Game-changing phase in West Bengal

While Mamata Banerjee tries to safeguard the Trinamool Congress’ bastions in south Bengal and the BJP prepares to make a dent in southern districts while retaining its hold over north Bengal, the Sanyukta Morcha threatens to upset their plans.

Published : Apr 06, 2021 06:00 IST

Outside a polling station  in Nandigram on April 1, during phase 2 of the Assembly election.

Outside a polling station in Nandigram on April 1, during phase 2 of the Assembly election.

THE third, fourth and fifth phases of the eight-phase West Bengal Assembly election on April 6, April 10 and April 17 will witness some interesting battles in the ruling Trinamool Congress’ strongholds and in constituencies that are now considered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bastion. As 120 of the 294 Assembly constituencies go to the polls in these phases, it is important for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to not lose her hold over her political fortresses of North and South 24 Paraganas, Howrah and Hooghly districts, particularly with the BJP chasing a victory and the Sanyukta Morcha (the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) alliance) trying to establish its political presence. For the BJP it is of utmost importance to not only make a dent in the Trinamool’s bastions in south Bengal, but also hold on to its gains in north Bengal if it must come to power. However, internal conflict over candidate selection may hamper the party’s prospects.

The 80 constituencies in North 24 Paraganas (33 seats), South 24 Paraganas (31 seats) and Howrah (16 seats) have always been a huge source of strength for Mamata Banerjee. In 2016, she had won 27 seats in North 24 Paraganas, 29 in South 24 Paraganas and 15 in Howrah. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, despite a BJP surge, the Trinamool managed to maintain a lead in 21 Assembly segments in North 24 Paraganas, in all the 31 segments in South 24 Paraganas and the 15 segments in Howrah. However, this time, apart from a strong anti-incumbency wind blowing against it, there are several factors that will make the fight tougher for the ruling party in these three districts. Influential leaders and key functionaries such as Arjun Singh, Sabyasachi Dutta, Dipak Halder, Sonali Guha, Rajib Banerjee, Rathin Chakraborty and Jatu Lahiri defected to the BJP, weakening the Trinamool’s organisational structure in the three districts; and irregularities in the distribution of relief to the Amphan cyclone victims and rations to the people during the COVID-induced lockdown period have led to further resentment against the government. Charges of mismanagement in dealing with the pandemic are a cause concern for the ruling party.

Sanyukta Morcha and Muslim votes

Under the circumstances, it is essential for Mamata Banerjee to retain her support among Muslim voters, particularly since the BJP has been successful in polarising society and mobilising a large chunk of Hindu voters in its favour. In the 2019 election, the Trinamool had led in 60 of the 74 Assembly segments in which Muslims constitute over 40 per cent of the electorate. Of these constituencies, nine are in North 24 Paraganas, 11 in South 24 Paraganas and two in Howrah. Overall, in 41 constituencies Muslims account for more than 27 per cent of the electorate. In the given situation, the Sanyukta Morcha may pose problems for the Trinamool. The Morcha has strong winning chances in close to 15 constituencies, including Bhangor, Canning (Purbo) and Diamond Harbour in North and South 24 Paraganas, but what is of concern to the Trinamool is the possibility of the alliance dividing the anti-BJP votes and giving the saffron party an advantage in constituencies where it has no chance of winning. It is estimated that the presence of Abbas Sidddqui’s ISF in the Morcha may have an impact in 80 constituencies across the State. The charismatic Siddiqui may be a controversial figure, but he has a huge following among Muslims. A senior BJP source told Frontline : “In our preliminary assessment, the ISF’s entry will give our party a fighting chance in 20 to 25 seats in south Bengal, which we had not taken into account earlier.”

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Another election issue in south Bengal is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). While the Trinamool and Left’s consistent stand against the controversial Central Act is expected to bring them electoral dividends in constituencies with high percentage of Muslim voters, the BJP is hoping to cash in on the Matua community (a Hindu community that migrated from Bangladesh), which has a significant presence in at least 40 constituencies. In its election manifesto, the BJP said it would announce the implementation of the CAA at its first Cabinet meeting on coming to power and promised a stipend of Rs.3,000 to Matua dalapati s (group heads). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Orakandi, the birthplace of the founders of the Matua sect, during his trip to Bangladesh on March 26-27, when the first phase of election took place in Bengal, indicates the importance the BJP attaches to securing the Matua support. In fact, the BJP had, to a large extent, won over the Matua constituency during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Trouble within the BJP

If the BJP was hoping to cash in on the anti-incumbency sentiment and the weakening of the Trinamool’s structure following large-scale defections, its hopes began to crumble as violent protests against selection of candidates broke out across the State. While there was simmering discontent among old-timers over the indiscriminate manner in which tainted leaders from the Trinamool were being inducted into the BJP, there was an outburst when the lists of candidates for phases three, four and five were announced. Angry over the preference given to “turncoats” from the Trinamool, senior BJP workers ransacked party offices and staged protests outside the party headquarters, compelling the leadership to make alterations in the list.

