West Bengal to see hard bargaining between Left, Congress for Lok Sabha polls
The West Bengal units of the CPI(M) and the Congress may have got the go-ahead from their central leadership for entering into a seat-sharing pact for the Lok Sabha polls but clinching a perfect deal is likely to be a herculean task for them, leaders of the two parties said.
The proposed seat-sharing deal is being opposed by the constituents of the four-decade-old Left Front, down in the dumps in the state after its mauling in the 2011 Assembly polls by Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress that brought to an end the 34-year-unbroken stint of the Communists in power in the state.
The informal talks between the two parties that began sometime ago got a boost when their national leaderships gave the green signal to their state units last week to finalise the deal.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said Saturday after the party's politburo meeting that the election partners will be chosen keeping in mind the state-level equations, while the state Congress chief Somen Mitra maintained that party president Rahul Gandhi had authorised the West Bengal unit to chalk out the electoral strategy.
The Congress, sources said, wants to contest around 20 of the state's 42 Lok Sabha seats, and the Left Front, which has to distribute seats among the constituents from its share, is keen on fielding candidates in at least 26-28 places.
"There will be a informal seat-sharing between the two parties. We are not in a position to fight and win all the seats. So, we are likely to contest 26-28 seats, and in others, we would extend our support to secular and democratic forces, including the Congress," a senior CPI(M) politburo member told PTI on condition of anonymity.
The CPI(M), which has considerably weakened in the state, currently has just Lok Sabha MPs from West Bengal, while the Congress has four. Mausam Benazir Noor, the Congress MP from Malda, defected to the TMC last month.
Miffed at the CPI(M) cosying up to the Congress, once its arch rival, its allies like the CPI, All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), and the RSP have voiced reservations over the proposed pact as they are apprehensive they would have part with some seats from their quota.
A CPI(M) central committee member acknowledged assuaging their concerns would be difficult.
"The main concern of our allies the Forward Bloc, RSP and CPI is that they might have to part with their share of seats. So, if we take care of their demands, we don't think it would be a problem. After all, they too want to defeat the TMC and BJP," the CPI(M) leader said.
Nine parties constitute the Left Front in West Bengal.
Under an arrangement, the CPI(M) contests 32 seats, the RSP four, while Forward bloc and CPI field their nominees in three constituencies each.
RSP state secretary Kshiti Goswami told PTI that his party is opposed to any alliance with the Congress as both that party and the BJP represent the "ruling class".
"We have told the CPI(M) that we will not part with any seat from our share in Bengal. If the CPI(M) decides to go with Congress, then it is their decision. But we will contest all our seats," he asserted.
Goswami's views were shared by Forward Bloc state secretary Naren Chatterjee, who felt that the adjustment between the two parties in 2016 was disastrous for the Left and benefited only the Congress.
"We have told the CPI(M) that we will not share our quota of four Lok Sabha seats that we contest in Bengal," he said.
The CPI, however, is flexible but wants that the talks should involve all Left Front constituents and not just the CPI(M), a party leader said.
The Congress's state leadership feels that it is for CPI(M) to take care of the needs of its partners from its own quota of seats.
Senior Congress leader and chairman of the state coordination committee Pradip Bhattacharya told PTI that apart from the 20 seats that his party is keen to contest, it also intends to field nominees from Raiganj and Murshidabad, which are the only two seats that CPI(M) won in the last elections in the state.
He said both the seats are Congress strongholds and that the CPI(M) won from there because of a four-cornered contests.
Raiganj and Murshidabad continue to be a bone of contention between the two parties, but Bhattacharya said he is confident that the issue will get resolved.
Another senior state Congress leader said the six seats that the Congress and CPI(M) had together won in 2014 have been kept aside for now and seat-sharing talks are on for the remaining 36 constituencies.
When asked about how the two parties hoped to end their differences on seats they both intended to try their luck from, he did not rule out "friendly" contests.
The TMC had bagged 34 seats in 2014 with 39.30 per cent votes, while the Left Front could manage just two clinching 29.5 per cent votes. The Congress had four seats in its kitty and a vote share of 9.6 per cent, and the BJP got two seats with 16.9 per cent votes.
The BJP has emerged as the main challenger to the TMC over the last few years. Though Mamata Banerjee's party swept the elections to 3-tier panchayati raj institutions a few months ago, BJP was the runner up, pocketing nearly 7000 gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zila parishad seats.
In the 2016 state Assembly polls, the Left Front- Congress combine had won just 76 of the state's 294 seats.
The Left Front, which bagged 32 seats, lost its position as the main opposition party to the Congress that clinched 44.