South American poet Jorges Luis Borges writes in his poem ‘Happiness’ (La Dicha) that “everything happens for the first time”. “Whosoever embraces a woman is Adam,” he muses. Just as “whosoever lights a match in the dark is inventing fire”.
It is a feeling that may well describe some Bengali voters as they participate today in an election where, for the first time in three decades, opinion polls are showing that the Left may well lose its citadel in Writers’ Building.
The Left is hoping to secure a renewed mandate, fielding more fresh faces than ever before, but Mamata Banerjee, as is her wont, has already made passionate comparisons with the revolutionary change in Egypt.
Whichever way the dice turns, in one sense, at least, she is right: nearly one-fourth of Bengal’s voters in this election are less than 30 years old and have never seen any government other than one bearing allegiance to the hammer and sickle.
The West Bengal verdict has wider ramifications for national politics, especially on economic reforms. Despite some unexpectedly vigorous and spirited campaigning by its 88-year-old Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, the Left may also go down in Kerala, if the state follows the broad cyclical pattern of musical chairs it has followed since the 1960s between a Congress alliance and a Communist alliance.
If the penny does indeed drop on the Left in both these states, then it will do so at a time when nationally it has only 16 MPs left. Notwithstanding its mighty fall in the 2009 general election, the Left is a powerful factor in public discourse and has been an important constraining factor in the process of economic reform.
A Left without either West Bengal or Kerala would be like a batsman heading out to bat without both his pads. In that sense, it would considerably lessen its bite as a national political force at precisely the time when an imaginative Leftist movement is needed to articulate the social gaps opening up in our polity.
The Left, in recent times, has struggled to reinvent itself out of hidebound mindsets and vocabularies from the past, and the lessons it draws from the fallout of West Bengal and Kerala will be crucial.
The political spotlight though has been on Tamil Nadu, which has seen the largest turnout of voters since the 1967 election when the Congress was first voted out of power, and Puducherry.
In the spirit of the times, the Tamil Nadu verdict may well be seen by many commentators as a popular referendum on corruption even though the state politics in many ways is like choosing between Twiddledee and Twiddledum.
The Karunanidhi dispensation operates like a feudal family firm, just as Jayalalithaa’s cult of insiders seemed to when she was last in power.
Beyond the unique nature of Tamil personality politics though, little separates the two Dravidian parties on policy. The real crux in Tamil Nadu in recent assembly elections has hung on the nitty-gritty of coalitions and Jayalalithaa this time has a formidable one.
Whichever way it goes, the outcome in Chennai will change equations at the Centre. If the Lady of Poes Garden comes back to power then she will energise the perennial Third Front space again, while a diminished DMK, whether in power or out of it, will significantly impact on the UPA’s internal power dynamics.
For a party that only a year ago seemed to be assuming that all it had to do till the 2014 general election was to wait it out for a generational change, the Congress is only a major factor in Assam.
Tarun Gogoi is hoping to beat anti-incumbency and follow Sheila Dixit to become the only other Congress chief minister in recent times to win a consecutive third term in power.
Assam doesn’t much make many headlines in the national press, which tends to ignore it unless there is a crisis. However, it is a crucial strategic state, one where the defining features of politics for the past two decades are shifting with significant movement recently in talks with the ULFA.
From Assam, West Bengal to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, we will know the people’s verdict on May 13 when votes are counted. The stakes for the Congress as an election fighting unit may be limited but make no mistake: the tremors of these polls will be felt in New Delhi, shifting equations in the UPA’s inner dynamics and the wider political ecology around it.