More than 30 Trinamool leaders who had defected to the BJP in the past few months were given the party ticket. Taking a swipe at her main political opponent, Mamata Banerjee said: “The old-timers of the BJP are today sitting at home in sadness, while traitors and Mir Jafars have become BJP candidates. A few thugs from the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] and a few cheats and frauds from the Trinamool are now calling the shots in the BJP.”

The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said that should the BJP face a setback in the election, the “unwise” choice of candidates would have been the precipitating factor. He said: “The BJP ought to have been more careful in the selection of candidates. Imposing the decision from above without assessing the ground realities will result in the BJP’s undoing. This is unexpected from a party that prides itself on discipline.” Moreover, the embarrassing moment for the BJP was when Shikha Mitra and Tarun Saha, the two candidates fielded by the party, refused to contest, saying they were not members of the BJP. Moreover, the fact that the BJP has fielded four Members of Parliament may be an indication of a weak bench strength and this is certainly sending wrong signals to voters.

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The Trinamool, too, had its fair share of problems following the release of its candidates list, with several veteran leaders leaving the party in a huff. The Left, the Congress and the ISF, on the other hand, have smoothened out their differences and are maintaining a constant pressure on the Centre and the State government. They are working steadily towards enhancing their presence and relevance in State politics. Veteran CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, the Morcha’s candidate for the Jadavpur seat, said at an election rally on March 29: “People have no right to question the Chief Minister or the Prime Minister. The BJP and the Trinamool have been working in the same manner. People are sick of both. Those who want to save Bengal are with the Sanyukta Morcha.”

The Singur battle

For the Trinamool, Hooghly is an important region, symbolically and politically. It was from Singur in this district that Mamata Banerjee found her way back from political wilderness by leading a prolonged agitation against forcible land acquisition for the Tata Motors Small Car Project. The agitation established her as the protector of the rights of farmers and paved the way for her political ascendance. The Tatas shifted their prestigious Nano project out of West Bengal, temporarily shattering the State’s plans of industrial revival. The Supreme Court had ruled that the land acquisition carried out by the CPI(M)-led Left Front government was not legal. The land that was forcibly acquired was duly returned to its rightful owners in 2016. However, Mamata Banerjee could not keep her promise to make the land cultivable once again, and this worsened the plight of farmers. Economic distress, coupled with the high-handedness of local Trinamool leaders saw people moving away from the party in Singur, and in the 2019 election, the Trinamool was shocked to see its candidate trailing the BJP in Singur by 10,429 votes. “We have failed to understand the mood of the people in Singur. It is also a failure of the local leadership,” a Trinamool leader had told Frontline then.

However, it appears that the BJP may not be able to capitalise on the gains made in the Lok Sabha election as the choice of candidate for Singur has provoked protests by party workers in the constituency. While the BJP may be pleased with the defection of Trinamool heavyweight Rabindranath Bhattacharya to its side, the decision to field the 89-year-old four-time MLA from Singur evoked widespread disapproval from BJP workers in the region. Although ‘Master moshai’, as Rabindranath Bhattacharya is popularly known, has been elected from Singur since 2001, and has been one of the iconic leaders of the ‘Singur Movement’, the Trinamool denied him ticket, following which he quit the party. BJP workers, who have managed to create a favourable situation for the party against all odds in a Trinamool bastion, felt betrayed by the nomination of Rabindranath Bhattacharya.

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A BJP leader protesting outside the party’s State headquarters in Kolkata, said: “After so much sacrifice we have come to a strong position. We want to know for how much money our party leadership received to hand over the seat to Becharam Manna [the Trinamool candidate for Singur].”

There is a perception that the Tata Motors Small Car project, which was seen as a hope for economic revival in the State, was sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik by Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamool supremo will find it hard to shrug off her anti-industry image. Twelve years after forcing the Tatas out of Singur, and facing her biggest electoral challenge till date, she began speaking of ‘industrialisation’ in the region. For the Left, too, Singur has been a sensitive issue electorally. Despite its consistent stand on the need for industries in the region, the Left failed to make any political headway in making gains on people’s disenchantment with the Trinamool government. This time, the CPI(M) has fielded student leader Srijan Bhattacharya, in the hope of drawing the youth of Singur away from the BJP and Trinamool.

Closed factories and jute mills in the Hooghly belt, coupled with escalating costs, particularly of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, are factors that will haunt the Trinamool and the BJP in the election. In 2016, the Trinmool, still riding on the crest of anti-land acquisition sentiment fostered by the Singur movement, won 16 of the 18 Assembly seats in Hooghly district, but in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP snatched a lead in eight segments. Although the victory margin in several of these seats was narrow, it nevertheless revealed chinks in the Trinamool’s fortress. However, dissatisfaction and strife in the BJP camp has partially neutralised the advantage it was earlier seen to have, particularly in Chinsura, Chandennagar, Singur and Uttarpara constituencies. In the given situation, the Sanyukta Morcha is hopeful that the electorate will appreciate the presence of a third alternative.

