Assembly Elections: West Bengal

Mixed prospects

Print edition : April 29, 2016

CPI(M) leaders Asok Bhattacharya and Jibesh Sarkar campaigning in Siliguri. Photo: SUHRID SHANKAR CHATTOPADYAY

Bhaichung Bhutia, the Trinamool Congress candidate, campaigning in Siliguri. Photo: Sudhrid Shankar Chattopadyay

Rural welfare schemes undertaken by the Mamata Banerjee government have found favour with the people of Jangalmahal. Photo: SUHRID SHANKAR CHATTOPADYAY

While the Trinamool Congress looks unstoppable in Jangalmahal, its fate seems uncertain in north Bengal. In the next phase of polling a lot will depend on the BJP’s performance.

Two of the biggest achievements of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee since assuming power in 2011 are restoring peace in the Maoist strongholds of Jangalmahal and ending, at least temporarily, the disturbance caused by the separatist Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling Hills of north Bengal. In fact, “Jangalmahal is laughing, Darjeeling Hills are smiling”, has been Mamata Banerjee’s catchphrase whenever the achievements of the Trinamool Congress government are trumpeted in public. However, the party’s prospects in north Bengal and the three districts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia, the forest areas of which constitute Jangalmahal, where the first phase (April 4 and 11) and second phase (April 17) of elections to the State Assembly are being held, do not appear to be that bright.

These two regions present contrasting pictures. If the government’s development work is likely to fetch electoral dividends in Jangalmahal, the organisational weaknesses of the ruling party in north Bengal is a cause for concern for the Chief Minister. Moreover, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the State unit of the Congress joining forces, the Trinamool Congress is expecting stiff contest even in areas that are considered its strongholds.

Behula Sabar of Lohamelia village in the Lodhasuli region of Pashchim Medinipur remembers the Maoist terror. “Maoists used to take away the men of the villages at night. During the day, they would come and pick up the women and keep us standing in open fields under the sun for hours. There would be regular abductions and murders. Those days seem far away; now we live united and peacefully,” she told Frontline. Along with peace and security has come development. Behula Sabar’s family, which earlier eked out a meagre living collecting firewood from the forests, feels it is far better off today than it was before. “There are better roads. We get more medicines at the health centre. We get assistance from the panchayat and help from projects such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana [RKVY]. We earn more through the 100 days’ work project [under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA] and we get rice at Rs.2 a kilogram. [Mamata Banerjee has extended the provisions of the National Food Security Act to the entire tribal population of Jangalmahal.] Thanks to didi’s ashirbad [blessings], we can now educate our children,” she said. Many of the State government schemes, such as the Kanyashree (for the uplift of the girl child), Sabuj Sathi (bicycle distribution to girl students), and rural housing schemes, have found favour with the people of the region.

Dukhi Mandi, 22, of Narda village works for the RKVY project and plays football for a subdivisional club. She remembers that when the Maoist movement was at its peak between 2008 and 2011, young girls could not think of venturing out of the house unescorted. “Now, we are free to do whatever we want,” she said.

Even in regions where development has not reached as promised, people are grateful to the government for whatever little they have received. Satyabir Bain of Lalgarh, a region well known for the Maoist movement in the State, said hardly any work was undertaken under the MGNREGA and other schemes and the authorities made it impossible to collect firewood. “But those days of terror are gone, and we are happy with the food didi is giving us,” he said.

Going by the reaction of the people, Jangalmahal appears to be firmly behind Mamata Banerjee, although it does seem a little ironic that the peace she is believed to have brought about came after a lot of bloodshed. Maoist extremists killed several workers, leaders and supporters of the previous Left Front government at the height of their movement. In 2010, Maoists killed 260 people (civilians and security personnel) in Jangalmahal.

The Trinamool Congress filled the resulting political vacuum. At the time, Mamata Banerjee, who was in the opposition, protested against the deployment of Central forces in Jangalmahal. She even shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, the leader of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), an alleged front of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). When her political fortunes started soaring, she distanced herself from Maoists and after coming to power, used the same Central forces to ruthlessly suppress the extremist movement.

The Maoist stronghold of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia districts accounts for 13 seats. In the rest of the seats in the three districts, going by party-wise performance in the Assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the situation does not look promising for the Left-Congress combine. Out of the 19 Assembly segments in Pashchim Medinipur, the opposition combine is ahead in only two. It is nowhere in the reckoning in the 12 seats in Bankura, but the situation may not be as bleak as it was in 2014.

