West Bengal

BJP making inroads

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a campaign rally in Siliguri on April 3. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: PTI

The CPI(M)’s Md. Salim campaigning in Raiganj constituency. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Nishith Pramanik, a former Trinamool Congress strongman, is the BJP candidate in Cooch Behar. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

The living conditions of tea garden workers continue to be wretched. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Red Bank Tea Estate workers. The tea garden has remained shut for 22 years. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

The party poses a tough challenge to the Trinamool Congress in the five north Bengal constituencies where voting will take place in the first two phases of the election which voters perceive as a precursor of the 2021 Assembly election.

For the first time in West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a major political force. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Pradesh Congress have failed to arrive at a seat-sharing arrangement, and neither of the two parties is individually strong enough to seriously impact the election. In most constituencies, therefore, it will be a direct fight between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in the long-drawn seven-phase battle for the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State.

While it is undeniable that there has been development under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stewardship, particularly in north Bengal, which will be going to the polls in the first two phases (April 11 and April 18), a growing disenchantment with the ruling party is also evident. This is mainly owing to its blatant use of terror and intimidation to win elections and alleged corruption and nepotism in the disbursal of various kinds of loaves and fishes and the benefits of employment generation programmes under different government schemes. But the biggest and most immediate factor that seems to be working against the Trinamool is the impact of the violent and allegedly rigged panchayat elections of 2018. Over 40 people were killed in that election, and 34 per cent of the total seats (20,076) were won uncontested by the ruling party.

Mamata Banerjee has made very evident her ambition to be a key player at the national level. The BJP, too, is leaving no stone unturned in its drive to capture West Bengal. It will be an interesting contest between two of the most powerful leaders of the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee. Moreover, there is a growing perception among anti-Trinamool voters, including a section of Left supporters, that the BJP is the only party capable of defeating the Trinamool in the State. In fact, for many of them the immediate need is to oust the Trinamool, at whatever cost, in the 2021 Assembly election. In that respect, the 2019 Lok Sabha election in West Bengal is as much a vote for determining who will come to power at the Centre as it is a run-up to the Assembly election two years later.

The BJP has pinned its hopes in north Bengal, where it expects to win the largest number of seats, as its organisation here is the strongest. Five of the eight north Bengal seats will go to the polls in the first two phases, and three in the third phase on April 23. The results here will be a deciding factor in the politics of West Bengal in the days to come. “We will win all eight Lok Sabha seats from north Bengal in a big way,” predicted senior BJP leader Mukul Roy. However, of the eight seats,it is in the five seats going to polls on April 11 and 18 where the BJP has the best chance of winning.

Alipurduar

The BJP’s electoral prospects in the tea-growing district of Alipurduar appear to be bright. For the people of the Red Bank Tea Estate in the constituency, however, the elections have become a farce. For the last 22 years, this tea garden has remained shut and the 350-odd families that live here have been eking out a miserable hand-to-mouth existence, somehow clinging on to the hope that one day things will turn for the better. For the last 20 years, they have been hearing assurances from politicians who materialise suddenly before elections and then disappear once the voting is over. Their living conditions are wretched, and the spectre of starvation constantly stares them in the face. None of the promises made to them by politicians has ever been kept, and they allege that only the handful who are close to the ruling party get the chance to work and earn. “If they know that I am making such allegations, then I will never get any work,” said a woman in the garden.

Of the 62 tea gardens in the constituency, around 12 are either closed or ailing. In spite of the State government’s interventions to either reopen the closed gardens or ameliorate the hardship of the workers, the latter’s condition has remained largely unchanged and there is a strong resentment stemming from a sense of neglect. “Mamata Banerjee comes to north Bengal and speeds by with her sirens and cars and has never once entered this garden,” said a resident.

The tea garden voters, accounting for around 40 per cent of the electorate, are a determining factor in elections in the region, and they seem to be turning away from the Trinamool. A repeated allegation against the sitting Trinamool Member of Parliament, Dasharath Tirkey, is that he is never seen standing by the people in the gardens in their time of need. In the closed Madhu Tea Estate, the workers claimed that not once in the last five years had they seen their MP. In fact, in the gram panchayat seat in his own stronghold of Kumargram, Tirkey’s candidate suffered a shocking defeat last year.

The BJP, in a smart move, gave the party ticket in Alipurduar constituency to John Barla, one of the tallest Adivasi leaders in the region who has been for long involved in the movement for the rights of tea workers. Fielding him is likely to win over the tribal vote and also attract minority support. Even in the face of unprecedented violence in the rural election, the BJP won eight gram panchayats and one panchayat samiti in Alipurduar. Subsequently, however, the ruling party, allegedly with the help of muscle and money power, gained control of all the seats BJP had won. It is important to keep in mind that for the people of the tea gardens, voting is a time for celebration. Many of the workers resented the fact that in the panchayat elections they were not allowed to cast their votes. “I would probably have voted for Trinamool. Why was I denied my right?” asked a tea garden worker.

