With only days to go for the polls, the ruling Left Front (LF) in West Bengal enjoys a slender edge over its main opposition, the Trinamul-Congress alliance. It could well be that the low-profile Buddhadev Bhattacharyya will have achieved what even the mighty Jyoti Basu could not during the last days of his chief ministership—blunt Mamata Banerjee's edge.
So, while a few months ago observers were writing off the LF, the turnaround seems to be happening. General impatience with the bjp's economic policies is growing. And the man who replaced Basu has proved to be the Left's perfect usp.
Says observer Subhabrata Ray: "It could have helped the LF if the polls were held a little later. I think the middle class in Bengal is now doing a rethink on the bjp's policies and the unpredictability of the Trinamul's leader Mamata Banerjee, and is thus in the process of overcoming its earlier aversion to the Left. This attitude is, however, yet to harden into a definite political pattern."
A delayed poll might have helped the Trinamul as well. "It's common knowledge that workers of both the Trinamul and the Congress are confused and angry over the hasty alliance cobbled together. Now the former's supporters at Kalna, Taltola and many other seats are angry with the party nominating outsiders. Some Trinamul candidates have received no funds, the argument being that there is simply no money now that Mamata is no longer with the bjp. Both the Trinamul and Congress dissidents are openly defying their leaders. Many, in fact, are going over to the bjp. Says a Trinamul supporter: "With more time, the alliance could have put its house in better order."
Analysts say it was of crucial importance for the non-Left camp to project its Mahajot idea so as to ensure a straight contest against the ruling LF in as many of the 294 seats as possible. Until November 2000, the anti-incumbency factor was certainly acting against the LF. By 1999 Lok Sabha polls, it was seen that in many segments the combined non-Left votes polled by the Congress, the bjp and the Trinamul exceeded that of the LF.
The Left's situation, however, started improving after Bhattacharyya took over as the new CM. His supposedly no-nonsense, hands-on approach impressed first urban and then rural voters. In any case, the 1999 Lok Sabha polls showed the non-Left parties ahead in only 102 of the 294 seats, which meant the ruling LF was ahead in 192 seats. After two decades, this was cause for concern, but certainly not panic. Says cpi's Gurudas Dasgupta: "There has been no major setback for the Left between then and now. Things have only improved with investments in Bengal picking up and the nda's image taking a beating over the loss of jobs, price rise and the Tehelka revelations."
Despite a tendency to understate, cpi(m)'s state secretary Anil Biswas finally admitted: "The situation now looks better for us." In contrast, the non-Left vote is now about to be divided among three major groups, the Congress-Trinamul, the bjp and the ncp, which has an electoral adjustment with Saifuddin Choudhury's Party for Social Democracy (pds).
Besides, certain regional outfits in pockets of north and south Bengal—the Kamtapuri People's Party, the Jharkhand Party, the suci and the gnlf—are certain to win a few seats each, along with the pds. Ray feels that in case these parties mop up between 10 to 15 seats, they can emerge as the crucial balancing factor in the post-election scenario.
The question that intrigues observers is, how much of the non-Left vote will really be consolidated. The answer is not clear. It is by no means certain that the Trinamul-Congress alliance will garner, to go by their 1999 performance, 39-40 per cent of the vote. For, a lot has been marred by the prolonged bitterness over their seat sharing and the present level of dissidence in both parties.
In this context, the Muslim vote in Bengal, around 23 per cent of the total, acquires crucial significance. It was seen during the last Calcutta Corporation polls that the Bengali and non-Bengali Muslims don't necessarily vote along the same lines. The latter group supported the Congress unlike the former which supported the LF.
The disillusionment of the non-Bengali Muslims with the LF runs deep. Last November, just before he quit, Basu had met a Muslim delegation. After hearing their grievances, Basu told prominent Muslim leader, minister and head of the delegation Mohammad Amin: "If your leaders don't keep me informed about your problems, what can the state government do?" This didn't go down well with members of the community. Says a local journalist: "Normally, the LF accounts for around 50 per cent of the total Muslim votes. If there is even a 4 to 5 per cent swing away from it, it could wreak havoc on its poll prospects, given the highly polarised situation."
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