Electioneering seems to have shifted gears in West Bengal in the 10-day long gap between polling in the second phase on April 26, and the third on May 3. Campaigning by main contestants Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has intensified.

The voters’ turnout, however, remained lower than the previous times even on Tuesday. However, the election process has been unusually calm compared to recent experiences, be it in general elections or local polls. This was reportedly noted by the Election Commission too.

West Bengal, along with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, will vote in all seven phases of Lok Sabha Elections 2024. The Opposition, especially Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, has viewed this as an attempt to provide an advantage to the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery. Officially, though, rampant violence in previous elections is an often-cited cause.

The Election Commission reported a 64.5% voters’ turnout for the 93 Lok Sabha seats in the third phase, still lower than in 2019 but with a narrower gap in the first two phases. Assam led the tally; but among big states, the turnout (75.79%) was the most in West Bengal.

While that may have been way better than Bihar (58.18%) or Uttar Pradesh (57.34%), it trailed the state’s own performance (around 82%) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. IN the 2021, Assembly polls too turnout mostly remained above 80%, inching closer to 90% in some cases.

The first two phases, when six constituencies in north Bengal went to polls, also recorded a considerable dip in voting. This matched the countrywide trend. While some blamed this on a hotter-than-usual summer, many believed that a section of the voters have turned apathetic.

West Bengal has generally been known for a high voter turnout. The reversal this time, though not as much as in other parts of the country, could have sounded alarm bells among the election managers in the two chief contestants. The campaigning has now heated up.

As it is, the contest was expected to be more robust as the poll itinerary glided into Gangetic West Bengal. Banerjee may have been the CM for more than a decade but her party is yet to get a big win here.

Even among the four seats that voted in the third phase, TMC could be comfortable with only one: Jangipur, where its candidate Khalilur Rahaman won by nearly 2.46 lakh votes in 2019.

In neighbouring Murshidabad too, Abu Taher Khan had secured an over two lakh margin, but he has reasons to worry. Indifferent health allegedly kept him away from the constituency in most parts, and the Left Front, in alliance with the Congress, has put up a spirited fight there.

Their candidate, CPI-M state secretary Md. Salim, is a seasoned politician who in 2014 had snatched away the Raiganj seat. Trinamool would especially be worried about his ability, unlike many of his colleagues, to woo the minority voters.

Murshidabad polled 81.52% votes, higher than the other seats, which the Left camp is viewing as a sign in its favour. In the two seats in Malda district, it played a challenger to the BJP and the Congress.

This scenario will change from the fourth phase, which votes May 13. For one, almost double the number of seats would vote in each phase than in the previous three. Resources, both material and human capital, will thus have to be allocated more judiciously.

In most of these seats, the battle will be for Trinamool to keep its base intact and win back the seats that the BJP had managed to take away from it. For the BJP, the goal is to protect its gains and build on it.

“The aim is to win 28-30 seats. That would put the state government in a spot,” a source in the state BJP unit said.

“That would be a tall ask and opposite to what our surveys indicate,” another source associated with I-PAC, which is working for TMC, said. Sources in this camp predicted between 24 and 28 seats for TMC, among the total 42 in Bengal.

A shift in gear is already visible in election campaigning, especially in the Trinamool camp. The party was already hard-selling various welfare schemes such as ‘Lakshmir Bhandar, Kanyasree’, run by the state government. After the first two phases, it increased its stress on painting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP as outsiders and anti-Bengal.

To drive home the point, the CM and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee (also the party’s general secretary), has repeatedly highlighted how the Union government has held back funds for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme as well as for constructing houses for the poor. They have even claimed that the state will step in to fund these schemes on its own, at least partially.

The Trinamool has also tried to turn the heat from the alleged teacher recruitment scam, blaming the BJP and the CPI-M for the uncertainty that now dogs tens of thousands of school teachers. A high court order to scrap their recruitment process marred by accusations of corruption was stayed by the Supreme Court only on Tuesday. Banerjee’s government has paid salaries to these teachers for April and has committed to do so through the case’s hearing.

The Trinamool offensive against the saffron camp , however, has come in the form of a bunch of ‘sting’ videos that aim to turn the tables on the Sandeshkhali issue. The first of these landed on Sunday afternoon, after campaigning for Phase 3 had drawn to a close.

