It’s turning out to be quite like the India-Bangladesh match that had the whole nation transfixed just the other day. The boys in blue were supposed to sail through, the most the new kids on the block could hope for was to go back to Dhaka with bragging rights. Maybe an MS Dhoni stumping, or if they were so lucky, a Virat Kohli run-out in the early overs. Instead, it turned out to be a nail-biting few hours on both sides of the border.
Elections, of course, cannot hold a candle to cricket, not in this country, but the polls in Bengal have suddenly begun giving us a run for our money. Something that was seen as a walkover for the mighty Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC), with an opposition that was thoroughly vanquished, a CPI-M still limping badly from the beatings it has been receiving in every election in the state since 2011, a Congress evaporating faster than a wet mulmul dupatta in the midday sun, a BJP helplessly watching its unprecedented 17 per cent vote share of 2014 recede like the ebbing tides of the Hooghly, has suddenly begun to produce fireworks and drama and exciting television on a daily basis.
Even though opinion polls are still predicting a victory for the TMC, albeit with a reduced number of seats, there is a sense of urgency in the air, a sense of expectation and possibility. Anything, it seems, could happen.
Primarily because the alliance between the CPI-M and Congress, which many, including yours truly, had scoffed at as a pipedream is becoming more and more of a reality by the day. It is only a few weeks ago that even CPI-M party boss Biman Bose had snapped at inquisitive reporters, saying, "The hand and the hammer are not the same."
There followed days of yawn-inducing reports of the Congress and the Left’s futile efforts at seat adjustments, the bare minimum on which the alliance was grounded. Conclusions came thick and fast, the so-called "people’s alliance" was stillborn, Didi would have the last laugh.
Whether it is sheer survival tactic as the ruling TMC is dubbing it, or a demand from the grassroots as the CPI-M and Congress leaders are describing it, the CPI-M and Congress are marching side by side today, literally, in constituency after constituency. Joint Congress-CPI-M campaigns form the new normal in Bengal politics these days, not just in high profile seats like, say, in Bhowanipore in the heart of Kolkata, where Deepa Das Munshi of Congress is doing a Smriti Irani in Amethi by taking on Mamata Banerjee herself, but across the state in remote villages and towns as well.
The icing on the cake will be provided on 2 April, when Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will grace three campaign rallies at Burdwan and Bankura districts while CPI-M leaders have deigned to share his dais, though local leaders only, not the state’s top-rung, at least not so far.
In the words of CPI-M state secretary and possible chief ministerial candidate Surjya Kanta Mishra, "Let me give you a clear message. We have not given a call for ushering in the eighth Left Front government. We have asked for a Left, democratic and secular government. That includes the Congress."
So much so that in the Saithia constituency in Birbhum district, the CPI-M, which used to hold this seat earlier, voluntarily gave it up to the Congress this time because it felt they have a better chance of winning it. Several other instances of such mutual sacrifices are coming to light every day.
The reality of the alliance has set off an avalanche of mind-boggling analysis that provides few answers, only more questions. Is it arithmetic or chemistry that wins elections? If it is a matter of arithmetic, and most pundits prefer that, what should be the basis for the calculations for this election? The 2011 polls? But the Congress and TMC fought that election together, so how to separate the vote shares of the two?
The conventional wisdom has been to take the 2014 Lok Sabha results, when Congress and TMC fought separately. Both Congress and Left fared miserably in 2014, with TMC emerging triumphant and BJP increasing its vote share considerably only to be an effective spoiler. Going by the 2014 showing, TMC and the Left-Congress alliance are equally poised vote share-wise. So, much would depend on who would get the BJP's share, or at least the bulk of it.
But what if the BJP does not lose as much as is expected? And, above all, will the transfer of CPI-M and Congress votes to each other actually take place on the ground? It happened in Bihar, we know, but does that mean it will happen here?
The questions are endless. My head reels. That is why I always prefer to go by chemistry. And there is chemistry at play here for sure. The Left-Congress alliance is a prime example of that chemistry at work. It is Mamata Banerjee and her minions, their arrogance and highhandedness, their complete disregard for democratic norms, their utter lack of concern for the laws of the land, their faith in the 'might is right' doctrine that have driven these two sworn enemies into each other's arms.
There really is one point these elections have boiled down to: Either you are with Mamata Banerjee or against her. From all accounts it is true that the leaders of the two leading opposition parties were forced into this alliance by a groundswell within their rank and file that they just could not ignore. Add to this the constant infighting within the TMC for the loaves and fish, a complete lack of worthwhile jobs, and a vote swing away from the ruling party and into the newfound alliance is not beyond reason.
Especially at a time when every voter has been able to see visions he or she will never forget — of several TMC leaders, ministers and MPs, taking bundles of cash from strangers for undue favours, or so it appears. If the alliance provides the substance that has made this election into a contest and not just a routine affair, then it is the Narada sting and events that have unfolded from it that have added the fizz and sparkle to an otherwise prosaic, in fact grim business.
Ever since Narada News came out with its expose in mid-March, there has been a surprise a day, almost, to keep tongues wagging and the media exceedingly busy.
For instance, if there was first the sting then there was a "reverse sting" this Monday, when two policemen from the Special Branch went to the offices of BJP leader Rahul Sinha and allegedly offered him a bribe with the objective to entrap him, which resulted, as can be expected from our twice-shy politicians today, in Sinha crying police, the suspension of his two visitors and now, on Wednesday, to the news of the removal of the police commissioner of Kolkata himself through the good offices of the Election Commission for "masterminding the failed sting and also for being too close to the powers that be in the state", according to the Opposition.
But, there has been no official order yet, though the search for a new commissioner has begun. Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee has sent her trusted emissary Mukul Roy to Delhi to sort things out. The battle over Kolkata's commissioner of police has become the first round in the battle for Bengal.
Now that the doors to a no-holds-barred contest have been opened in this state, there’s bound to be more drama in the days to come. Watch this space for forthcoming episodes.