West Bengal

Tough test for Trinamool

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Mausam Benazir Noor, the two-time Congress MP from Malda North who recently joined the Trinamool Congress.

Mausam Benazir Noor, the two-time Congress MP from Malda North who recently joined Trinamool. Photo: photographs: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Arpita Ghosh, the Trinamool MP from Balurghat, is seeking a re-election, but she may face a stiff challenge.

A CPI(M) meeting at Nanoor in Bolpur. Left supporters are still too scared to openly voice their support.

Adhir Ranjan Choudhury of the Congress, the MP of Berhampore since 1999, on the campaign trail.

Amiya Dhara, one of the leaders of the Singur movement, gazing at the crops that have grown where there was once a concrete factory. He says voters at Singur in Hooghly will always vote for Mamata Banerjee.

Dudh Kumar Mondal of the BJP campaigning in Birbhum.

Four-time MP Ranen Barman of the RSP campaigning in Balurghat.

Voting trends in the third, fourth and fifth phases of the election will determine whether the perceived anti-incumbency sentiment against the ruling Trinamool has spread to its strongholds.

AS the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal enters its middle phases, progressing southward into the strongholds of the ruling Trinamool Congress, the contest becomes more complicated and interesting. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is confident of its performance in north Bengal, where its organisation is the strongest this time, it knows it has to make forays into the Trinamool’s strongholds in the south if it has to establish itself as a credible alternative. The Trinamool, for its part, needs to find out if the anti-incumbency sentiment, brought on by its perceived totalitarian attitude and blatant use of strong-arm tactics to win elections, has spread to its own backyard.

While the contest is a direct one between the Trinamool and the BJP in the first two phases, the Congress and the Left Front are a factor in several seats in the third, fourth and fifth phases. The Congress will try to protect its old strongholds in Malda and Murshidabad, while the Left will be hoping to stage a turnaround in its old bastions of Birbhum and Bardhaman, which fell to the Trinamool.

PHASE 3, April 23

Malda North & Malda South

For four decades Malda has been an unconquered fortress of the Congress. The one man almost solely responsible for creating this impregnable bastion was A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, who was the MP here from 1980 until his death in 2006. The people of Malda still vote for him and continue to elect members of his family back to power. Such is his stature here that even rival parties invoke his name in their campaigns. But for the first time, the Congress’ hold in the region is under threat.

The Malda South seat seems to be fairly secure for two-time Congress MP Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, a brother of Ghani Khan, especially with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) supporting the Congress here. But in Malda North, two-time sitting MP Mausam Benazir Noor, Ghani Khan’s niece, defected to the Trinamool camp in January. The Congress is likely to face its toughest electoral test in recent times in this seat. Not only has it lost an established leader in Mausam, it also has to contend with a buoyant BJP led by the former CPI(M) strongman Khagen Murmu aggressively asserting itself and successfully polarising a substantial section of the Hindu votes. In the Muslim-majority district of Malda, Malda North constituency has a Hindu vote of around 50.68 per cent.

Although Mausam has built up a base for herself in the past 10 years, her defection from the Congress has not gone down well with the people and is perceived as a “dishonour to Ghani Khan’s memory”. “My main concern was to keep the BJP out, and the Trinamool is the only party strong enough to do so. I took my decision on the basis of the pulse of the people of the region,” Mausam told Frontline.

The Congress has fielded Isha Khan Choudhury, Mausam’s first cousin, in the hope that a member of Ghani Khan’s family will be able to counter the party’s apparent slide. Isha Khan, a two-time MLA from the south Malda region, is relatively unknown in the Malda North constituency and is relying on Ghani Khan’s legacy to see him through. “One cannot underestimate the sentiment of the people and the love they have for Ghani Khan Choudhury and the Congress,” Isha told Frontline.

Balurghat

In South Dinjapur district’s Balurghat seat, it will be a struggle for the Trinamool’s Arpita Ghosh to retain her seat. She faces a strong opposition not only from the BJP but also from a sizeable section within her own party. Trinamool district president Biplab Mitra had expressed unhappiness at her renomination and even approached Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to reconsider the decision. “People are not happy with Arpita Ghosh here. It will be a challenge this time to secure her a victory, particularly with a large chunk of the Left support going to the BJP,” a Trinamool source told Frontline.