North Bengal

The fact that the Trinanool was practically wiped out of north Bengal in 2019., makes it important for the ruling party to retain its seats in south Bengal. Not being able to win a single Lok Sabha seat in any of the seven districts in north Bengal has been a sore point for Mamata Banerjee. “What was our fault? What crime did we commit, that we did not get a single seat; the BJP walked away with all,” Mamata said at an election rally in Jalpaiguri in north Bengal.

If the Trinamool government really needs an answer, it can be found in the despair in the faces of workers of closed tea gardens and in their wretched living conditions. Shilakher Toppo, a worker in Bagrakote Tea garden in Jalpaiguri district, told Frontline : “40 per cent of the government’s relief is taken as cut money by local party leaders. Getting anything done requires party recommendation. Many people in the gardens feel it will be better if the BJP comes [to power].” Toppo said he lost a lot of money in the Saradha scam (the multi-crore fund collection scam in which several top Trinamool leaders were involved) and wonders if the BJP will facilitate the return of his money. Tea garden voters constitute around 40 per cent of the electorate in the Terai and Doars region of north Bengal.

While it is clear that the resentment of the local people against the ruling party has not wholly abated, the overwhelming support the BJP enjoyed in 2019 appears to be on the wane. In Alipurduar district, where the BJP had a lead in all the five seats, it may face a stiff challenge from the Trinamool and the Sanyukta Morcha in three constituencies. The Sanyukta Morcha has been gaining ground with its strategy of holding small but numerous political meetings across the region. Similarly, in Jalpaiguri district and in Siliguri town (Darjeeling district), a resurgence of the Left and Congress may spell trouble for the BJP.

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According to Ashok Bhattacharya, the CPI(M) heavyweight from north Bengal who is hopeful of retaining the Siliguri seat, the BJP will not fare as well as it did in 2019. He told Frontline : “After sweeping the election in north Bengal, the BJP did absolutely nothing for the people of the region. In fact, the party did not even know how to go about getting things done in Delhi. This time, the Sanyukta Morcha will do well in the three seats in the foothills of Darjeeling district. It will certainly improve its performance in Jalpaiguri. In Cooch Behar, both the Trinamool and the Sanyukta Morcha will be winning seats.” In 2019, the BJP had a lead in seven of the nine Assembly segments in Cooch Behar and six of the seven constituencies in Jalpaiguri. However, this time, there are allegations at the ground level of high-handed behaviour by the BJP in Cooch Behar. This is said to have alienated a section of the people. “After winning the Lok Sabha, many of them are behaving as if they have won the State,” said a resident of Dinhata, where Lok Sabha MP Nisith Pramanik will be contesting. At the same time there is a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Trinamool in the district. What will perhaps damage the BJP’s prospects the most is factionalism and inner-party feuds, which have surfaced after the release of candidates list.

One of the most important factors in any election in north Bengal is the support of the Rajbanghshi community. It will play a crucial role in Cooch Behar, Alipurduars, Jalpaiguri and North and South Dinajpur districts. Rabjbanshis backed the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. The Trinamool has made numerous promises to the community now in the hope of winning back its support.

Contests in the hills

The most interesting contest in the north will be in the three hill seats of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which held unquestioned sway in the region for more than a decade, has now split into two factions, both working for the same side. Bimal Gurung, the former GJM supremo who was on the run since 2017 after he was slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was suddenly brought back from his hiding by Mamata Banerjee in 2020. The GJM (Gurung) became a part of the Trinamool alliance in the hills. In 2019, the Gurung faction, along with the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), ensured the victory of the BJP candidate Raju Bista. The Trinamool and the Binay Tamang faction of the GJM had joined forces then.

But there is perceptible unease in the ruling party camp as both factions of the GJM have announced the names of candidates for the three hill constituencies with neither party ready for compromise. While many observers feel that in the ensuing confusion the GNLF-BJP combine will reap benefits, the two parties have been facing problems of their own with regard to selection of candidates. Although Neeraj Zimba, the GNLF MLA from Darjeeling, told Frontline that all problems between the two have been sorted out, political observers feel that resentment and confusion persist. Harka Bahadur Chhetri, one of the most respected politicians in the hills, told Frontline , “As of now, we are not really seeing any clear winner.”

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The situation is in a state of flux [as of March 30]. There is confusion in the GJM factions, but there are also a lot of problems within the BJP. I am not sure whether traditional BJP supporters will vote for their own candidates, such is the resentment in the rank and file over candidate selection.” The verdict in the hills in 2019 was an angry reaction to the perceived autocratic attitude of Mamata Banerjee and the brutal manner in which the agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland was put down in 2017. More than 10 protesters lost their lives in alleged police firing during the agitation.

Mamata Banerjee has tried to assuage the anger with the promise of development. It remains to be seen whether the anger in the hills has subsided or not.

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