Tied on vote, neck & neck in seats
Keshpur votes in one-sided match
Stormy today, sunny tomorrow
Cong up but BJP in with a shout
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, May 10: 
A humdinger of an election for West Bengal ended today with an exit poll holding out the possibility of a skin-of-teeth victory for the Left Front but meaning all things to all men.

The pollster, Development and Research Services (DRS), kept a margin of error of 3 percentage points which left wide the options of a hung Assembly or a win for Mamata Banerjee, too.

The exit poll on Doordarshan and Zee made an �indicative� forecast of 150 seats for the Left Front, 138 for the Congress-Trinamul alliance and six for Independents and others, including the BJP. �By no means should the exit poll for West Bengal be cause for celebration or despondency. I have been trying to convey repeatedly that, in West Bengal, the poll is only indicative. An error of up to 3 per cent can make a difference of 24 seats on either side. Even 1 per cent less for the Left could be their worst case scenario � they could end up losing power,� said Narasimha Rao of DRS.

This means that DRS is saying the Left�s tally could be as low as 126 seats or as high as 174. For the Congress-Trinamul alliance, it could be between 113 and 163. Though the DRS poll has indicated a swing of 6 per cent away from the Left, it is actually .58 per cent more, compared to its voteshare in the 1996 Assembly poll. The erosion of Left votes has been absorbed mostly by the Congress-Trinamul alliance but also by others.

�A difference of 1 per cent could mean 8 seats this way or that way. It is technically a sound poll but not a definitive estimate. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, we were bang on target.� DRS, however, had gone wrong in the last Bihar Assembly poll, predicting 75 seats less for Laloo Yadav than what the RJD actually won.

In effect, the margin of error leaves the electorate little wiser than what everyone had predicted: that this is going to be a tight poll. DRS has given both the Left and the Congress-Trinamul an identical voteshare � 44 per cent � but has said that even with this the Left could get more seats. It has also indicated a 12 per cent vote for Independents and others.

This is where pollsters raise doubts. �My understanding is that if the voteshare of the Left Front and the Congress-Trinamul is equal, the Left will probably lose. This is because the Left in Bengal has traditionally had citadels where its candidates have won by huge margins. The average margin of victory of the Left Front candidates is usually very high. What it (the exit poll) definitely does not mean is that the Left Front has won the elections by 10 seats. The 3 per cent margin of error, if it comes into play, can change the complexion entirely,� said Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Yadav said the outcome of an exit poll depended, among other things, on the size of the sample, its geographical spread, the urban-rural divide and the male-female ratio.

But pollsters agree that predicting the outcome of the Bengal elections is one of the toughest assignments for a psephologist. �The results can go exactly the opposite way in terms of seats,� said Shiloo Chattopadhyay of TNS Mode, Calcutta. �The number of seats could go up or down by many times more than 3 per cent because the margin of error is on the estimate of votes polled at the constituency level. But the pattern in one constituency can be reflected in 10 other seats. The only conclusion one can draw is that there is a very high degree of competition in each constituency. To be fair, a margin of error has to be kept because the survey does not cover every voter. The errors are compensated by what we call the comfort of large numbers.�

Narasimha Rao said DRS had included the GNLF as part of the Congress-Trinamul alliance.


Keshpur, May 10: 
Six people died in Bengal�s poll violence today, but murder zone Midnapore was quiet. Much too quiet.

Here in Keshpur and neighbouring Garbeta, which were convulsed by political clashes that began months before the polls, there was not even a minor incident of violence.

They were much too quiet. And Keshpur was covered in red. Too much red. As Rajani Dolui, Trinamul�s Keshpur candidate discovered when he entered his constituency under police escort.

On the stretch of road going into Keshpur, there was not a single Trinamul flag. When Dolui visited two small villages � Sorui and Mugbasan � here, he didn�t find any of his men. Travelling in a Maruti, Dolui entered Keshpur at 10 am and the story of the two villages repeated itself in several places. Except those that accompanied him from Midnapore town, there was not a soul around to stand with him.

Dolui said he would move court against the CPM for not allowing his party to depute election agents in 135 of the 199 booths in Keshpur. He was not exaggerating, not much anyway. Most of the booths visited by this correspondent had no Trinamul agent.

Haripukur primary school, for instance. The booth has 571 voters. By 11.30 am, 388 of them had already cast their votes. No Trinamul agent was around.

Asked why there was no Trinamul agent, presiding officer S.C. Roy said: �What can I do? It�s not my duty to mobilise agents for any political party.�

After drawing a blank in many of the places he visited, Dolui left Keshpur. Polling continued without Trinamul agents. Till 3 pm, 65 per cent of the electorate had made their choice, district magistrate M.V. Rao said. In nearby Garbeta East, the polling was 59 per cent till that time.

Dipak Sarkar, the CPM�s district secretary, said: �I can�t tell you how many agents Trinamul has deputed in Keshpur.� He knew about Garbeta, though. In the two constituencies there � East and West � Trinamul had poll agents in 92 booths, Sarkar said.

A.K. Maliwal, Midnapore�s superintendent of police, said police had helped Trinamul post agents in a number of booths in the area. �But how can we mobilise elections agents?� he asked.

The election observer for Keshpur, Chinken Thung, expressed satisfaction with the conduct of polls. He had not seen the middle-aged man who was running through paddy fields near Eluni village in Keshpur. Asked why he was running so fast in the scorching sun, the man who refused to divulge his identity said he was going home to tell his brother not to go to the booth to cast his vote.

�I and my brother are Trinamul supporters. I had gone to cast my vote and was not allowed by CPM agents. They asked me to cast my vote in their presence, but I refused,� he said.

Dipak Sarkar was in a mirthful mood. �Mamata was in Midnapore last night. She could have requested me to help them recruit election agents in Keshpur and Garbeta and I was ready to help her. I could have lent her some of my men,� he said. He didn�t say, though, that the outcome would have been no different.


Midnapore, May 10: 
As the sun set over the Bengal battlefield and the key to Writers� Buildings was safely locked up in the electronic voting machines, Mamata Banerjee left Midnapore with her lips spread in a smile and her fingers parting in a �V�, confident that she is the �rising sun of tomorrow�.

Since 10.30 pm yesterday, when Mamata reached the terror terrain that is expected to be the decider in these polls, till 5.30 pm today when she returned, she was swinging between anger and hope.

But as she was leaving, Mamata oozed confidence that she would win. �The CPM tried to unleash violence on a massive scale today. But I have no doubt that we are coming to power. We are the rising sun tomorrow morning,� she said.

�It is unfortunate that some people were killed and injured in today�s violence. But wherever people have been allowed to vote, they have voted in our favour.

�Some ministers tried to sponsor violence at Garbeta, Keshpur, Danton, Pingla and Narayangarh in Midnapore, Arambagh in Hooghly and the forest areas in Bankura. Polling has been reduced to a farce in these places. But still they could not achieve foolproof rigging,� Mamata said.

Only two hours earlier, she had been fuming. Holed up in a corner room in her favourite Shiromani Guest House, Mamata waited for news of polling from all over the district. As private secretary Goutam Bose took endless calls from partymen complaining of polling agents being beaten up, jeeps being set on fire and booths being jammed by CPM activists, her face grew redder. The last straw was when some injured supporters were brought to her room.

Mamata marched out and exploded. �I was just going to leave this place to cast my vote in Calcutta. But I have decided not to cast my vote this time. Lakhs of voters here are not in a position to cast their vote. I should make some arrangements for them. One lakh votes are much more important than my single vote. I had assured the people of Midnapore that I will be by their side in times of distress. I should keep my promise,� she thundered before the waiting reporters.

In Calcutta, however, Mamata�s supporters were confident she would arrive to cast her vote. �She will be back anytime between 3 pm and 4 pm to cast her vote,� was the buzz at her Harish Chatterjee Street home. A large crowd gathered outside the polling booth at Mitra Institution to watch their leader cast her vote. They went away disappointed as Mamata stayed put in the district where the stakes are the highest and returned only at night.

�I had warned this ineffective administration in Midnapore last night that they should behave impartially. But they have not. I will teach them a good lesson this time,� she roared.

A reporter asked an uncomfortable question and she stomped back to her room, leaving newsmen sweating in the the blazing sun for the rest of the day. But as evening fell, her anger evaporated and when Mamata came out of her room again to leave for home, she was flashing the victory signal and a smile.


New Delhi, May 10: 
If the exit poll predictions in four states hold good, Sonia Gandhi�s Congress may see itself on the comeback trail at the national level, but will be short of the steam needed for rapid acceleration.

The DRS exit polls in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam point to the Congress as the sole winner among the national parties, leaving the BJP not much of an escape route to say that the mini-referendum has yielded at best a mixed verdict.

Read closely, though, the Congress appears much less of a winner than it had possibly hoped to be. Only in Kerala is it projected to waltz to a comfortable victory, as expected, with 100 seats.

At 60 in Assam, the forecast left it short of the majority mark of 64, though it should be able to form a government there with the help of others. That means a coalition with all its attendant instability and not the comfort of one-party rule.

The last shot may not yet have been fired in the battle for Bengal, but unless the exit poll prediction there is way off the mark, it is difficult to see how the Congress-Trinamul alliance can achieve the impossible of dislodging the Left Front.

As the party lodged a complaint with the Election Commission alleging large-scale rigging in Midnapore district, Congress leaders were expressing hopes of a sort of grand reunion.

�Even if we fail to make it in Bengal by a narrow margin, we are confident of getting stalwarts like Mamata Banerjee and G.K. Moopanar (in Tamil Nadu) back in the Congress parivar,� a CWC member said.

Getting Moopanar, who has already hinted at homecoming, will be easier than achieving similar success with Mamata, and Congress leaders are aware of that. �Let her decide. If she is keen on maintaining a separate identity, we will respect her sentiments. But if the two Congresses merge in Bengal, the Left will be wiped out,� the CWC member said.

After the exit poll, expression of that confidence may sound somewhat hollow to Trinamul leaders like Ajit Panja who already has one foot in the BJP. He will interpret the result as vindication of his stand that parting with the BJP was a mistake. There are others in Trinamul who are prepared to listen to him.

In order to get another chance to �wipe out the Left�, the alliance will have to wait another five years and that is too long a term to preclude possibilities of a realignment of forces.

A defeat for Mamata could well be seen by at least a section in the BJP as a victory for the party since she dared to befriend the Congress.

Subterranean efforts to woo Trinamul MPs back to the Vajpayee coalition might not remain all that secret.

If the results do show that the BJP has played the spoiler for Mamata in Bengal by eating into Opposition votes, some of its leaders will derive the satisfaction of a dog in the manger. That the Congress, too, takes a blow in the process will be cause for further lip-smacking.

What, however, could really help the BJP rubbish an almost inevitable Congress claim that the polls in four states had thrown up a verdict against the Vajpayee government is a minor change in the close result the exit poll has predicted in Tamil Nadu.

The shocker has really come from the South with the prediction that Jayalalitha is getting 48 per cent of the votes and M. Karunanidhi�s ruling DMK 47 per cent.

The vote share gives the Jaya-Congress alliance (it has some other parties, too) 125 seats, seven beyond the majority mark, but the exit poll has a three percentage point margin of error. With the two sides� vote shares so close, even a tiny margin of error could see Karunanidhi back in the throne and the queen licking her wounds.

If that happens, the BJP will get an opportunity to call the Tamil Nadu mandate a verdict for the National Democratic Alliance, of which the DMK is a part.

Besides, the BJP is a constituent of the DMK-led combine in Tamil Nadu.

Both the Congress and the BJP reacted cautiously to the projections. BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra said: �The exit poll seems to be more or less accurate in the case of Kerala but in Tamil Nadu we hope to do better. In Assam, the Congress seems to fall short of a majority so it needs to be seen if the other groups can come together with it. Regarding West Bengal, it is still unclear if the Left Front can get a majority.�

Congress leader Kamal Nath said: �The exit polls are not the last word. In any case, we were always confident of wresting Kerala and Assam and gaining a majority in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu with our allies.�




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