In the past two years, the political situation and voter perception have been witnessing a change. In Purulia, where the Congress still enjoys substantial support and the probability of transfer of votes between the two allies is high, the opposition combine is expected to do well in at least five of the nine constituencies.

Bitter infighting in the Trinamool Congress and the regrouping of the Left have given the Left-Congress combine a fighting chance in at least three seats in Bankura, particularly in Taldangra where the CPI(M) has been successfully resisting alleged persecution by the ruling party.

One of the crucial seats in the Jangalmahal region is the Narayangarh seat in Pashchim Medinipur, where CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly Surjya Kanta Mishra is contesting. In the 2011 elections, Mishra won by a margin of 7,000-odd votes against the combined strength of the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, defying a massive anti-incumbency wave across the State.

However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, even after adding the Congress’ vote share to the Left’s tally, the Trinamool Congress was ahead by over 22,000 votes. The situation has changed in favour of the Left since then, and Mishra’s personal popularity in the region still makes him a favourite.

Biswanath Chakraborty, well-known psephologist and social scientist, told Frontline: “The fact that in spite of the burden of being the State secretary of the party, and against all odds in his own constituency, he has not backed out of the contest has gone down well with the people of Narayangarh.”

On one occasion, while campaigning in his constituency, Mishra was stopped by a group of women supporters who told him: “There is no need for you to campaign here when we are around. You have more work to do in other places.” Mishra smiled and said: “It is the love of the people that actually keeps us going.”

Stiff challenge in north Bengal

The ruling party will be severely affected in north Bengal, which goes to the polls on April 17, if the electoral understanding between the Left and the Congress results in transfer of votes to either party. Organisationally, the Trinamool Congress has never been strong in north Bengal. It could establish itself in the region by virtue of its alliance in 2011 with the Congress and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which was a crucial political factor in the seven seats in Darjeeling. However, the ruling party’s position looks vulnerable in the region, with the Left and the Congress joining forces and the GJM announcing that it will defeat the Trinamool Congress.

If the development plank will see Mamata Banerjee through in Jangalmahal, the lack of it in north Bengal —particularly in the tea-growing belt of Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Darjeeling—will make the fight tough for the ruling party. With the tea industry in the doldrums, quite a few large tea gardens were closed or abandoned, leaving very little scope for alternative means of livelihood for the people in the region. In the past five years, more than 200 tea garden workers have died of malnutrition and because of the lack of medical facilities.

The Killcott tea estate has not been operating since last year. Its owners, the Duncan Group, have not officially closed it down, but it is an abandoned garden to all intents and purposes. “Politicians do not even come here to ask for our votes. They dare not face our questions. No rations, no payment, we are inching towards death,” said Basant Mahali, a worker in the garden. The residential areas of the gardens wear a deserted look. Most of the able-bodied men have migrated to other States in search of work, some of them with their wives, leaving their children in the care of their aged parents or others who have chosen to stay back. The women of the closed and abandoned gardens travel long distances on foot to work in neighbouring gardens. “The government gives us rice at Rs.2 a kg. But you cannot feed children rice alone. Where is the money for their education, clothes and other things?” said Gouri Oran, 40, a resident of the Bagrakote tea garden which has remained closed since February 2015.

Siliguri is a key constituency in Darjeeling district. It can be said that it is here that the resistance to the ruling party’s sway began after the municipal elections, paving the way for the Left-Congress alliance. Asok Bhattacharya, the architect of this resistance of the CPI(M) and Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation, is contesting from the seat.

“One thing that we have proved is that the Trinamool Congress can be defeated, and if all opposition parties stand united, we can give protection to the people when the time comes to cast their votes,” Bhattacharya told Frontline. Bhaichung Bhutia, the Indian footballer who is contesting on the Trinamool Congress ticket, is a complete outsider to Siliguri. In fact, it was only on March 7 that he got his name removed from the voter list in his home State of Sikkim and applied to have his voter identity transferred to Kolkata. Bhaichung’s campaign rallies appear tepid compared with the traffic-stopping response to the processions taken out by the Congress and the CPI(M).

