After a series of electoral reversals for both in the last five years at all levels — Parliament, Assembly, local bodies — >the Left Front and the Congress have decided on a seat-sharing “understanding” in West Bengal in order to take on the Trinamool Congress. Viewed historically, this is nothing short of proving politics to be the art of the impossible. For the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the largest stakeholder in the Left Front, an alliance with the Congress is especially problematic, both politically and ideologically. The Congress is its major opponent in its remaining strongholds of Kerala and Tripura. Indeed, Kerala goes to the polls at the same time, and the CPI(M)-led alliance would be keen to wrest power back from the Congress-led UDF government there. The CPI(M) had announced at its party congress in 2015 that it would not align with the Congress given the serious ideological differences. It therefore had to nuance its engagement with the Congress so as > not to be perceived to be compromising on its political and ideological positions . For years, the CPI(M) has worked out an elaborate set of “fronts” to suit various political circumstances. The Left Front in West Bengal has existed for decades as a cogent ideological block of parties. The Left Democratic Front in Kerala is slightly less ideologically coherent. In West Bengal, the “united front” mechanism — with the Bangla Congress in 1967 — was adopted to build electoral alliances with disparate political forces based on common programmes. The CPI(M)’s recourse to a seat-sharing arrangement without a common minimum programme is more common in States where it is weak.
The Congress had to overcome a political dilemma on the question of an alliance, as traditionally the party has found it difficult to recover electoral ground ceded to coalition partners. The “understanding”, without an official alliance, has helped these parties break out of a zero-sum game. It is another matter whether the Congress and the Left Front, which have been traditional rivals in the State for decades, will manage to translate this “understanding” into transferring their vote to each other. Certainly, their support bases are not as distinct as they used to be. The CPI(M) is now less of a class-based organisation after holding power for nearly three and a half decades in the State before its loss in 2011. Both parties have positioned themselves as “responsible” alternatives to the patronage-based governance of the Trinamool. The Congress has pockets of strong support in a few rural districts, and the Left expects to capitalise on this through the “understanding”. On the other hand, there has been little sign of the rural electorate, a large majority of which shifted its support to the Trinamool following the land acquisition-related controversies during Left Front rule, moving away from it. A sting in the tail for the Trinamool could be the corruption scams involving its leaders. If anything, the Congress-Left “understanding” will force the Trinamool to defend its record against a united opposition, rendering the 2016 Assembly election a referendum on its own tenure.