'For the politics of patronage in West Bengal, it has always been important to have territorial control.'
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the state Budget as 'pro-employment' in a brief speech shortly after it was presented in the assembly by Finance Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya on February 16.
Giving the customary press conference a miss, she dashed off on a three-district tour to distribute several of the government's welfare schemes.
With the panchayat polls knocking on the door, there is little time to lose.
Notification for the panchayat elections was stayed by the Calcutta high court until February 27, which means it is unlikely to be held before the end of April or May.
But the stage is set for a high-stakes battle at the grassroots level.
The focus on rural Bengal is perceptible in the state Budget: Rs 3,000 crore (Rs 30 billion) allocation for strengthening existing roads and improving connectivity under a special project Rastashree, a death benefit scheme for dependent family members of fishermen (Matsyajeebi Bandhu), full waiver of water rate on irrigation water for farmers, widening the net of existing basic income support for women under Lakshmir Bhandar.
Hours after the speech was delivered, instructions were given to start work under the Rastashree scheme.
After all, it is the delivery of several schemes that ensured a stunning victory for the Trinamool Congress in the assembly elections of 2021.
But much water has flown under the Howrah Bridge since -- the arrest of former industry and information technology minister Partha Chatterjee by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with an alleged recruitment scam, the arrest of party strongman Anubrata Mondal by the Central Bureau of Investigation in a cattle smuggling scam, and more importantly, the recurring allegations of nepotism and corruption in various social schemes have somewhat soured the assembly win.
The overhang of violence from the last panchayat poll in 2018 is a still-fresh memory.
But a political strategist close to the TMC said a conscious effort is being made through outreach programmes to ensure the elections are "free and fair" and there is no 2018 redux.
In about 30 per cent of the seats, the Opposition could not even project a candidate. The results held little surprise.
The TMC swept with a 96 per cent vote share in the zilla parishad seats, 87.5 per cent in the panchayat samiti, and 78.4 per cent in gram panchayats; the Bharatiya Janata Party was a distant second.
In the Lok Sabha elections that followed in 2019, the TMC ate humble pie; it won 22 seats -- a lot lower than the 34 it had cornered in the previous general election.
It also had the BJP snapping at its heels with 18 seats; in terms of vote share, the saffron party was at 40.25 per cent, the TMC 43.28 per cent.
It was a wake-up call for the TMC.
Poll strategist and tactician Prashant Kishor was enlisted by the CM's nephew and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee.
An overhaul followed.
The results reflected in the assembly elections. The BJP, which had one foot in the door and looking to overthrow the ruling party, stood disappointed, even though it had a great showing with 77 seats.
But with some ghar wapsis to the TMC, the tally now stands at 69.
The party is picking up the pieces and warming up for a good fight.
BJP President J P Nadda was on a two-day visit recently and is expected again, as is Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Samik Bhattacharya, chief spokesperson for the BJP's West Bengal unit, dismisses speculation that the visits were specifically for the panchayat.
"We have meetings throughout the year."
But he conceded that the panchayat was the state's most important election and the goal of the party was to have full participation in all the seats and register visibility.
The Left, however, believes that both the BJP and the TMC want to delay the polls.
"They want to go untested before the Lok Sabha elections," says Communist Party of India-Marxist West Bengal state Secretary Mohammed Salim.
Local body elections generally come and go unnoticed. What makes it a do-or-die battle this around?
"For the politics of patronage in West Bengal, it has always been important to have territorial control," says a political analyst.
Historically, the panchayat has defined the shape of things to come in Bengal.
In 2008, the Left saw huge erosion in its vote share.
This had a knock-on effect on the general election.
Finally, it was ousted in the assembly election of 2011 by the TMC.
Samik Bhattacharya is not hazarding a guess on his party's prospects in the panchayat elections.
But he believes that the BJP's tally from Bengal in the general election of 2024 will be 24-plus seats (out of 42).
"The counting will start from there."
Political analysts believe that the dry run before the general election of 2024 would be important for both the TMC and the BJP.
"The outcome is unlikely to hold much surprise. What will be closely watched is factionalism within the TMC and the BJP," they observe.