Is Bengal the soft underbelly of unclear statistics?
An intense battle of nerves is being fought in West Bengal much ahead of the real show. And for those who are politically inclined - a dwindling figure in Bengal these days - the result is eagerly awaited! The million dollar question still remains unanswered: Will the Congress and the Trinamul Congress manage to strike an alliance against the Left Front for their bare-knuckle fight for the 42 Lok Sabha seats?
The decision, when reached, would actually have poignant implications... and much before the election fever gripping the far corners of the state. It would enable us to delve deeper into the Congress High Command's assessment of the overall seat share the Left might have in Parliament this time around.
Hence, at the risk of sounding boring, may I sheepishly add that it has boiled down to the number game... and something on which Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it seems, is yet to have a thorough grip. And to get that done, the leader's psephological acumen is likely to be stretched to the limit.
The 2004 polls gave the Left Front 35 seats from Bengal which took their total tally to 61, the coalition's other major contributor was Kerala with 19 seats. The Opposition in Bengal was confined to seven seats, six of which were bagged by the Congress. Trinamul Supremo Mamata Banerjee was the sole MP from her party from the Calcutta South constituency.
Much water has flowed down the Hooghly river since then.
Singur and Nandigram have sparked off the land acquisition debate and have taken the issue to levels the nation never witnessed before. The rebel Gorkhas of Darjeeling and the arms-wielding tribal population of Lalgarh and its surroundings have raised serious questions on ethnic identity within the state. Recession has rendered several industrial projects, including Bengal's flagship Jindal steel plant in Salboni, non-starters. Cracks within the Left were made apparent at the drop of a hat with smaller partners distancing themselves from the CPM at more regular frequencies than ever before. The expulsion of Speaker Somnath Chatterjee from the CPM has left state leaders of the likes of Subhas Chakraborty a little more than unhappy.
Needless to say, the CPM think-tank is a worried lot. If the Panchayat election results have emboldened the Trinamul and the subsequent Assembly by-polls have failed to lift the spirits of the official Left, then the forthcoming general elections could well be decisive. After all, in two years from now Banerjee's now-or-never plunge for the Writers' Buildings top seat would surely be the zenith of her political career.
Yet Sonia Gandhi is sitting on her numbers. Experts feel that in a situation of a delimited seat spread, a Congress-Trinamul Congress combine could raise the opposition's tally in Bengal to 20 seats or thereabouts. The CPM itself has identified six seats- Contai and Tamluk in East Midnapore district, Diamond Harbour and Jadavpur in South 24-Parganas, Serampore in Hooghly and Krishnanagar in Nadia- as 'danger zones' where the Marxists might lose to arch-rival Trinamul.
And as per the buzz, if the Congress-led UDF indeed manages to wrest about 15 seats or so in Kerala this time, the Bengal-Kerala united seat gain could reach up to 35 seats for the party.
The question is, would that be enough to offset the dependence on Left support for forming government at the Centre for the second consecutive time? Because despite their hand-holding with the Trinamul Congress, if the Left forces manage to retain more than 40 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress would be in deep trouble. Surely with an anti-Left alliance in Bengal, Sonia Gandhi couldn't be expecting even support from outside from the CPM in the event of a hung Parliament or the eventuality of the BJP-led NDA breathing on her neck.
The withdrawal of Left support on the Indo-US civil nuclear deal issue is, after all, a thing of the past!
Mamata Banerjee's meetings with Sonia Gandhi and Bengal Pradesh Congress president Pranab Mukherjee have, so far, failed to cut ice. A section of regional Congress leaders still maintain strong reservations against the possible Trinamul tie up. The humiliating experience of Banerjee deserting the Congress after the 2001 Assembly elections and shaking hands with the BJP still fresh in their memory, state Congress leaders now seek a prior word-of-honour from Mamata to respect the alliance, no matter what the poll results are. But Banerjee has turned a deaf ear.
Bengal is an applecart nobody is willing to upset... not, at least, in a hurry. The drama would unfold in the days ahead. But if the Congress top brass does decide to join hands with Mamata, it would be because the party's arithmetic point at restricting the Left to less than 30 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha.