Will appeasement, rising unemployment and her dictatorial style become major obstacles in her path? asks Payal Singh Mohanka.
'Khela Hobe' declares the Trinamool Congress with gusto as it launches the most challenging battle of its 23-year-long political career.
As the 'Game On' rap resounds through West Bengal, not just the TMC, but its opponents too are echoing this slogan.
While both the TMC and the BJP put up a brave front and announce that they will cross the 200 seat mark in the Bengal assembly, a deeply divided electorate is stridently debating the possible outcomes and their repercussions for the state.
The voter waits with bated breath to watch the game unfold.
The first goal went to the BJP as the Election Commission announced an eight-phase election starting March 27. An enraged TMC cried foul.
"Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is forgetting that in 2011 she had demanded an 8-phase election. She fought the CPI-M in a democratic election and won the mandate" says BJP spokesperson Shishir Bajoria. But now she wants to convert democracy into a dictatorship."
"She does not want any Opposition. We are very happy with the decision of the Election Commission," says Bajoria, adding, " Our representation to the EC was that the election has to be held under the direct supervision of the central armed police forces and not the West Bengal or the Kolkata police."
As the dust settles on the TMC's annoyance with the EC's decision, the game is now in full swing.
Each political party is ready with its bag of 'tricks'.
Some tricks work, some don't. The BJP's attempts to gain mileage from the nationwide vaccination drive and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi's photograph on the COVID-19 vaccine certificate was stymied by the Election Commission.
The EC in response to a complaint by the TMC has asked the Union health ministry to discontinue the use of Modi's photograph on certificates in the five poll-bound states.
Bitter combat has also prompted the TMC to display ingenuity.
The state administrative machinery worked overtime to issue 10 lakh caste certificates of scheduled caste/scheduled rribes within a month.
In the normal course, the process of issuing these certificates with appropriate verification would have taken well over a year.
These certificates, which provide a host of benefits such as government subsidies, reservation in educational institutions and jobs, were issued just before the model code of conduct kicked in.
Mamata di has fielded 96 SC/ST candidates, some even in non-reserved constituencies.
Similarly, she hopes to benefit from the frenetic distribution of old-age and widow pension to 15 lakh beneficiaries.
Didi's government launched a slew of welfare programmes recently like the Swastha Sathi, a Rs 5 lakh universal health insurance, 20 lakh pucca houses, 100 English medium schools for SC/STs and a Rs 5 meal comprising rice, dal, a vegetable and an egg.
What happens to these populist measures post the election remains to be seen.
It's a no-holds barred duel as the chief minister projects herself as the 'daughter of Bengal' taking on 'the outsider'.
While Sunday, March 7, saw Mamata di on a padayatra in Siliguri in North Bengal, tearing into the BJP's inability to check rising fuel and LPG prices, the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata witnessed Modi's passionate promise of a new Bengal as he addressed a mammoth crowd.
Since the announcement of the election schedule for the state this was the first rally.
Twenty-one more rallies are expected to be addressed by Modi over the next few weeks.
Unimpressed with Modi's crowd-pulling abilities, TMC senior leader and MP Saugata Roy says, "These promises are just empty election rhetoric. They mean nothing. Modi says he will develop Kolkata and bring industry. What about his promises for India? Two crore jobs per year, bringing all the black money from abroad back to India. What happened? He has not fulfilled any of them."
As the electorate in Bengal soaks in the series of competitive performances, this sport clearly has no rules.
The incumbent and the challenger do not hesitate to make vicious personal attacks or hit below the belt.
Didi likens Modi to the virus, he mimics her riding a two-wheeler.
'Khela hobe', they had shrieked. Sport yes but no one promised sportsmanship.
Just a few days ago the Brigade Parade Ground had seen a strength of show by the third competitor in this arena: The Left Front, Congress and Indian Secular Front combine.
While the Congress and the Left fight in Kerala, they have allied several times before, but this time eyebrows are being raised.
A supposedly atheist party and a secular one is now joining forces with a party headed by a Muslim cleric.
Dismissed as an unpalatable cocktail, this force could surprise us and emerge as a game changer.
If the ISF headed by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif attracts the Muslim votes, a sizeable 33% in the state, the TMC could suffer a huge loss and it could be Advantage BJP.
However, a political observer says, "Typically the minority community votes for the party which in their opinion is most likely to win."
In which case, since the BJP won't get their votes, they might put their strength once again behind Didi and not this rather awkwardly stitched alliance.
Interestingly, families in Bengal are sharply divided.
While anti-incumbency is a factor for some, others cannot come to terms with the BJP's style.
A section of the state that has grown up on Tagore's 'where the mind is without fear and the head is held high' recoils at the treatment meted out to the Deepika Padukones for showing solidarity with students, the Taapsee Pannus for supporting farmers and to the likes of Disha Ravi.
Can Modi's magic erase the recent memory of an additional sessions judge who declared that 'sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments'.
Can the promise of 'asol poribortan and 'sonar Bangla' lure the voter? The absence of 'achhey din' and the growing economic disparity are tragic realities.
Would Bengal benefit if it had the same political party as the Centre?
A few new projects could come Bengal's way, but devolution of funds is done by the Finance Commission and the government at the Centre has little leeway.
In the final analysis, a state's performanceis more about governance in the state than who is in power at the Centre.
Will anti-incumbency prevent Didi from embarking on a third term in office?
Will she feel the loss of all the TMC loyalists who walked away from her?
Will she pay the price for promoting her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, and sidelining seniors?
Will appeasement, rising unemployment and her dictatorial style become major obstacles in her path?
If she retains power, she will emerge as one of the tallest Opposition leaders in the country.
In true BJP style, there is no CM face for the voter in Bengal.
There are real fears about who will head the state if the BJP were to come to power and, bizarre as it might sound, apprehensions about dietary restrictions, imposition of the vernacular in education and the idea of Bengal run by the diktat of the power behind the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Will the fears about a change in the very ethos of Bengal being expressed today by even the educated in the state actually work to the TMC's advantage?
Are these concerns about Bengal losing its very spirit baseless and meaningless? Maybe, like election promises these fears too could have tenuous links with reality.
As clouds of uncertainty swirl and a confused state goes to the polls it's a challenging match between a known quantity versus the fear of the unknown.
While the BJP invokes Lord Ram, Didi in her first address at Nandigram, her constituency this time, sought the blessings of Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva!
This match promises a nail-biting finish.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com