Why West Bengal poll is crucial for India's Communists

Indian Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) activists attend a mass meeting addressed by West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata on July 21, 2015. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress is hoping to retain power in West Bengal

India's left parties are making a desperate bid to return to power in the eastern state of West Bengal against the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) as the first round of the five-phased polls began on Monday.

The Communists ruled the state for three decades until they were defeated by regional Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011.

The TMC, led by Mamata Banerjee, ended the rule of India's longest-running state government in what was seen as a "massive blow" to left politics in India.

She is confident of retaining power but the Communists seem to be betting on their alliance with the Congress party.

Alliance chemistry

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rahul Gandhi's Congress party has formed an alliance with left parties

The Congress, which was an ally of the TMC in 2011, is now in a seat-sharing agreement with the Left Front alliance led by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

"This changes the equation quite a bit," says CPI-M lawmaker Mohammed Salim.

The Congress has about a 10% vote share in West Bengal and it managed to win four parliament seats in 2014.

"We have a clear 30-35% vote share and the Congress has close to 10%. Now the alliance chemistry is playing on the huge anti-incumbency suffered by the Mamata government and we are back with a bang," said Mr Salim.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Left parties are hoping to defeat the TMC

Recent pre-poll surveys indicated that the alliance was just 1-2% behind the TMC's anticipated vote share of 45-46%

"A slight swing towards us and Mamata could be gone," added Mr Salim.

But other Communists are not so confident.

"We anticipate huge vote rigging and use of terror. We would win if we stop such actions, otherwise we would not win," said a top CPI-M leader on condition of anonymity.

Analysts said a win in the state was important for left parties' presence in national politics.

The Communists' presence has sharply dwindled in the Indian parliament in the last decade, down from more than 60 in 2004 to just over 10 in 2014.

"That largely happened because of their poor showing in West Bengal. Now if they lose the state again this time, they would face a serious crisis of relevance in Indian politics," said political analyst Ranabir Samaddar.

Analyst Binoda Mishra argued that a loss for the alliance would force both the Congress and left parties to have a rethink on their political strategies.

"Not only the alliance would be questioned by Communist hardliners who prefer equidistance from Congress and the BJP, but a defeat may prompt many in the Congress to try a fresh realignment with regional forces like the TMC," said Mr Mishra.

'Desperate to win'

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Image caption Mr Modi wants his BJP party to win in West Bengal state polls

Mr Mishra added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would prefer a victory for the TMC, but not with a majority.

"The BJP is desperate to win more than 10 seats and it suits them if the TMC emerges as the single-largest party without securing a clear majority. They can then work out a power-sharing deal with the TMC," said Mr Mishra.

It seems that the BJP, despite its aggressive anti-TMC rhetoric, does not want the Congress and left parties to win because it fears that the alliance may turn into a national anti-BJP secular platform.

The Congress party, however, seems optimistic because of its alliance with left parties.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has urged West Bengal voters to throw out the TMC, saying that Ms Banerjee "has a huge record of corruption and complete failure of governance".

"We supported the TMC against left parties for similar reasons in 2011 but we are now supporting the Left Front because Ms Banerjee has failed to deliver," Mr Gandhi recently said during a campaign rally.

Left leaders, specially from CPI-M, have been seen with Mr Gandhi during such rallies.

"The surge of popular support after the alliance is very encouraging," said CPI-M leader Surjya Kanta Mishra.

"The alliance is working. If their is a fair election, nothing can stop us," he said.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author, most recently, of The Agartala Doctrine, published by the Oxford University Press

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