According to him, the turning point in the BJP’s fortunes in Balurghat, as in other places in the State, was the violence in the 2018 panchayat elections, in which 34 per cent of the seats went uncontested. “We cannot deny that in some of the places our boys did go overboard, and it was from that point that people began to lean more on the side of the BJP,” he said.

Arpita Ghosh has been dismissive of the BJP’s rise. “We have a very good organisation here, and thanks to the excellent leadership of Biplab Mitra, we will win by a greater margin than the last time, and the BJP will come third, after the RSP [Revolutionary Socialist Party of the Left Front],” she told Frontline. However, in her election speeches and her addresses to party workers, her target of attack was the BJP alone. The RSP, too, has a strong candidate in four-time former MP Ranen Barman, who continues to enjoy much support and goodwill.

Jangipur & Murshidabad

In Murshidabad district’s Jangipur constituency, another Congress stronghold, the contest is chiefly between the Congress and the CPI(M). The Congress has won the seat four times consecutively since 2004. Pranab Mukherjee won it in 2004 and 2009. His son, Abhijit Mukherjee, won it in 2012 and 2014 but with slender margins of 2,536 votes in 2012 and 8,161 in 2014. Both times, the CPI(M) finished second. This time Abhijit’s opponent from the CPI(M) is Zulfikar Ali; the party fancies its chance in a seat it won seven times between 1977 and 1999.

In Murshidabad constituency, the CPI(M)’s Badaruddoza Khan is trying to retain his seat, which he wrested from the Congress’ Abdul Mannan Hossain in 2014. In what would have been a triangular contest between Badaruddoza, the Trinamool’s Abu Taher Khan, and the Congress’ Abu Hema, the BJP came up with a surprise by fielding Humayun Kabir, a veteran and influential Congress leader from the district who recently switched to the BJP. Kabir admits that the BJP’s organisational strength is not on a par with the other contesting parties. But with the Congress and the CPI(M) getting weaker and the people upset with the Trinamool over the panchayat election violence, he feels that only the BJP poses a challenge to the ruling party.

PHASE 4, April 29

Berhampore

The Trinamool may have made significant inroads into the Congress’ base in Murshidabad district, but four-time sitting MP from Berhampore Adhir Ranjan Choudhury’s popularity has not waned, though his sway over the entire region may have weakened somewhat under the Trinamool’s relentless attempts to oust the Congress from the district.

Adhir Ranjan’s personal connect with the people is evident in the manner in which they greet him as he goes about his campaign. They rush out of their homes and jostle with each other to shake his hand; they assure him of their support; the women join their men in shouting out their assurance to the leader who is in an open jeep: “Don’t worry dada, we are with you.”

One old man could be heard angrily crying out: “They robbed our votes, but they can never rob our support.” Last year’s panchayat election violence has deeply affected the people in the region and seems to have alienated them from the ruling party. The CPI(M)’s decision to support the Congress in Berhampore also tilts the scales in Adhir Ranjan’s favour. His main opponent, Apurba Sarkar, was his protégé before he joined the Trinamool in March.

Talks for a seat adjustment between the Congress and the CPI(M) foundered, mainly owing to the Congress’ intransigence. Yet, the CPI(M) by deciding to support the Congress in Malda South and Berhampore sent across a message that its commitment to fight the BJP was unwavering. “By our gesture we proved that we are the BJP’s true adversary—something that the Congress could not do,” a senior CPI(M) leader told Frontline.

Birbhum

In Birbhum district, once a red bastion, now a Trinamool stronghold under the controversial Anubrata Mandal’s leadership, the contest may not prove to be as easy for the ruling party as before. Apart from party factionalism and anti-incumbency, the Trinamool must deal with inroads made by the BJP in at least three of the seven Assembly segments in the Birbhum Lok Sabha seat. With the return of Dudh Kumar Mondal, the BJP strongman in the district who had left the party in 2015, the BJP’s organisational strength has been bolstered. What can be particularly worrisome for the Trinamool is that quite a few of its Muslim supporters have lately started siding with the BJP, mainly because of the faction fights within the ruling party. The main contest in this seat is expected to be between Dudh Kumar and the Trinamool’s two-time sitting MP Satabdi Roy.

Bolpur

The contest for neighbouring Bolpur, a seat practically synonymous with the legendary parliamentarian Sonmath Chatterjee, will be interesting. The Trinamool MP from the seat, Anupam Hazra, recently defected to the BJP, and a local leader, Asit Mal, has been fielded in his place. His main opponents will be the BJP’s Ram Prasad Das and the CPI(M)’s Ramchandra Dome, seven-time Lok Sabha MP and one of the tallest leaders in the region. “Even though it is a Lok Sabha election, the people’s anger in the State and in this district is directed chiefly against the Trinamool government. The CPI(M) does not see any distinction between the BJP at the Centre and the Trinamool in the State…. The people are supporting us, but they are too afraid to come to the fore,” said Dome.

The CPI(M) came a distant second to the Trinamool in the 2014 election, losing by more than two lakh votes. Whether it has been able to stem its decline or whether the BJP is being seen here too as an alternative to the Trinamool remains to be seen.

Asansol, Burdwan East & Burdwan-Durgapur

In Bardhaman district, another former stronghold of the CPI(M), the Left can hardly be said to be in the reckoning. Though it has continued a sustained movement against the policies of the Central and State governments, the main fight in the district’s three Lok Sabha constituencies, Burdwan East, Burdwan-Durgapur and Asansol, is expected to be between the Trinamool and the BJP. Repeated communal flare-ups in the past few years in Ranigunj and Asansol have led to a polarisation along communal lines in the industrial belt of Asansol and Durgapur, and this has strengthened the BJP’s support base.

In Asansol the BJP has pursued an aggressive Hindutva and organised armed processions during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations, festivals that were until recently never a major event in the State. These processions have led to escalation of communal tension and provoked communal clashes. As in 2017 and 2018, during this year’s celebrations, too, violence broke out in several areas. Feuds within the Trinamool are believed to have played a role in BJP candidate Babul Supriyo’s 2014 victory in this seat. Mamata Banerjee’s decision to field Moon Moon Sen, sitting MP from Bankura, in Asansol is seen as a move to quell the internal bickerings in the constituency. Asansol is the only Lok Sabha seat in the district that has eluded the Trinamool.

Burdwan East seems more or less secure for the Trinamool sitting MP Sunil Kumar Mondal. The BJP does not seem to have any major influence in the seat. In the Burdwan-Durgapur constituency, however, the Trinamool cannot take the BJP for granted. The Trinamool candidate and sitting MP Mamtaz Sanghamita had an early lead in campaigning because the BJP announced its candidate, S.S. Ahluwalia, the former Darjeeling MP, at the last minute. Yet the BJP has managed to garner some support in the region with its Hindutva line. “There was delay in announcing our candidate, but we had started our campaigning long before…. It is a fight to save religion,” said the local BJP leader Shyamal Kumar Roy.

Krishnanagar & Ranaghat

In Nadia district, it is likely to be a close fight between the Trinamool and the BJP, particularly in the Krishnanagar seat.The BJP has a strong base in Krishnanagar; the Trinamool has had to replace its sitting MP Tapas Paul (who was recently in jail for his alleged involvement in the multi-crore Rose Valley fund collection scam) with Mahua Moitra, the party’s MLA from Karimpur. While Mahua Moitra is a familiar and a popular figure in the region, her opponent, the former football player Kalyan Choubey, is new in politics and has little personal following as a politician. However, the BJP won the Krishnanagar seat in 1999, and with the weakening of the Left, its position as the main opposition to the Trinamool is stronger.

A close contest is also expected in the other Nadia constituency, Ranaghat, though the Trinamool’s organisational strength is a little better here. A sizeable section of the electorate belongs to the Matua community, and it will be interesting to observe which way this vote will go. The Matua vote is a deciding factor in the neighbouring Bongaon seat as well. The Trinamool candidate in Ranaghat is Rupali Biswas, the widow of Satyajit Biswas, the Trinamool Congress MLA from the district who was assassinated in broad daylight in February. Top BJP leader Mukul Roy, formerly of the Trinamool Congress, was among the five named in the first information report (FIR) along with some local Trinamool workers.