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, along with the GJM, led in six of the seven Assembly segments in Darjeeling, including the three hill seats of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. Although it is unlikely that the GJM, which is the strongest political force in the Darjeeling Hills, will lose its grip, it will for the first time face a strong challenge in the Kalimpong seat from the former GJM heavyweight Harka Bahadur Chhetri, who recently floated the Jan Andolan Party and has the tacit support of the Trinamool Congress. It also remains to be seen how far the GJM’s considerably reduced influence in the plains will help the BJP.

The sudden increase in the percentage of votes for the BJP from 6 to 17 all over the State in 2014 was attributed to the Narendra Modi wave. It would have long died down and is unlikely to resurface, at least not for this election. A lot will depend on who will gain the most from the BJP’s loss. For example, in Dabgram-Phullbari in Jalpaiguri district, where the Trinamool Congress Minister for North Bengal Development, Gautam Deb, is contesting, how the BJP fares will make a difference. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the Trinamool-Congress combine defeated the CPI(M) candidate by over 11,000 votes. The BJP had secured only 10,623 votes. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool Congress was in the lead with 69,700 votes, the Left polled 51,562 votes and the Congress 9,413. The BJP secured 64,990 votes. The BJP not losing its vote share to the Left-Congress alliance will be crucial in Gautam Deb retaining his seat.

Another place where the BJP’s performance may be a crucial factor will be the nine seats in the industrial and mining belt of Bardhaman district, which goes to the polls on April 11. The BJP won two Lok Sabha seats in 2014, one from this region and the other from Darjeeling. However, in the subsequent municipal elections, its performance in the relevant electoral segments was dismal. According to Left sources, the Left-Congress combine hopes to retrieve at least 5 per cent of the votes the BJP got in the Lok Sabha election in Bardhaman. In such a situation, the Trinamool Congress will have a tough fight in at least six of the nine seats. “Unlike the rural regions where relief measures are there for agricultural workers, industrial workers have received no such benefits. The Left has had a traditional support base here, and [Congress vice president] Rahul Gandhi’s rally on April 2 showed a strong united stand by the Left-Congress combine,” said Biswanath Chakraborty. However, it remains to be seen whether the Congress and the Left can actually put their long-standing animosity behind them in this erstwhile CPI(M) bastion.

Congress bastions

The presence of the Left-Congress combine is likely to scuttle the Trinamool Congress’ hopes of capturing the Congress bastions of Malda and Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur, provided there is a high rate of transfer of votes. Out of the 12 seats in Malda, the Trinamool Congress can hope to win only four. While in Malatipur and Harishchandrapur, where both the Congress and the Left have fielded candidates, the ruling party hopes to gain by the division of votes, in English Bazar and Manikchak it is banking on its heavyweight candidates, Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury and Sabitri Mitra. In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP led in English Bazar by a huge margin over its nearest rival, the Congress. According to Pankaj Chaubey, a close aide of Mausam Benazir Noor, the Congress MP from Uttar Malda, the Left-Congress combine is sure to win at least 10 seats in the district. “Left and Congress workers have been working with such unity that it is difficult to tell them apart,” Chaubey said.

To make matters worse for Mamata Banerjee, a terrible tragedy struck Kolkata because of the alleged negligence of the State government: a large part of a flyover under construction in the heart of the city collapsed on March 31, killing 27 people. The accident not only exposed a serious lapse on the part of the government and its agency, the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority, but also revealed an alleged nefarious connection between some of the local bigwigs of the Trinamool Congress and the subcontractors engaged in the construction.

Although the Trinamool Congress tried to put the blame on the previous Left Front government, during whose tenure the building of the flyover was commissioned and the contract given to a Hyderabad-based company, IVRCL, there was no denying that the bulk of the work was done during the tenure of the Trinamool Congress.

The accident, which came just three weeks after the Narada News sting operation showed top Trinamool Congress leaders, including its MPs and Cabinet Ministers, accepting cash on camera, has struck yet another blow to the party’s image and will no doubt affect its poll prospects in Kolkata and its surrounding areas. When the Mayor of Kolkata, Sovan Chatterjee (who was also caught in the Narada sting), went to the accident site, a crowd that had gathered there heckled him and shouted “chor, chor” (thief, thief).

The tragedy gave the opposition fresh ammunition to attack the Trinamool Congress. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Mohammad Salim said: “Trinamool and corruption have become synonymous. The Narada sting and the flyover collapse prove that.” With the Assembly elections stretching for over a month (April 4 to May 5), the pressure is mounting on Mamata Banerjee and her party as they find it difficult to counter the allegations that seem to be piling up.

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