In Bengal, Left And Congress Are Struggling To Make Their Awkward Marriage Work

28/04/2016 9:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (L) and veteran Communist leader and former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee talk onstage during a joint rally between Congress and the Left Front political party in Kolkata on April 27, 2016. This is the first time rivals Congress and the Left Front have come together to campaign against the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal's ongoing State assembly elections. / AFP / Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Someone please fire the DJ.

It’s a cliché but understandable that the muzak of choice for a political rally in Kolkata will be Rabindrasangeet.

And so it was for the “historic” grand alliance between the Left Front and Congress in Bengal. (This product is not meant for sale in Kerala.)

But really, who chose Jodi Tor Daak Shuney Keu Na Aashey, Tobey Ekla Chalo Re? (If no one answers your call, then go it alone)?

That hardly struck the most optimistic note as Rahul Gandhi and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Congress’ future and CPM’s past, came together finally on one stage to try and change Bengal’s present.

On a baking hot afternoon in Kolkata, one thing was clear. If this “jot” or understanding is a marriage (and there was a giant garland shared between the two to solemnize it), it’s more of an arranged marriage than a love marriage.

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"The Congress is riding on the CPM’s shoulders,” says Chanchal Ghosh. “It’s the CPM worker who gets beaten up, not the Congress. That three-and-half year old who got beaten, that was our worker’s child.” Ghosh sells Communist party literature at rallies, books with names like White Mamata, Black Mamata. But he is optimistic. Even though voting is not over, he says the “jot” will win by 50 seats. He’s read it on the internet, he assures me.

A dark cloud is hanging over our state. A terrible government is wreaking havoc. We cannot be free from it on our own.

The two stars of the evening are not quite as ready to pin numbers on their hopes.

“A dark cloud is hanging over our state. A terrible government is wreaking havoc. We cannot be free from it on our own,” warns Buddha-babu in his best Gandalf avatar. “We must fight together.”

Alliance chunav jeet raha hai aur jeetney wala hai, (Alliance is winning the election and will win it) ” promises Rahul channeling Frodo.

This crowd wants to believe it. They whoop when Deepa Das Munshi, who is taking on Mamata herself, vows “Didi came in sandals and will depart in scandals.” They cheer when state party chief Adhir Chowdhury promises “This is not jot. This is not ghot (muddle). This is Bengal’s citizens saying Trinamool, phot (Trinamool, scram).”

But is the electorate ready to buy this new-found love? Public memory is short but the Congress and CPM have a lot of bad blood between them here. Literally. “What of the 55,000 Congress (and Trinamool) workers killed by Communists in 34 years of Left rule?” asks TMC’s Derek O’Brien.

In 1970, two Congress loyalists in Burdwan, brothers Pranab Sain and Moloy Sain were murdered in front of their mother allegedly by CPM cadres. She was then forced to eat rice stained with their blood. Her eldest son Naba Kumar had his eyes gouged out. Mamata Banerjee formed the first enquiry commission into the Sainbari murder. But Bijay Kumar Sain, the youngest son says Trinamool plays its own political games.

“The ruling party wanted me to name people I don’t remember being present at the time of the attack. If I followed the diktat, I would probably have got a government job.”

Obviously no one mentions inconvenient truths like Sainbari as Buddhadeb and Rahul share a garland together. The crowd sounds more dutiful than pumped as it shouts “Swagatam swagatam”. These permutations are not that new. Mamata has been "natural allies" with both BJP and Congress and the Communists have propped up the Congress in Delhi. “Since its inception, the CPM branded the Congress and BJP as authoritarian and communal respectively,” writes R. Upadhyay.

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In theory it has a policy of equidistance from both, writes Upadhyay, but in practice it’s often considered Congress the lesser evil especially after the Trinamool-BJP combo routed the Left in the 1998 Lok Sabha poll. But while it might not be quite as “historic” as it’s being peddled, there’s no denying this has curiosity value here.

“Look look, the red flags have come” exclaims the woman beside me as the Communist flags enter the maidan. She has come here from 45 km away to see the rally in “real” as opposed to on “channel”. “This is a historic moment for Bengali politics,” says Sujoy Das as he waves both flags, the Congress’ hand and the Left’s hammer and sickle. “And I am glad to be here to witness it.”

Bengal has not seen this before. Kolkata has not seen this before. Park Circus Maidan has not seen this before.

“Bengal has not seen this before,” Buddhadeb tells the crowd. “Kolkata has not seen this before. Park Circus Maidan has not seen this before.” He might have cringed though if he could have seen himself. Bengal’s most venerable Communist leader, the successor to the legendary Jyoti Basu, giving a speech in front of a giant poster with Rahul Gandhi’s face and from behind a podium plastered with the Congress’ hand.

That this is happening at all is the miracle of Mamata. She is the ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Seeing firebrand Congress leaders like Adhir Chowdhury greet Buddha-babu like a beloved long lost elder brother is alone worth the wait.

But it all still feels unsure. The Congress has been an also-ran in Bengal for so long, the rally is rather slapdash. The gates are opened late. There are no packets of water being distributed to the people waiting in the hot sun. The press area is too small, the television cameras spill over to the crowd. “They were not expecting so much press,” says one reporter sardonically. For the first couple of hours nothing happens. “Where are the chhota leaders?” complains one man. “Why aren’t they up on stage?” He says he came to this very ground for another rally in 1984. It was for Rajiv Gandhi. “That was a zabardast rally,” he says. “This does not compare.”

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What does unite the crowd though is anger with Trinamool. Lumpen has become a Bengali word thanks to Didi. The anger against Trinamool’s “lumpen” is palpable onstage and offstage. Everyone has a story. My own nephew started hanging out with Trinamool and now he has four bikes in four years says one man. Another says he knows a vegetable seller who is now worth a crore. “And he’s not even a Trinamool leader, he just runs behind Trinamool leaders.” Anger holds this unlikely alliance in place, more than any ideological love. The hope is that even if Trinamool is not toppled, it will sustain a body blow.

Trinamool mocks this “alliance” as the alliance that dares not say its name. The speakers at the rally claim they are transparent, it’s Trinamool and BJP who are in secret alliance. That is why the BJP has done little with Saradha and is merely blowing hot air about the Narada sting. “Mamata-ji calls everything sajano ghatona (manufactured events)” mocks Rahul. “The enmity between BJP and TMC is sajano gussa (manufactured anger).” Amita Ghosh, a Mahila Congress leader tells me the “jot” alliance will last beyond these elections. “These are national parties and we will come together next to get the BJP out.”

But those are fantasies for another day. For now everyone is laying bets about what rewards the “jot” might yield, if any, in Bengal. “Oho big claims,” says one man to a Congress cheerleader. “Will we see you on 19th when the results come out?” And this being Bengal even a wager has a sweet tooth. “I bet you a box of batasha sweets Trinamool will still win 200,” says another. “What piddling batasha. I bet you cham-chams the jot will win,” retorts his friend upping the sweet ante.

These Congress people, they don’t read. Communists, now they are readers.

As I leave the rally Chanchal Ghosh is wrapping up his books for the night. He says business was bad. “These Congress people, they don’t read. Communists, now they are readers,” he says pressing a pamphlet called “Defeat the Trinamool” into my hands.

Next to him two vendors have set up shop. One is selling hot lemon tea, the other frozen “Frooti” and “Pepsi” ice-squeezees. One shouts “Thanda thanda (cold cold).” The other shouts “Garam garam (hot hot).”

Thanda thanda. Garam garam.

Come to think of it, it’s a rather fitting postscript to an afternoon spent selling unlikely pairs.

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