In it, a block-level BJP leader was shown claiming that the rape charges leveled against TMC functionaries are false. He named BJP leader and Banerjee’s bête noire Suvendu Adhikari as the one who organised the drive.

Women were allegedly paid to lodge the complaint and even instructed to say that the purported rapes occurred months ago to avoid getting caught in any medical test.

The BJP, or Adhikari, are yet to convincingly disprove that the man on the screen is not who TMC claims him to be, though they have claimed that the video could be a case of ‘deepfake’.

In January, Sheikh Shahjahan, a local party functionary in Sandeshkhali, North 24 Parganas district, started off a chain reaction while dodging an Enforcement Directorate (ED) raid related to alleged money-laundering. In February, several women from the area alleged sexual harassment by Shahjahan or his men.

While this was condemned by women’s rights activists across the country, the BJP, especially Adhikari, tried to turn it into an electoral issue. It fielded Rekha Patra, one of the complainants, as its candidate from Basirhat constituency, which Sandeshkhali is a part of.

Some of the alleged victims were put on the stage in campaign rallies in other parts of Bengal. Some were even taken to meet President Draupadi Murmu.

On Wednesday, more clips surfaced with women claiming that there was no rape. They claimed that they approached the police to complain against non-payment of dues for chores like cooking.

But inside the station, they were made to sign blank sheets and rape complaints were lodged. This casts a shadow on the meet-the-president trip too.

Another issue that will now be put to test is that of the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, which has been strongly attacked by all I.N.D.I.A. Bloc constituents. The BJP has tried to staunchly defend it, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah earlier saying nobody can stall it.

But CM Banerjee has vociferously criticised the move and advised all in Bengal to stay away from applying for citizenship under it. Those who are voters are already citizens, she has pointed out.

The Trinamool has also pointed out that BJP’s own Union minister Shantanu Thakur is yet to apply for it. Thakur’s Matua community, marginalised migrants from Bangladesh, is expected to be one of the most affected by the move. The Matuas can influence electoral results in several seats, including in Krishnanagar and Ranaghat in Phase 4.

The TMC hopes to wrest Ranaghat from the BJP and has fielded young Matua leader Mukutmani Adhikari. He was a BJP legislator and changed ship just ahead of the polls.

In neighbouring Krishnanagar, expelled parliamentarian Mahua Moitra seeks reelection. The BJP has put up Amrita Roy, married into the erstwhile royal family there, against her.

Further north, Congress’s Leader of Opposition Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has his task cut out in Baharampur—his bastion, but where his margin slid majorly in 2019.

The other five seats are west of the Ganga. Former BJP state party chief Dilip Ghosh has been moved from his home constituency of Medinipur and tasked with retaining Bardhaman-Durgapur. The only other seat that the BJP won among these was Asansol, which Trinamool whisked away from it in a byelection after the MP and former Union minister Babul Supriyo defected from the BJP to TMC. Bollywood star Shatrughan Sinha seeks reelection here from Trinamool.

In Bardhaman Purba, Bolpur and Birbhum, the BJP has to put up a strong case for itself in front of the voters if it hopes to increase its tally substantially. As of now, though it has mostly harped on how corrupt the Trinamool regime is in the state and stayed away mostly from discussing its own achievement in the Centre.

In response, Trinamool has brought back memories of scams that have dogged the BJP, including the Vyapam scandal.

The BJP has especially faced trouble in Birbhum, as it had to hurriedly change the candidate. Its first choice, a police officer in the state, didn't receive departmental clearance to contest.

Above all, what will keep playing in the minds of all sides is the continuing trend of fewer voters coming out to exercise their franchise. This apathy has added to the general sense of political unease and lack of clarity. Somewhat like the ponds in rural Bengal that turn muddy as the waterline recedes in the summer.

It has been a particularly excruciating summer, with swathes of the land reeling under a record heatwave. The weather has turned only recently with a spate of Kalboishakhi thunderstorms and spells of rain.

For the political parties, however, the old Bangla adage will hold true: “‘Ghola jole maachh dhora’ (catch the fish in muddy waters)”.