The Bharatiya Janata Party, the otherwise lightweight party in the highly polarised political scenario in West Bengal, is gradually becoming the X-factor in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.
After the first phase of polls in the state on April 30, leaders of the ruling CPI-M had conceded that BJP candidate Jaswant Singh had a clear edge in Darjeeling over their own candidate, Jibesh Sarkar. Now, CPI-M leaders are pinning their hope on the BJP to ensure Left victory in at least three seats -- Krishnanagar, Dum Dum and Alipurduar.
Unlike the previous two occasions when it had formed alliance with the Trinamool Congress, this time, the BJP is fighting the ongoing general elections alone in the state.
According to the Left, if the BJP is able to retain a considerable share of opposition votes in these areas, it would ensure a smooth passage for the Left candidates. The CPI-M is so concerned that some of its leaders like Shyamal Chakrabarty and Amitava Nandy were seen enquiring from BJP candidates why they were not being able to put up a good show in Dum Dum and North Kolkata.
In Alipurduar in 2004, the BJP lost to the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a Left Front constituent. But the combined Opposition vote was more than what the Left got there. Earlier in 1996, it got merely 7.95 per cent of the votes in the state when it fought alone.
To add to its worries this time, a number of tribal voters in Alipurduar boycotted the poll on April 30 in response to the call given by the Adivasi Vikash Parishad. The tribals had traditionally supported the Left. So, if the BJP fails to retain its votes there, Alipurduar might turn out to be a close contest this time.
In 1999, the BJP's Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee won from Dum Dum and Krishnanagar, respectively, and subsequently became ministers in the NDA government. But in the 2004 elections, they lost to CPI-M candidates.
So, this time, all eyes are on Krishnanagar, Dum Dum and Alipurduar to see if the BJP turns out as the crucial factor in deciding the fate of these seats.
Previous results show that the BJP, when it fought alone in the state, never got more than 10 per cent of votes. But with the support from the Trinamool, Mukherjee got 43.82 per cent votes in Krishnanagar in 1999, followed by 40.54 per cent votes in 2004.
The Left is concerned because in 2004 the total opposition vote in Krishnanagar was at least 75,000 votes more than what it got. In 1996, when the BJP last fought this seat on its own, it got only 8.02 per cent votes, or 71,000 votes in absolute terms.
Of course, Mukherjee is very popular in this area as he did a lot for his constituency when he was a minister in the NDA government. This time, Mukherjee, an eminent barrister from Krishnanagar, has built his campaign on his personal charisma.
On April 30, senior BJP leader L K Advani addressed a huge rally in Krishnanagar in support of Mukherjee. Only two days later, Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya went there to campaign for his party's candidate, the sitting MP Jyotirmoyee Sikdar. Compared to Advani's rally, that was a very poor show.
On the other hand, Tapas Pal, the Tollywood actor and Trinamool candidate, has other worries. Shankar Singh, the local Congress heavyweight, had withdrawn completely from the campaign, threatening to subvert his election.
But, how much of the opposition votes would he be able to retain after the Trinamool left the BJP and formed an electoral alliance with the Congress? In last year's panchayat elections, the Opposition gained a lot in this district, indicating steady erosion in the Left vote bank.
People in Krishnanagar have no straight answer to that. According to a veteran doctor of the town, "Satyabrata Mukherjee is very much in the race."
Senior CPI-M leaders are hopeful that the BJP candidate would be able to make a serious dent in the Opposition vote to spoil the chance of the Trinamool candidate.
If the personality factor of the BJP candidate in Krishnanagar is crucial to the outcome of the vote there, in Dum Dum it is just the opposite. After getting marginalised in the intra-party squabbles, Tapan Sikdar left the BJP three years back and joined Uma Bharti.
Recently, he returned to the party and was nominated to contest from Dum Dum. The present MP from Dum Dum, the CPI-M's Amitava Nandy, is worried that Sikdar's campaign is not picking up at all.
In an informal chat, Nandy recently asked Sikdar about it. Sikdar's blunt reply was, "What can I do? I joined the party only three months back. So, it is difficult to motivate my party workers. Also, the paucity of fund is a serious concern."
In 2004, the BJP got nearly 42 per cent vote in Dum Dum against the CPI-M's 49.6 per cent, while the Congress managed 6 per cent. But in the last panchayat elections, the CPI-M lost a major share of seats in two lower tiers of the three-tier panchayat system. So, Nandy has valid reason to be worried. To add to his worries, his party leaders in the district are not cooperative.
The party has ordered his bete noir, Subhash Chakrabarty, the most influential leader in the district, out of the district to East Medinipur to control the extent of the damage due to infighting in the party. That's why he was desperate to see the BJP did sufficiently well to make dent in the Opposition vote bank.
But the CPI-M's campaign against the BJP for endorsing the Gorkha agitation in Darjeeling hills is now going against its interest. This has put the BJP candidates on the defensive in the plains of Bengal. After touring a number of districts in south Bengal, Shamik Bhattacharya, a state BJP leader, feels there are indications that a shifting of support is taking place at the ground level.
A source close to senior RSS leaders in the state disclosed that they would in all likelihood transfer their vote to the main opposition, the Trinamool. If that happens across the party, the Left would have reasons to be concerned.