Home >opinion >online-views >Three charts that explain why CPM won in Kerala but lost in West Bengal

If there is one party for which the 2016 assembly elections were most important, it was the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM). West Bengal and Kerala, which went to polls along with Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, are the only two major states where CPM-led formations have been able to capture power, apart from the small state of Tripura in the north-east. In the elections which were held in 2011, CPM-led governments were voted out in both these states. While the party has managed to bounce back in Kerala, in keeping with the state’s established pattern of alternating between the CPM and the Congress, it has suffered a humiliating defeat in West Bengal. What explains the divergence in the party’s fortunes in these two states? Organizational meltdown and political inexpediency of its leadership in West Bengal, shows an analysis of data.

The CPM-led Left Front had an uninterrupted stint from 1977 to 2011 in West Bengal. This meant that, unlike Kerala, a significant section of its cadre was not used to being out of power in West Bengal. In fact, many social scientists have argued that the CPM-led Left Front used its position in power to develop a kind of patron-client relationship where it secured political support by doling favours via its hold on power. (See this paper by Pranab Bardhan, for example.) If the patron-client hypothesis were true, loss of power in 2011 should have led to a desertion in the party’s ranks. This indeed seems to have been the case, shows data published by the CPM itself. Not only did the membership of the party and its mass organisations stop growing after it lost power in 2011, it has suffered a significant decline. The trend is in complete contrast to Kerala, where despite losing power there was no desertion in the ranks. With its own cadre jumping ship, it is difficult for the party’s leadership to blame voters for not supporting it in successive elections after 2011.

The question which emerges is why has the CPM performed exceptionally badly in the 2016 elections. CPM’s vote share in the 2016 assembly elections is 19.7%. It was 23% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 30.1% in the 2011 assembly elections. To be sure, it can be argued that the decline in vote share is an outcome of the CPM contesting fewer seats because of an alliance with the Congress. However, the strategy would have been considered prudent if it had improved the CPM’s seat tally. While the Congress did improve its number of seats from 42 to 44 between 2011 and 2016, CPM has suffered a decline in its number of seats from 40 to 26. The outcome is in keeping with what was predicted by a Plain Facts piece published before the elections. With seat-wise votes available now, this analysis can be taken a step further. Not only did the Congress manage to contest the maximum number of seats in an alliance, after Mamata Banerjee walked out of it to form her Trinamool Congress, it also got the CPM leadership to part with seats where the latter had more support than the former.

This claim can be substantiated by comparing assembly segment-wise results for 2014 Lok Sabha with 2016 assembly elections. Unlike the 2016 assembly elections, the CPM-led Left Front and the Congress contested separately in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In 2011, the Congress was in alliance with the Trinamool Congress.

The Congress has won 44 seats this time. It trailed behind the Left Front candidates in 21 of those seats in the 2014 elections. The CPM has won 26 seats in the 2016 elections. The Left Front trailed behind the Congress in just one of these seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

It is more than clear that the seat sharing arrangement was tilted in Congress’s favour, as it managed to get the CPM to part with its strong seats without having to reciprocate. The CSDS Lokniti analysis of West Bengal polls published in Sunday’s Indian Express also shows that while the Left’s vote share shifted in favour of the Left Front-Congress alliance, Congress’s votes were more likely to go to the Trinamool Congress. Reading these two statistics together clearly shows that both Congress’s leadership and supporters got the better of the Left in West Bengal.

Intuition says that CPM’s poll managers in West Bengal would get little sympathy in the party. After all, the only two state governments the party runs in the country have Congress as the opposition.

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