Trinamool fights back in north Bengal

It is a tough battle for the BJP in north Bengal, where six constituencies vote in the first two phases.

Published : Apr 15, 2024 23:03 IST - 7 MINS READ

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee campaigning for Cooch Behar’s Trinamool candidate Jagadish Chandra Barma Basunia on April 4. The Trinamool Congress’ electoral trump card is the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee campaigning for Cooch Behar’s Trinamool candidate Jagadish Chandra Barma Basunia on April 4. The Trinamool Congress’ electoral trump card is the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme. | Photo Credit: UTPAL SARKAR/ANI

The first and second phases of the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal are likely to see some of the most dramatic and closely fought battles in the State. Six constituencies in north Bengal will go to the polls: Alipurduars, Jalpaiguri, and Cooch Behar on April 19; Raiganj, Balurghat, and Darjeeling on April 26. The BJP won all six in 2019; in fact the party won 18 of the State’s 42 Lok Sabha seats that year. In the 2021 Assembly election, however, the Trinamool Congress won back much of the political ground it had lost.

It is imperative for the BJP to retain its seats in north Bengal in order to remain a dominant force in Bengal politics. It is equally important for the Trinamool to breach the BJP’s newly acquired strongholds to maintain its supremacy in the State. The high-pitched campaigns in the constituencies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee clearly show that winning in the region is a prestige issue for both parties.

Also Read | Centre versus West Bengal: Can Mamata Banerjee stay defiant?

Retaining the six seats is not likely to be a cakewalk for the BJP. Besides internal strife, unfulfilled promises, and the lack of visibility of the sitting MPs in their constituencies, the saffron party is organisationally weak in the region and has alienated a section of the electorate.

BJP strongest in Alipurduars, going by poll figures

Going by electoral statistics, the BJP is strongest in Alipurduars. It won the seat by a massive margin in 2019 and went on to win all seven Assembly segments in 2021. However, problems started surfacing soon after. The BJP district chief Ganga Prasad Sharma, the man credited with strengthening the party’s organisation in Alipurduars, joined the Trinamool. “He knows all about the BJP’s strengths and weaknesses, as he helped build the organisation here. His joining the Trinamool was a huge blow from which we still have not recovered fully,” a BJP source told Frontline.

Problems within the party also came to the fore when the sitting MP and Union Minister John Barla was denied the party ticket. Barla, who has a lot of influence in the 116 odd tea gardens in the Terai and Dooars (the foothills of north Bengal), did not initially participate in the campaigning, though he attended rallies that Modi addressed.

The tea garden residents (around 7.5 lakh voters) are a key factor in Alipurduars. There was some relief for the saffron party when Barla, with just days to go before the election, set aside his differences with the party candidate, Manoj Tigga, and began to campaign. Whether this came too late remains to be seen. While the BJP had a lead of 37,000 votes over the Trinamool in the Alipurduars Assembly segment in 2019, it won the Assembly seat in 2021 by only 16,000 votes. The Trinamool has been doing its best to woo back the tea garden votes. With most of the tea estates either closed or loss-making, the government’s moves to help them through various state-sponsored schemes may fetch electoral dividends for the ruling party.

CAA may not click for BJP in north Bengal

In neighbouring Cooch Behar, too, the BJP held on to its Lok Sabha dominance in the Assembly election, winning six of the seven Assembly segments. Yet, sitting MP and Union Minister Nisith Pramanik faces a tough fight. The implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) may backfire on the BJP. The indigenous Rajbanshi community, which accounts for over 40 per cent of Cooch Behar’s population, has expressed dissatisfaction with the CAA and demanded implementation of the NRC. Influential Rajbanshi leader Banshi Badan Barman appears to have shifted away from the BJP.

The Rajbanshi community’s opposition to the CAA may affect all Lok Sabha constituencies in north Bengal, not just Cooch Behar. According to the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, Rajbanshis account for around 40 per cent of the population in Jalpaiguri, 30 per cent in Alipurduars, 20 per cent in Darjeeling, 15 per cent in Raiganj, and nearly 28 per cent in Balurghat. “CAA may not work in favour of the BJP in these constituencies,” he told Frontline. In an effort to keep the Rajbanshis on its side, the BJP sent the separatist Rajbanshi leader Anant Maharaj to the Rajya Sabha in 2023.

  • The BJP won all six Lok Sabha seats in north Bengal in the 2019 general election.
  • This time, the fervour of the pro-Modi wave seems to have cooled a bit.
  • CAA may not click for the BJP in north Bengal.

In Jalpaiguri, the BJP appears to be losing the dominance that saw it wrest the Lok Sabha seat from the Trinamool in 2019, when it was ahead in six of the seven Assembly segments; in 2021 it managed to win only three of those. In the byelection to Dhupguri constituency, which the BJP won two and half years ago, Nirmal Chandra Roy won back the seat for the Trinamool, albeit by a narrow margin. The Trinamool has fielded Roy as the Jalpaiguri Lok Sabha candidate this time.

The BJP can hardly afford to be complacent about the constituencies going to the polls in the second phase. Though it has a clear advantage in Darjeeling, the BJP can expect a stiff fight in Balurghat, where State party president Sukanta Majumdar is up against State Cabinet Minister Biplab Mitra of the Trinamool. Mitra defected to the BJP in 2019 but returned to the Trinamool fold in 2021 and won the Harirampur Assembly seat, which falls under the Balurghat Lok Sabha constituency. Although Majumdar won Balurghat by over 33,000 votes against his nearest Trinamool rival in 2019, in the 2021 Assembly election the Trinamool won four of the seven Assembly segments.

Contest of “turncoats”

The neighbouring Raiganj will witness an interesting contest between three “turncoats”. The Trinamool’s candidate, Krishna Kalyani, was an MLA from the BJP who joined the Trinamool after the 2021 Assembly election. The BJP candidate, Kartick Paul, left the Congress for the Trinamool in 2016 and moved to the BJP in 2021. The Congress candidate, Ali Imran Ramz, was a Forward Bloc leader who joined the Congress in 2022.

Though the BJP had a lead in four of the Assembly segments in 2019, in the Assembly election it could manage to win only two seats. Besides, the BJP unit of Uttar Dinajpur has recently been badly affected by inner-party conflicts. A BJP source in the district told Frontline, “There is a strong pro-BJP sentiment in the Hindu areas, but the Muslim vote is a little over 50 per cent; a lot depends on where this vote goes… but the situation is not as good as it was in 2019.”

Also Read | West Bengal: Will CAA tip the scales?

If the BJP’s success in 2019 was buoyed by a pro-Modi wave, five years down the line that fervour has perceptibly reduced. The Prime Minister’s rallies still pull crowds, but the party can no longer assume that to be an indication of imminent electoral success. For the Trinamool, on the other hand, it is a time to see whether its welfare schemes will neutralise anti-incumbency at the grassroots. In fact, just before the election was declared, Mamata Banerjee increased the amount given in the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme for women from Rs.500 to Rs.1,000, and Rs.1,200 for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe women. The announcement came soon after Sandeshkhali burst into the news with women speaking out against harassment by local Trinamool strongmen.

The veteran political analyst Biswajit Bhattacharya believes that for the Trinamool, this election essentially rides on Lakshmir Bhandar. He said: “We have to now see whether Lakshmir Bhandar can overcome the growing anti-Trinamool sentiment at the rural level and can counter the promises of the Modi government at the Centre.”

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