However, the national leadership of the BJP seems more occupied in trying to polarise the votes on communal lines than in addressing the real concerns of the people. Addressing a massive gathering in Alipurduar town on March 29, BJP president Amit Shah focussed on the implementation of the National Register for Citizens in West Bengal. “Mamataji is under the impression that the infiltrators will see her through in this election…. The Narendra Modi government will return to power and we will bring the NRC. Each and every infiltrator will be ousted from the State,” he said. At the same time he said non-Muslim “refugees” will be allowed to stay. Perhaps Shah was unaware that in the neighbouring district of Cooch Behar, bordering Bangladesh, a sizeable section of the Muslim population was supporting his party in reaction to the Trinamool’s alleged reign of terror.

In 2014, the Left Front’s Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) lost its stronghold of Alipurduar to the Trinamool by a narrow margin of 21,397 votes. It is unlikely that the RSP will be a factor here this year. A large section of voters opposed to the Trinamool are leaning towards the BJP as an immediate alternative. “I have always voted for the RSP. But the Trinamool needs to be removed now, and the Left is too weak to do so. Hence our reliance on the BJP,” said Shyam Das, a resident of Alipurduar town. Many voters in north Bengal also view the elections as a sort of precursor to the 2021 Assembly elections.

Cooch Behar

In Cooch Behar constituency, the Trinamool will have a tough fight against the BJP. In this erstwhile stronghold of the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) of the Left Front, now dominated by the Trinamool, one of the most formidable local leaders has switched camps and is taking on his old political master. There has been a lot of controversy regarding the BJP’s selection of Nishith Pramanik, a former Trinamool strongman with 11 criminal cases pending against him, in the district. There was a backlash within the BJP itself when Pramanik’s candidacy was announced and a section of the party even staged a violent demonstration against the party leadership in the district. “Our candidate is young and whatever be his image, it is undeniable that he is a leader. He has brought a huge support base with him,” Malati Ranga Rava, the Cooch Behar district president of the BJP, told Frontline.

The BJP is also banking on the fierce inner struggle within the Trinamool to work in its favour. A bitter faction feud allegedly led to the sitting MP, Partha Pratim Roy, being replaced by Paresh Adhikari, a former Left Front Minister, as the Trinamool candidate. “If they had fielded Partha, it could have been a tough fight for us; but with Paresh it is definitely advantage BJP,” said Rava. Pramanik comes with enough popular support and muscle to take on the Trinamool at its own game. For the first time, the usually aggressive Trinamool appears to be on the back foot in Cooch Behar. Even its campaign against Pramanik based upon the criminal cases against him is brushed aside by the latter as a desperate attempt to win. “I was with the Trinamool for so long. Why did they not talk about all the cases then? Why only after I have joined the BJP?” Pramanik asked Frontline. Lashing out against his former leader, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, he said: “Today the Trinamool is a private limited company—a pishi-bhaipo (aunt-nephew) private limited company.”

Athough in the 2014 elections the AIFB was in the second position, in the 2016 byelection following the death of the sitting Trinamool MP, Renuka Sinha, the BJP emerged as a distant runner-up.

Darjeeling

In the second phase of the election on April 18, all eyes will be on the Darjeeling seat, which is poised for a most interesting three-way contest among the BJP, the Trinamool and the regional Jan Andolan Party (JAP). Elections in the hills have always been a one-sided affair—whoever the dominant party in the region supports, wins. Until 2008 it was Subash Ghising and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) that reigned supreme in the hills. After that, until 2017, it was Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM). This is the first time in more than three decades that there is no single most powerful political force in the Darjeeling hills and hence no certainty regarding the outcome of the election. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, in 2009 and 2014, the BJP won with huge margins from Darjeeling with the support of the GJM.

This time, for Mamata Banerjee, winning this seat is a prestige issue. After coming to power in 2011, she successfully brought the violent agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland to a halt by creating the statutory autonomous elected body, Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA). However, after six years of relative peace, the Darjeeling hills flared up again over the demand for separate statehood. In the agitation that followed, more than 10 people were killed in alleged police firing, and the hills shut down in a bandh that lasted a record 104 days. Subsequently, an uneasy peace returned with the then supremo of the GJM, Bimal Gurung, fleeing the State to avoid arrest and Mamata Banerjee installing in his place Binay Tamang, a once-trusted aide of Gurung, as the head of a reconstituted GTA board. Buoyed by the division within the GJM and the success in restoring normalcy in the hills, the Trinamool hopes that its candidate, Amar Singh Rai, will win with the support of the Binay Tamang faction. “At the end of the day the people will vote for Mamata Banerjee. She loves the people of the hills and she has proved that. The people are tired of bandhs,” Binny Sharma, senior Trinamool leader from Darjeeling, told Frontline.

