Sheela Bhatt explains the dynamics behind the Congress-Trinamool seat-sharing talks.
Will Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party withstand the Congress's bullying tactics or will she give in like the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham did?
Will the Congress assert itself with its likely electoral ally in West Bengal as much as it did while dealing with its ally in Tamil Nadu?
Political observers in the nation's capital want to know the answers to these questions after a newspaper report on Tuesday described how Congress President Sonia Gandhi had snubbed DMK leaders M K Alagiri and Dayanidhi Maran for issuing a threat to withdraw from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.
Sonia Gandhi, this correspondent learnt, also complained that because of the DMK's statement, the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensex had tumbled.
According to the leaked story, Sonia Gandhi said, 'I don't care whether this government lives or goes. It is not a question of seats. It is not a question of my prestige. It is the prestige of the Indian National Congress that has been hurt.'
Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran, who was one of the three people present in the room, refused to confirm or deny the incident while speaking to Rediff.com
The differences between the Trinamool and DMK are as stark as Tamil and Bengali.
The DMK suffered a snub, if any, from the Congress president only because the party is tainted after the 2G spectrum scam. The DMK's Dalit face and former telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja, is currently in Tihar jail.
The DMK is facing an extraordinary political challenge due to the ongoing shift of power to its younger generation of leaders. The political drama of the last seven days between the Congress and DMK was to show that the Congress will fight the assembly election in Tamil Nadu along with the DMK, but will maintain a safe distance from its tainted Tamil ally.
However, the Congress is unlikely to bully the Trinamool Congress in similar fashion. Trinamool leader and Union Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee has the moral edge that the Congress does not have. She is a pure breed of grassroot politician which neither Sonia Gandhi nor her son party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi can claim to be.
The DMK's ruling family confronts serious charges of corruption and nepotism, while Mamata is precisely the antithesis of such political maladies, so far. She is the classical neta who enjoys the image of a leader who stands up for the poor people and their issues.
In fact, very few people know much about her family. Some DMK leaders and members of their families, on the other hand, have reportedly cornered lucrative businesses and contracts in Tamil Nadu.
As the talks for seat-sharing for the West Bengal election between the Trinamool Congress and Congress has just began, both sides are planting stories in the media to counter each other's claims. In media management, posturing and spreading favourable images, the Trinamool Congress is no match for the Congress party.
Says a senior Trinamool leader, "The Congress's ploy is to see that the Trinamool should not be in a position to form a government on its own (in West Bengal). They want us to be dependent on them. They have no higher stakes than that!"
Mamata Banerjee has more to lose from this assembly election in Bengal than the Congress. "If the DMK-Congress seat-sharing exercise was a war of nerves, this one is for real. It is not the Congress, it is Mamata Banerjee who is going to defeat the CPI-M. The writing is on the wall. Her stakes are far higher than the Congress's game," adds the Trinamool leader.
Trinamool leaders claim the electorate's mood is veering towards Mamata Banerjee. She is the sole symbol that attracts anti-CPI-M forces in the state. The Communist Party of India-Marxist has ruled West Bengal uninterrupted since July 1977.
"Mamata needs the Congress more than the Congress needs the alliance," says a Congress leader. "If the Trinamool and Congress fight the election together, a party survey claims the Trinamool will get around 165 out of 294 seats, but without us, the Trinamool could get somewhere around 130. It will be a few seats less than a majority."
"All our surveys show that if Mamata decides to break away from the Congress," a senior Congress leader adds, "she would be short of a majority and surely need the Congress's support to form a government."
Without the Trinamool and Mamata's popularity the Congress would get only 22 to 25 seats or less. If the Congress and Trinamool fight the election together, then the Congress tally can touch 40 seats.
A Trinamool leader and member of Parliament explained that his party's talks with the Congress "are not about numbers. It is about where do they want seats. Seats like Kolkata and Midnapore will be hotly discussed."
Some Congressmen are alarming the Trinamool with loose talk. They claim that if the Trinamool and Congress fight the election separately and if the Trinamool gets 130 seats or less, a situation may crop up after the election where it would be possible for the Congress to tie up either with the Left parties or with the Trinamool.
Both sides know the Trinamool and Congress cadres are not supportive of each other. Another bone of contention is that many Congress MLAs have moved over to the Trinamool in the last five years. Would their constituencies be considered Trinamool or Congress seats?
On Monday, March 7, Mamata Banerjee gave her ministerial colleague and Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee a list of 58 assembly constituencies which she is ready to offer the Congress. She knows that a spilt in Congress and Trinamool votes would help the CPI-M-led Left Front.
Equally important is that to fulfill her life-long dream of defeating the CPI-M and create political history she wants the law and order situation in West Bengal to remain under control.
The issue of security is vital in Bengal politics. Mamata Banerjee wants an alliance with the Congress because she want the uninterrupted presence of security forces and the central goverment's help in the matter.
Dinesh Trivedi, the Union minister of state for health and a senior Trinamool leader, told Rediff.com, "The situation in West Bengal is totally different from Tamil Nadu. People are anxiously waiting for change. How is that change going to come? People of Bengal thinks it is through non-division of votes. It is not a question of an alliance between two parties. In politics we have to listen to the wishes of the people. This is the greatest opportunity to end 34 years of Left rule.
Even if the Congress and Trinamool fight the election separately, Trivedi says the winner will be the one who can defeat candidates of the Left coalition.
"People are very eager for change and they have decided how to cast their vote," says Trivedi. "They are going to cast their vote in favour of the candidate who is capable of defeating the CPI-M."
In spite of agreement over defeating the CPI-M-led coalition the Congress is tossing words like 'dignity, respect and honour' to bargain with Mamata Banerjee.
Rahul Gandhi, on his visit to Kolkata last year, said he wants an alliance with the Trinamool based on respect and honour for each other.
Since the Congress forged an alliance with the DMK without any kind of 'mutual honour and respect,' surely, it can ally with the Trinamool for the assembly election in Bengal.
Observers believe the Congress will have to negotiate for about 65 seats or less for itself, because a Congress survey indicates, without any alliance, the party may only win between 22 and 25 seats of West Bengal's 294 assembly seats.