Did BJP gift Howrah to Mamata? The many theories about one bypoll

It was six men of Hindostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

Each touched a different part of the elephant in the famous poem by John Godfrex Saxe which has its roots in Indian parables. One thought the elephant looked like a wall. One thought it looked like a snake. Another thought it was like a fan.

Their problem was they each touched a different part of the elephant and, being blind, none saw the full beast.

The Howrah by-poll is a bit like that. Our political pundits and analysts to learning much inclined are all seizing on whatever piece of that elephant they can find to draw whatever conclusion fits their ideology.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. AFP

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. AFP

Trinamool candidate Prasun Banerjee, an ex-footballer is the newly minted MP from Howrah, a seat that had falled vacant after the death of an octogenarian Trinamool leader. Last time around, Trinamool and the Congress were in their marriage of convenience. Now that alliance is over. So the contest was mainly a three-way one—Trinamool, CPM, Congress—along with assorted independents.

The footballer defeated his CPM rival by 26,965 votes with the Congress candidate polling 96,727 votes. But the pundits are analyzing the "crucial" election as if it’s the astrological chart for the state’s political future.

Blind Man 1: Win-Win for Mamata. "Howrah is going to be the litmus test for her much-touted government’s performance, her tackling the Ponzi muddle when the urban population didn’t take them well," opined The Times of India. Mamata won decisively and this shows Mamata is a "Teflon leader on whom no charge sticks" says The Telegraph. This was the first bypoll after the Saradha default crisis. Mamata has been battling a series of bad PR steps. "This is a verdict in favour of ekla chalo re (go it alone)" said Mamata herself. She portrays it as win-win. "A new era is born," she said confidently turning it into the debutant ball of her grown-up party brushing aside percentage changes in vote shares.

Blind Man 2: Positive for the Left. Had Mamata lost this would have been a litmus test. Now that’s she won, the rules of the game have changed. "Mamata has been shown a yellow card," said a CPM leader. The reason for the Left’s new-found optimism is that they think the votes indicate the anti-Left hemorrhage has stopped. "People are becoming disillusioned with the Trinamool government and the party should take a lesson from it," said CPM leader Surya Kanta Mishra. He is choosing to look at the fact that the CPM registered a jump of around 4.5 percent in its vote share vis-à-vis the 2011 Assembly figure. Hindu Business Line reports that ever since the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Left has seen its vote share decline steadily in the state. The correction has finally come with Howrah claims pundits as if that one bypoll becomes the bellwether for the entire state. And it does not change the fact that the over all mood remains anti-Left which the CPM blissfully ignores.

Blind Man 3: The Congress still matters. "Congress requires us. We don’t need Congress," Mamata boasted. If Mamata touts the victory as a triumph of the go-it-alone strategy, Congress sees it as a proof of how important they were as the junior partner. Trinamool’s victory margin (26,965) is less than what the combine clocked (37,392) in 2009. The Congress candidate siphoned off 10.1 percent of the vote. The Congress admitted "organizational weakness" but the Congress is now taking pride in the fact that it can possibly play spoiler in elections to come. That’s rather an ignominious role for the grand old party but beggars can’t be choosers when times are tough.

Blind Man 4: This is all about 2014. The BJP which withdrew its candidate is now claiming its piece of the victory. "Had our party nominee been in the fray and got more than 30,000 votes it would have been difficult for the Trinamool candidate to win," bragged state BJP president Rahul Sinha. The Congress gleefully echoed him. "The Howrah Lok Sabha seat was BJP's gift to TMC," said senior Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed. In public Mamata didn’t acknowledge the BJP’s magnanimity saying they had supported a couple of independents in the fray. But a BJP secretary said though the local unit might have been against Mamata, "it seems the senior leaders don’t want to shut the door on the possibility of an alliance with Mamata."

Blind Man 5: It’s the percentages, stupid. Noone is disputing the end result or the sizable margin. Hence everyone is left to over-analyze every last percentage. So it's not just about comparing the margin of victory to old margins. Now the pundits magnifying glasses are burrowing into segments to unearth more meaning. For example, what to make of the fact that the Trinamool MP’s vote share in two of urban Howrah’s biggest Assembly segments is much less than that of the the Trinamool MLAs in the 2011 Assembly elections even though a Lok Sabha poll is a different animal from an Assembly poll?

Blind Man 6: Let’s play what-if. What if there had been a TMC+Congress alliance? What if there had been a TMC+Congress alliance but the BJP had also been in the fray? This game of imaginary arithmetic yields interesting graphics but gets especially futile because as the report admits finally "it is not clear which party—the Congress or Trinamool—would have suffered more had the BJP been in the Howrah field". There are so many local factors at play in any election. For example, in this one disenchanted supporters of the MP who had died (and been on the outs with Mamata) had rooted for the Congress.

In the end it’s a bypoll. "There is grievance, but we should at least give five years to Didi before we vote for a change," a retired school teacher told TNN.

Meanwhile an Arjuna awardee and a footballer has entered the Lok Sabha at a time when sports and politics have become a most unsavoury combination in the public eye. As TMC Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien tweeted "Sport & politics. First time a footballer enters Parliament. Olympian, India captain, Arjuna awardee Prasun Banerjee @aitmc MP… bravo." In all the number crunching and percentage splitting and 2014 forecasting, that’s easily forgotten.