KOLKATA: With the poll narrative in West Bengal sharply polarised between the ruling TMC and opposition BJP, the Congress-Left-ISF alliance is fighting to prove its relevance with hopes of being a kingmaker in case of a fractured mandate.
The Congress and CPI-M-led Left Front, after ruling for most of the first six decades after independence, have been pushed to the margins of Bengal's politics in recent years.
The newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) of cleric Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui is the third partner in the "unlikely" coalition of former rivals.
The alliance christened as "Samyukta Morcha" hopes to grow at the expense of both the ruling TMC and opposition BJP by eating into their vote share.
The saffron party had pocketed the opposition votes for the past few years in the absence of a strong opposition to TMC.
The 'Samyukta Morcha' hopes Peerzada's presence will help bolster its share of the minority votes in Bengal.
Except in north Bengal where the Congress has a large chunk of the minority votes, TMC has till now been able to garner the largest share of the community's support.
However, the alliance with ISF has its own set of pitfalls as the Congress and the Left are being accused of aligning with religious forces who in public perception are akin to All India Muslim League and AIUDF, which may help consolidation of Hindu votes, thus benefitting the BJP.
Although both TMC and the BJP have blamed the alliance partners of being a "stooge" of the other, the saffron camp is happy with ISF's entry into the poll fray.
It hopes that ISF will break TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee's grip on the minority vote.
CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammed Salim said, "We hope the alliance will be a game changer in Bengal elections. The BJP and TMC wanted to make the poll a bipolar fight. But we have made it a three-cornered contest."
Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharya added the alliance will come up with "astonishing results" and can no longer be ignored.
Siddiqui told PTI "We will be the kingmaker after the poll.
No one can form the government without our support".
Despite some infighting, 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, with `friendly' fights in a few constituencies .
The two had managed to bag seven and five per cent votes respectively in the 2019 parliamentary election, 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, 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.
Congress sources said the alliance may 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.
However, ISF's Siddiqui's past vitriolic speeches against various communities and political parties in the past may well haunt the alliance with many voters rejecting such politics.
BJP has already 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 religious communities in the 26 seats, it is contesting.
"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," TMC leader Subrata Mukherjee said.
Another problem for the alliance, is that the both the Left and the Congress have been weakened by desertions to the TMC and the BJP camps.
Political analyst Biswanth Chakraborty, however, feels that the alliance will affect both TMC and the BJP in at least 30 seats.
"In minority-dominated districts the alliance candidates, especially 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.