PHASE 5, May 6

Bongaon

In Bongaon constituency of North 24 Paraganas district, the Trinamool used to practically monopolise the the support of the Matua community, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the electorate. But the BJP has been strengthening its influence here over the past two years. In February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the house of the matriarch of the Matua community, Binapani Devi, known as “Boroma”, and sought her blessings. After Binapani’s death on March 5, the community appears to be divided in its political affiliations. While the Trinamool has fielded its sitting MP Mamata Bala Thakur, the widow of Binapani’s eldest son, Kapil Krishna Thakur, the BJP has fielded Shantanu Thakur, the son of the late matriarch’s younger son, Manjul Krishna Thakur.

Barrackpore

The Barrackpore seat, also in North 24 Paraganas, is expected to see an interesting contest. Here, the former Trinamool heavyweight MLA Arjun Singh has switched over to the BJP, apparently miffed at not being given the party ticket. His defection makes it particularly tough for the sitting MP and former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi as Barrackpore is within Arjun Singh’s area of influence. Trivedi’s supporters, however, feel Arjun Singh’s defection will not undercut support for the soft-spoken Trivedi, who enjoys much respect.

Hooghly

Hooghly district has a special place in Mamata Banerjee’s political career. In 2008, she launched a violent and sustained agitation in Singur block in the district against the forcible land acquisition for the Tata Motors’ small car factory. The Tatas were forced to leave, while Mamata Banerjee staged a dramatic return from the political wilderness and went on to assume power in the State in 2011. Gazing at the crops that had grown in the land where a concrete factory stood a few years ago, Amiya Dhara, who had been at the forefront of the Singur movement, told Frontline: “The people of Singur will never vote against Didi, come what may.” For the BJP to win the Hooghly seat would be a tremendous achievement. It has fielded the film actress and firebrand leader Locket Chatterjee. She will be up against two-time Trinamool MP Ratna De Nag. Even though there is internal strife in the Trinamool in this constituency, the outcome is unlikely to be affected. Yet, there is also simmering discontent with thousands out of work following the shutting down of many jute mills in the district.

Arambagh & Serampore

In Arambagh and Serampore, also in Hooghly district, the Trinamool seems to have an advantage over its adversaries, though a section of the electorate in Serampore is not happy with the sitting MP Kalyan Bandopadhyay. “There have been some grievances against Kalyan da, but it is not serious enough to sway the people against us, for ultimately Trinamool supporters all vote for Mamata Banerjee,” said a Trinamool source in Hooghly district.

Howrah & Uluberia

The Trinamool’s Prasun Banerjee won the Howrah Lok Sabha seat convincingly in the past two elections. Yet communal tension and a serious communal flare-up in Dhulagar in 2016 has allowed the BJP to build a base here. This time, Prasun Banerjee is expected to face a challenge not only from Rantidev Sen Gupta of the BJP but also from the Congress’ Suvra Ghosh, sister-in-law of Pranab Mukherjee.

In the Uluberia seat, also in Howrah district, the Trinamool candidate is Sajda Ahmed, widow of Sultan Ahmed, the Trinamool MP who died in 2017. Although the Trinamool seems to be ahead in the race, it faces a strong challenge from Maksuda Khatun of the CPI(M), whose campaign is drawing ever larger crowds. Both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP are projecting this Lok Sabha election as a direct contest, in West Bengal, between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi for power at the Centre. Yet the issues that drive the voters are often local.

One of the main allegations against the Trinamool government is that it has suppressed democratic rights, particularly in local elections. The excesses committed by ruling party members in the 2018 panchayat elections now keep coming back to haunt it. Milton Rashid, the influential Congress MLA from Birbhum, said: “This election is not a fight between different political parties. It is a fight between the people of the State and the Trinamool Congress. This election will be their vote of protest.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay travelled in the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, South Dinajpur, Bardhaman and Hooghly for this story. All photographs by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay .

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