As the last vote is cast in the Great Indian Election on Monday evening, Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat's acid test in creating a brave, new alternative to the existing bourgeois parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has also reached its final stretch.
In an interview with rediff.com on the eve of polling at the CPI-M party headquarters in central Kolkata, state party general secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose admitted that the creation of the Third Front was the "biggest gamble undertaken by the CPI-M."
With allies like H D Deve Gowda's Janata Dal-Secular already reaching out to Sonia Gandhi's Congress party, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh doing the reverse with the Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar in Bihar (which has 40 seats), the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti's K Chandrashekhar Rao having already joined the National Democratic Alliance and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's J Jayalalithaa keeping her options open in Tamil Nadu (39 seats), the Third Front seems to be showing the first signs of cracking up.
But the big question on May 13 is whether the Left citadel will hold in Bengal (42 seats), especially since the signs of Kerala (20 seats) breaking loose from the party are on the cards. If the combined Congress-Trinamool Congress opposition in Bengal is able to swing even a four per cent vote away from the Left in its favour, it could win an awesome 20 to 21 seats.
That, of course, is the dream scenario for them. If it breaks through the bar of 16 seats set by the Congress in the 1984 election after Indira Gandhi's assassination, it would mean the CPI-M's attempts to rein in its party cadres and undertake 'self-criticism' after the disastrous efforts at land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, have failed to cut ice with the public.
That's why these elections are also Karat's biggest test, not only in the attempted creation of a political alternative, but also because they are translating into a referendum on the CPI-M-led Left Front rule both in Bengal and Kerala.
Although the party's Bengal unit finally went along with Delhi on withdrawing support from the government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, there is some truth in the fact that the 'Bengal line' was somewhat different from the 'Delhi line'.
Party-watchers pointed out that local issues, especially after the Left Front's defeat in 15 out of 16 seats in the panchayat polls in May 2008 -- the exact time when the CPI-M-Congress divorce was taking place in Delhi -- were much more immediate than the anti-imperialist agenda that took centre-stage at A K Gopalan Bhavan in the national capital.
If the number of seats falls from 61 to half that size in the coming Lok Sabha both state governments are in significant danger, party watchers say. Kerala, of course, is a past master at game-changers, but in Bengal a loss of 20 seats -- even if the assembly polls are only in 2011 -- will mean the warning signals have crossed the high water-mark.
Party ideologue, economist and West Bengal finance minister during Jyoti Basu's reign Ashok Mitra feels a loss of a few seats may actually be good for the party. "In this period of tribulation, there will be a cleansing, and the party will emerge with greater strength The party has ceased to be a revolutionary party, it has become a bourgeois party," Mitra told rediff.com
tHE Question is, will a possible jolt in Kerala and Bengal cause heads to roll in both states? Political observers on the phone from Kerala said on Monday that with the Left Democratic Front expected to get only 4 TO 5 seats, Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan's job is on the line.
VS, who has been in the middle of an extraordinary squabble with state party chief Pinarayi Vijayan, is already being vilified by party cadres for transferring some of the CPI-M vote to the Congress in the election, the political observers said.
In Bengal, if the party loses 15 seats, down from 35 that it currently holds, CPI-M-watchers say it will be a blow in the solar-plexus, a revolt against the "feeling of self-satisfaction" within the party.
"If the people are not with us, will the party be able to regain its earlier strength?" asked the CPI-M-watcher in Kolkata who declined to be named.
In such a situation, Karat's magnificent effort to launch a national third alternative may simply fall apart. If the Third Front refuses to hold after May 16 and if the CPI-M fares badly in both Bengal and Kerala, the party will substantially lose its bite.
If the CPM stands firm, however, Prakash Karat's party will roar like a lion in Delhi's concrete jungle. Only the next few days will tell.