However, memories of the crackdown on the agitation and the loss of lives in police firing are still fresh in the hills, where a separate State of Gorkhaland is not just a political issue but a matter of pride and identity. Many see Binay Tamang’s alliance with Mamata Banerjee as the betrayal of a long and bloody movement that began in 1986 under the leadership of Subash Ghising. “Does Mamata Banerjee think we hill people are so fickle that we will forget the sacrifice of all those who died for Gorkhaland? She has forcibly imposed her rule on us and she is backed by a traitor. She can never win,” said a resident of Darjeeling.

Though Bimal Gurung himself continues to remain outside the hills to avoid arrest, his faction of the GJM and the GNLF have put their combined and formidable weight behind the BJP candidate, Raju Singh Bista, a non-resident Gorkha entrepreneur. The alliance banks on the resentment of local residents against the State government to neutralise Gurung’s prolonged absence and the fact that Bista is not technically a “son of the soil”.

The Trinamool, on the other hand, relies heavily on Bista’s “outsider” status along with a three-way division of votes to give it the edge. The JAP, headed by Harka Bahadur Chhetri, one of the most respected leaders of the hills, has given an interesting turn to the elections by entering the fray. “People have seen the BJP. They wasted 10 years of our lives when we elected them to Parliament from here,” Chhetri told Frontline. According to Trinamool sources, the JAP’s presence is an advantage to the ruling party, as it is expected to divide the “pro-Gorkhaland votes”.

Jalpaiguri

In the neighbouring constituency of Jalpaiguri, in a narrow lane near the Prasanna Devi College for girls in Jalpaiguri town, Soumendra Lal Bose’s little shop, Soham, has been selling stationery and other things needed by students for many years. In the last six years he has been observing certain changes that serve as a pointer to growth. “Earlier only city girls would attend the college nearby. Now there are many girls from villages, too, and the kind of purchases they make can only mean that there is more prosperity in the rural regions,” said Bose.

The development work done here by the Trinamool government is likely to pay dividends in this election. The decline of the Left in this once impregnable fortress of the CPI(M) has allowed the BJP to move in and fill the political gap. However, the Trinamool’s organisational strength is still superior and its sitting MLA, Bijoy Chandra Barman, is a popular figure. The BJP’s candidate, Jayanta Ray, a reputed doctor known also for his social service, is a well-loved personality with a lot of goodwill among the local people. “Ultimately people will see where their advantage lies. The BJP’s influence is increasing, no doubt, but the Trinamool has done good work,” said Akhil Mallik, a small businessman from Jalpaiguri town.

However, outside the town, in the tea gardens, the BJP has a stronger presence. Indra Ooriya, a worker in the Gairkata tea estate, lost his respect for the Trinamool after the violence of the panchayat elections. Even though the BJP had won in his village, Gairkata Hindu Para, the Trinamool subsequently took control of the gram panchayat. “Enough is enough. It is time for the Trinamool to go,” he said.

Raiganj

The fight for Raiganj will be an interesting triangular contest among the CPI(M), the Congress and the BJP. Interestingly, one of the main reasons why the CPI(M)-Congress tie-up did not come about was that neither party was willing to give up this seat. Muslim-majority Raiganj was a Congress bastion from 1999, until the CPI(M)’s Md. Salim won it in 2014 by defeating the Congress’s Deepa Das Munshi, by a mere 1,634 votes.

In this election the BJP’s candidate, Deboshree Chaudhary, is perceived as having a winning chance with the polarisation of Hindu votes and the division of the minority votes among Salim and Deepa Das Munshi, who will be contesting again, and also the Trinamool candidate, Kanailal Agarwal. “It is not just the Hindus who are supporting us. After the manner in which the Trinamool was looting the votes in the panchayat elections, the vast majority of the people are supporting the BJP as it is clear that neither the Congress nor the CPI(M) is strong enough to take on the Trinamool,” said Biswajit Lahiri, BJP general secretary of Raiganj. However, a CPI(M)-Congress seat sharing arrangement, had it taken place, would have worked in their advantage.

After the violence of the 2017 civic elections and the 2018 rural elections, the 2019 election is seen as the first free and fair election to take place in the State since the Assembly election of 2016. All the parties will get a proper assessment of their own strengths. It will show whether the Trinamool continues to retain its position of the kind of supremacy that won it 34 seats in the 2014 elections; whether the BJP’s rise is indeed a real one or simply a perception; and finally whether the Left and the Congress have managed to stem their downward spiral.

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