Ram’s name), in a direct dig at the opposing ideologies at play. In fact, the Trinamool has ingeniously claimed that the pre-poll violence was the opposition’s handiwork, a pretext for the BJP, Congress and the Left to gang up against it. “They don’t have people power,” says Hafizul Sheikh, a TMC worker and leader of a farmer’s body in Nadia’s Karimpur. “They just cannot field candidates for every panchayat post,” he says of the BJP and the CPI(M), dismissing the idea that the alliance can beat the Trinamool.
Yet, some common ground was trodden on by opposition parties even in Calcutta, where united marches protesting Trinamool excesses were taken out.
The BJP leadership says such local, rural alliances are spontaneous responses. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh tells Outlook, “We do not have any policy of alliance with the Left. But if people on the ground have taken such a step it’s to counter TMC excesses. That is completely understandable.” BJP leader Chandra Kumar Bose agrees with Ghosh, and points out, “We had invited all parties to come together to decry the violence perpetrated by the Trinamool.”
The CPI(M) leadership has distanced itself from the local move. “Regarding the claimed tie-up with BJP in certain villages in Nadia, if it’s true the party cannot endorse it. This cannot be the party’s line even at the local level,” leader Gautam Deb tells Outlook.
CPI(M) MP and politburo member Mohammed Selim says, “Any political alliance with the BJP is ruled out. Our policy is to work against communal forces. This is not acceptable and action will be taken. Protesting together is within the permissible limits, but nothing beyond that.”
Selim says that he does not dismiss the possibility of political motivations behind projecting such an alliance and says that the party will look into it. “The Trinamool has been trying to mislead people with such claims and we will find out their role in influencing ground workers, even whether they were threatened. The BJP too stands to gain by associating itself with the secular Left. We need to review the situation.”
For the time being, villagers and contestants in Nadia are blissfully unaware that the alliance that they have forged may not hold up. It is as uncertain as the final dates of the panchayat polls itself.
(Some names are changed on request)
By Dola Mitra in Nadia, W. Bengal