From Narendra Modis overtures in February at a Kolkata rally, which Mamata Banerjee rebuffed, the exchange has turned bitter with one side bringing in the Saradha and teachers recruitment scams and the other using the epithet Butcher of Gujarat.
That the BJP will better its four-per-cent vote share of 2009 is no longer a matter of debate. What is, though, is whether it will touch or even cross the 2004 high of 13 per cent, achieved in alliance with the Trinamool. The inevitable question is whom it will hurt the most, the ruling party or the principal opposition. For now, each accuses Modi of playing the others game. Mamata has accused the Left of inviting the BJP to chip away at the Trinamools vote share while Left leaders allege the face-off is timed to divide the anti-incumbency votes in seats where the Left had been hoping to perform well.
It is by design that the Modi-Mamata face-off has peaked when seats in North and South 24-Parganas are going to polls. The intention is clear, divide the anti-incumbency votes and hurt the Left. Till now the film industry was only supplying Mamata with heroes, heroines and villains; now it seems she is hiring scriptwriters too, says the CPMs Mohammed Selim.
Poll analysts give the Left a chance in Basirhat, Barasat (in both polarisation may hurt the Trinamool), Diamond Harbour (sitting MP Somen Mitra has deserted the Trinamool for the Congress and Mamata has fielded her nephew Abhishek) and Midnapore (the Trinamool has fielded a greenhorn in Sandhya Roy).
In the last two weeks, Mamata has not addressed a single rally where she has not accused the Congress and the Left of hiding behind the BJP to scuttle the Trinamools chances. If the BJP does get a double-digit vote share, the biggest loser would be the Trinamool that got 37 per cent last time. With respective shares of 10 and 16 per cent, the Congress and the Left dont really have too much to lose, as even their insiders agree.
Says Baishwanor Chakroborty, working president of the state Trinamool Yuva Congress: Modis flourish is an attempt to give oxygen to the Left. The BJP does not have ground-level workers to convert this rhetoric into votes. But the Left can cash in and that is the gameplan. But people will not forget him for saying people from Bangladesh will have to return. I am from Bangladesh. The Trinamool has given a smart spin to Modis rant against migrants by playing on the age-old Ghoti-Bangal (West vs East Bengal origin) sentiment.
Mamata has another important constituency to please in taking on Modi. Muslims, whom she has been wooing, have not forgotten her NDA stint. Trinamool insiders say the anti-BJP rhetoric is calculated to allay fears among minorities that Mamata may once again team up with the NDA if the coalition performs well. That is why Mamata rebuffed Modis advances. Somewhere along the way, Modi raised his pitch because the BJP wants to cash in on anti-incumbency. But should the BJP perform better than expected, there is no question that it will be the Left who will have the last laugh, says a Congress office-bearer, who accuses Mamata, once his colleague, of thinking only of short-term gains.
BJP state president Rahul Sinha sees no design to any of this. The Left is fighting an existential crisis and the Trinamool is fighting a future threat given its own misgovernance. People of Bengal are not just voting for a Modi government at the Centre but also see the BJP as a viable alternative for 2016, says Sinha.