With the poll narrative for the assembly poll in West Bengal sharply polarized between the ruling TMC and opposition BJP, the Congress-Left-ISF alliance is fighting to prove the political relevance of the parties in it and is pinning its hopes to be the kingmaker in case of a fractured mandate.
The Congress and CPI-M-led Left Front, which has been pushed to the margins of politics in Bengal after ruling it for 34 long years, has waived their ideological and political differences and came together for the second time after the 2016 assembly polls.
The Indian Secular Front(ISF) of cleric Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui is the new entrant to the "unlikely" coalition of the former rivals of secular, communist and religious forces.
For Congress and the Left, the Bengal assembly poll this time is a battle for political survival after being squeezed out of the state's poll arena.
For ISF, a first of its kind political outfit in Bengal formed by a religious leader, it is a fight to prove that it is not a "one election wonder" and is here to stay.
The alliance christened as "Samyukta Morcha" hopes to grow at the expense of both the ruling TMC and opposition BJP by eating into their votes.
The saffron party had pocketed the opposition votes for the past few years in the absence of a credible opposition.
With ISF of firebrand religious leader Siddiqui in it, the 'Samyukta Morcha' hopes to eat into the 30 per cent minority vote bank, which had since 2011 slowly but steadily shifted to the TMC.
The minority has in fact acted as a bulwark for the Mamata Banerjee-led party in the wake of the saffron surge in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
However, the alliance with ISF has its own set of pitfalls as the Congress and the Left are facing the threat of losing out on the perception of its secular credentials.
Siddiqui's outfit is being equated with All India Muslim League of pre-independent India and AIUDF in Assam and is in turn pushing towards the consolidation of Hindu votes thus benefitting the BJP.
Although both TMC and the BJP have blamed the alliance partners for being a "stooge" of each other, the saffron camp is happy with ISF's entry into the poll fray. It hopes that ISF's advent will break TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee's grip on the minority vote bank, over which it has failed to make a mark despite unprecedented success in the 2019 Bengal elections.
CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammed Salim said, "We are hopeful that the alliance will be a game changer in Bengal election. The BJP and TMC wanted to make the poll a bipolar fight. But we have made it a three-cornered contest. The people are fed up with the misrule of TMC in the state and by BJP at the Centre".
Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharya echoed him and exuded confidence that the alliance will come up with "astonishing results" and can no longer be ignored.
"Going by the response we have received, we are confident of winning the election. We will be the kingmaker after the poll. No one can form the government without our support," Siddiqui told PTI.
Despite a few glitches in the "rainbow alliance", the Left Front is contesting in 177 seats, the Congress 91 seats and ISF in 26.
According to sources in both Congress and the Left, the alliance was the need of the hour. The two parties, who had fought the 2016 assembly election as an alliance and bagged 36 per cent vote share, witnessed a sharp decline in its vote percentage within the next three years.
The parties had managed to bag seven and five per cent votes respectively in the 2019 parliamentary poll, which they fought separately.
The Left Front had failed to open its account, while the Congress had managed to win just two out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. BJP on the other hand bagged 18 seats, just four less than the TMC's 22.
"This alliance was the need of the hour as we are fighting for our political survival. TMC has taken over the Muslim votes and the BJP of the Hindus, while we are nowhere on the scene. The TMC through its poaching of the Left and Congress leaders have paved the way for BJP in the state," Leader of the Opposition and Congress leader Abdul Mannan said.
The steady decline of the Left and Congress was directly proportional to the rise of BJP. Bengal's political narrative has witnessed a sea change in the last few years with the advent of identity politics, CPI(M) central committee leader said while speaking on the necessity of roping in ISF, which is branded a religious outfit by TMC and the BJP, into the alliance.
"The 77 seats that we had won last time were mostly in minority-dominated areas of Murshidabad, Malda and North and South Dinajpur. With identity politics in play, we needed ISF to retain those seats, if not win more," he said. According to the Left and Congress leaders the alliance wants to project itself as a third alternative to those Muslims and Hindus who do not want to align with either the TMC or BJP.
"We want to regain the opposition space by projecting ourselves as a force to reckon with. It is not only for this election but also if the BJP comes to power," a CPI(M) leader said.
Congress sources said the alliance pins its hope to emerge as kingmaker in case of a fractured mandate and did not rule out a Maharashtra model. In Maharashtra the Congress and NCP aligned with Shiv Sena to keep BJP at bay.
"If there is a hung assembly we can play the role of a kingmaker to keep the communal force at bay. It will be a choice between two evils and we are likely to opt for the lesser evil, which is the TMC. We will implement our policies and keep a check on governance," a senior Congress leader said on condition of anonymity.
However, the odds are stacked against the alliance, specially ISF. The fledgeling party is its biggest strength given that Bengal has 30 per cent Muslim votes, as well is its liability as it threatens further "Hindu consolidation" in the state.
"We are not a communal party. We are a secular party that is fighting for the backward communities of the state. We no longer want to sit in the gallery but want to be the players," ISF president Naushad Siddiqui said.
However, Abbas' past vitriolic speeches against various communities and political parties are back to haunt the alliance and ISF. BJP has branded ISF as the "successor of the Muslim League back to divide Bengal". To shed the communal tag, the ISF has fielded candidates from different stratas of society and religous sections in the 26 seats it is contesting.
The Trinamool Congress and BJP feel the Left has surrendered before a communal force. "The Left has damaged its secular credentials. It will help the BJP's narrative of Muslim appeasement by other parties and further consolidate Hindus. The state has not seen a Muslim party in the recent past," a TMC leader iterated.
Although it is for the first time since Independence that a Muslim cleric has floated a political party, the state had seen fringe Muslim outfits like Progressive Muslim League and the Indian Union Muslim League. They had wielded considerable influence in West Bengal in the aftermath of Partition before waning away in the late seventies.
"This rainbow alliance is fighting for its political relevance and existence. TMC is appeasing Muslims, while the ISF and its alliance partners are worried about the minority. Then who will protect the Hindus ? Only BJP is against appeasement," the saffron party state president Dilip Ghosh said.
The pangs in the alliance over the seat sharing are also a matter of concern as Congress and the Left have put up candidates against each other in a few seats. The ISF is not happy with Congress's formula and had wanted a bigger pie as its share. Political analyst Biswanth Chakraborty feels that the alliance will affect both TMC and the BJP in at least 30 seats.
"In minority-dominated districts the alliance candidates, specially ISF nominees, will eat into TMC's Muslim votes. Whereas in some of the north and south Bengal districts it will affect BJP in some seats," he said. Political observer Suman Bhattacharya feels that the alliance will help TMC most by eating into opposition votes in several closely fought seats.(With PTI inputs)