The Left parties have emerged as strong performers in the Bihar elections, where the BJP-JDU combine defeated the RJD led Grand Alliance by a thin margin. The Left parties — CPI (ML), the CPI (M), and the CPI, bagged 16 seats out of the 29 seats they have contested. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation CPI (ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya spoke to Outlook about why he thinks the Left should have contested in more seats and the reason Congress failed to impress.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q) What worked against the Grand Alliance despite exit polls predicting a landslide? Many reports also suggested that there is palpable anger against the Nitish Kumar government on the ground.
We are a bit disappointed. We came so close and couldn’t accomplish it. The first phase of the elections went extremely well in favour of the Grand Alliance. Then the BJP got its act together in the second and third phases. They also tried to sort out the division in the NDA camp. The NDA campaign became more vicious and communal in the last phases. Seemanchal region has a sizeable Muslim population and there is always room for communal polarisation, which must have probably happened.
Though Congress clearly underperformed, I am surprised by JD (U)’s performance. I wasn’t giving more than 30 seats to JD (U) in this election. I feel that in the second and third phases of the election when the message went out that Nitish Kumar is facing a setback and BJP is trying to downsize him, the core constituency of the JD (U) threw its weight around the party. Though many people were angry with Nitish Kumar, there was last-minute consolidation of JD (U) votes. I think that’s why we lost the battle.
Q) Is there any probability of Nitish Kumar switching sides to the Grand Alliance camp?
I really don’t know. JD (U) got the numbers and probably the BJP has promised to retain Nitish Kumar as the chief minister. Now it’s up to Nitish Kumar how he judges his own self-respect. It is his call.
Q) Are you open to take Nitish Kumar into the GA’s fold?
I don’t think that situation is there. I think it’s for Nitish Kumar and JD (U) to rethink its future. At present, they may think that they have the numbers and there is no need to go out of the way.
Q) Given the stellar performance put up by the Left parties, do you think they should have contested more seats?
There is a common perception that the Left parties should have contested in more seats. The Congress contested 70 seats and that was a big number for them in the present state. I would say that 50 for the Left and 50 for the Congress would have been a more sensible and realistic distribution of seats. It would have been even better if the RJD contested in another 10 seats, instead of giving Congress those seats. The Congress would have performed better if they had contested in 40 seats like in 2015. They would have retained those 27 seats which they got in 2015.
Q) Congress claims that they contested in NDA strongholds as the reason for their lackluster performance.
That’s a silly argument. Somebody will have to contest in those seats. The seats we won were not easy seats too. We have also contested some seats, where we didn’t have organizational strength. Still, we gave a strong fight to our contenders. One has to be ready for that. Congress had too many seats and they were overstretched.
Q) In this election, the narrative was focused more on aspirational politics than identity politics. How did it play out?
I would say that the narrative has considerably moved away from caste politics in Bihar. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls were swept by the NDA. Until a month ago, everyone thought that it’s going to be a cakewalk for the NDA and there was a feeling that the main opposition was missing on the ground. Credit should be given to the people of Bihar and the Opposition parties, who took the battle so close. We always tend to think that the election is either about caste or economy. It was always a combination of things. Caste equations do matter. It is an important part of our social reality. When people experience caste in terms of discrimination and oppression, how can we ignore it? If Bihar elections were about caste politics, then the Left wouldn’t have been got 16 seats and RJD wouldn’t have got the 70-odd seats. Fight against caste oppression has always been central to our political struggles in all these years. There never existed a Chinese wall between economic and social struggles. We are concerned about the entire gamut of oppression and exploitation of people.
Q) Tejaswi Yadav focused more on economic justice than social justice. Do you think it resonated with the people?
Our 25-point charter was essentially a compilation of popular demands, which the Left Parties have been fighting for a long time. Whether it’s the regularisation of jobs in health or wages of contract teachers and Asha workers, these struggles are not new. It has been building up in Bihar in the last five to six years. The charter has the imprint of the Left parties in it. I won’t say its social justice versus economic justice. It is an extension of social justice. I will go back to the preamble of the Constitution where the word is Justice. This time around, the focus has been more on jobs. I won’t pit economic justice against social justice. It’s not only jobs, but anti-privatization was also an important agenda, which resonated well with the people.
Q) What is the take away from this election for CPI (ML)?
Our expectation was of getting 15 seats. I will give only an 80 per cent strike rate to our party. Not 100 per cent. I admit that in the given situation, 12 is a decent number. This election was unique and it was more like an agitation for the basic needs of people. The agitation mode suits the Left parties. Though we couldn’t succeed in changing the government, the people of Bihar made a brilliant fight in an adverse situation like this. The important thing is that people have set an agenda for Bihar. We will carry the agenda forward. Now the people have given a solid platform for the Opposition. We have to play our role and hold the government accountable.
Q) There is a feeling that Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM damaged the winning prospects of the Grand Alliance. Your take.
I won’t talk in terms of damage. The AIMIM has every right to contest the election and it managed to win five seats. One has to see the reason why people are gravitating towards AIMIM. There is a feeling that many mainstream parties are silent about the witch hunt and attacks on Muslims and minority communities. These parties have to be more vocal about issues in terms of identity, existence, and minority rights. We can’t blame the minorities moving towards AMIM or them contesting elections in Bihar.
Q) Do you think the alliance should have taken small parties on board?
The small parties haven’t done any visible work. It would have been better if the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) was there till the end. I don’t know why they left. They eventually settled for 10 or 11seats with the NDA. Many of their candidates are from BJP who fought on VIP tickets.
Q) What will be the Left’s role especially in poll-bound states like West Bengal and Assam?
The message from Bihar is important for other states also. Bihar has shown the way. It is possible to convert the elections into a people’s movement there as well. There is unemployment, health crisis in those states too. BJP is our main enemy and the writing is on the wall. In West Bengal, the Left shouldn’t be obsessed with the ruling TMC. The Left parties should work towards increasing the anti-BJP thrust of the campaigns and shape it accordingly
Q) Do you think Prime Minister Modi’s popularity factor played a major role in the NDA victory?
It is certainly not the Modi factor. There was no traction for Modi’s rallies. Even in exit polls, only 3 per cent of people voted in favor of Modi. More than 38 per cent of people voted in favor of employment and other basic issues.
Q) How challenging is for the opposition to face a more dominant BJP in the state?
BJP was already a major force in Bihar. More seats for BJP won't make much of a difference. During his 15 years of rule, Nitish was only serving the BJP. He never asserted his agenda for the state. He kept saying that there was no compromise on crime, corruption, and communalism. But he has compromised on three Cs in the past 15 years.
Q) The revival of the Left parties is often a topic of debate. Does Bihar indicate change?
It’s true that we haven’t been able to grow spectacularly over the years. But we have maintained our base and growth over the years. It is not fair to blame Lalu Yadav or Nitish Kumar for the decline of the Left parties.
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