Hours before the sunrise in the last phase of the election for the 15th Lok Sabha, the Left Front was weighing its options over its role in the formation of a new government.
On one hand, the Left wants to take the lead in forming a Third Front government at the Centre with breakaway parties from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and on the other, support a Congress-led government so as to keep the BJP from taking power.
At Alimuddin Street in central Kolkata, a distinct hush settled on the building as state Communist Party of India-Marxist Chairman Biman Bose gave his last press conference before campaigning closed at 5 pm on May 11. CPI-M Politburo member Brinda Karat walked in, freshly bathed in a crisp blue cotton sari, after criss-crossing the state over several weeks, smiling her confidence.
But all around party workers are keenly aware that the election for the 15th Lok Sabha was turning out to be the severest test for the party ever since it took power in Bengal 32 years ago.
In an interview to rediff.com, Bose admitted that "the party was worried that hoodlums from the Trinamool Congress from different districts" had come to Kolkata and other parts of Bengal going to polls in the last phase of the elections, on May 13. "We fear they are going to create a law and order problem," he said.
It was Bose, who in the aftermath of the May 7 election in the Tamluk Lok Sabha constituency, of which Nandigram is a part and where protests around the acquisition of land has turned the village into an international dateline, who had demanded repolls in 53 booths.
The fact that the fabled party machinery of the Left Front is being challenged on its home turf by the Trinamool Congress, and that each side has been accusing the other of using the "harmad vahini" or gangsters to try and hijack the vote, shows just how uncertain the CPI-M has become about its own ability to predict victory.
Bose refused to talk about the number of seats the party would win or lose in Bengal, which with 42 seats is expected to be a key swing state in what is likely to be an extremely fractured Lok Sabha.
But elsewhere, outside Alimuddin Street, CPI-M-watchers said if the vote swing away from the party even amounted to 4 to 5 per cent, "it would have a disastrous effect upon the party."
From 35 seats the Front holds at present, a 4 per cent vote swing would have the effect of reducing seats from 13 to 15, bringing the number down to 20 to 22. But if the party machinery held, a small swing of about 2 per cent against the party and in favour of the Trinamool-Congress combine would bring the party down to about 28 seats, a "manageable loss" of 7 seats.
The silence of the voter in large parts of Bengal is only adding to the uncertainty.
Small wonder that the CPI-M, while focusing on the last phase of the polls, is also already looking at Delhi.
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on Monday took great pains to allay the impression that the Congress was an "untouchable" party, even as he insisted he would not "send a wrong message to the people at this stage before the last phase of the voting that we are joining hands with the Congress party."
Asked if the Congress was untouchable and if the Left would refuse to do business with it in the formation of a government, Bhattacharjee said, "We don't believe in untouchability. We believe in political programmes and ideology... after elections it will be very clear who will form the government."
Bhattacharjee's comments immediately touched off a minor media furore about differences between the state party headquarters at Alimuddin Street and Delhi's A K Gopalan Bhavan, where senior party leaders like General Secretary Prakash Karat and Politburo members like Sitaram Yechury sit, about differences between Bengal and Delhi.
Asked why he was contradicting Karat, who has been emphasising the CPI-M's distance from both major political formations, Bhattacharjee appealed to the press not to "misunderstand the general secretary."
Karat, Bhattacharjee said, had only been talking about the "pre-poll" situation.
"Some people think there is a Bengal line and a Delhi line," Bhattacharjee added, referring to the reams of media interpretation on differences between the CPI-M's state unit and the party headquarters over the India-US nuclear deal. "But there is only line. We follow the same tactical line. We don't want to send several confusing messages to the people," he said.
At the moment, on the eve of the last phase, the party is hoping that the Third Front will hold and form an alternative government to the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress at the Centre.
"The way we have moved to galvanise the Third Front and keep both the BJP and the Congress at bay," Biman Bose said in his interview, "we feel that some partners who are today committed to the NDA and the UPA may desert the UPA and join us."
Parties like Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, Sharad Yadav's Janata Dal-United and Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal could break away from their respective alliances and join the Third Front, Bose said.
Bhattacharjee confirmed Yechury was in touch with Yadav and other parties to do business post-May 16.
Both Bhattacharjee and Bose also confirmed that the party had decided to shed its inhibitions about joining the government, "especially if we can make meaningful interventions in foreign, interior and economic policies of the government," Bhattacharjee said.
Bose pointed out that the CPI-M had changed its stand on joining the government at its party congress in Coimbatore last year, insisting that the party was not willing to behave like "passersby who simply watch what is happening" while the action is on.
If the Left gets a chance to shape policies in the government," Bose said, "we will join, otherwise not."