IN many of the constituencies going to the polls in the last three phases of the eight-phase Assembly election in West Bengal, the three main political contenders, the ruling Trinamool Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sanyukta Morcha (Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance), stand evenly matched. In the Muslim-dominated districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur, the political tussle will be particularly interesting because of the change in equations brought about by the alliance between the Left-Congress and Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF. Polling will take place on April 22, 26 and 29 in 114 constituencies in the districts of North 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Purba Bardhaman, Paschim Bardhaman, Kolkata, Birbhum, Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur and Dakshin Dinajpur.
Bardhaman, once a bastion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), became a Trinamool stronghold after the party won 14 of the 16 seats in Purba Bardhaman and five of the nine seats in Paschim Bardhaman in the 2016 election. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Trinamool retained its hold on Purba Bardhaman, leading in 14 Assembly segments, but in Paschim Bardhaman, the BJP established a lead in all the nine constituencies. In this election, numerous factors—most importantly, allegations of rampant corruption at the local level and agrarian distress—may make it difficult for the Trinamool to retain its previous gains.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee frequently referred to the Krishak Bandhu scheme during her campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi never failed to mention the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi at his election rallies. Modi said the State government was indulging in petty politics by denying the peasants of West Bengal the benefits of the Central scheme. He has promised to pay small and marginal farmers arrears of income support under the scheme accrued for three years, Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, claimed that her government’s Krishak Bandhu was a better scheme. She announced that the amount of income support under the scheme would be raised from Rs.6,000 a year to Rs.10,000.
Farmers need reasonable price for their crops to come out of the debt trap. Following the alarming rise in the cost of production, a potato farmer in Bardhaman’s Jamalpur block incurred a loss of around Rs.7,500-15,000 per bigha (1 bigha=0.61 acre) of crops this year. In 2019, a 50-kilogram packet of potato seeds cost him on average Rs.900-1,200 a packet. In 2020, he paid Rs.3,500-5,000 for a packet of seeds. Amal Haldar, State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), told Frontline : “The cost of production has increased enormously because of increase in the price of seeds and inputs. The government said it would buy potato at Rs.6 a packet, but the cost of production is Rs.10 a packet. As a result, farmers have put their produce in storage.” Haldar said four farmers in Bardhaman had committed suicide owing to financial distress this year.
Besides, the agrarian crisis, there is a strong resentment against the ruling party among the masses. However, the Left is unlikely to regain substantial political ground in its former stronghold. A senior CPI(M) leader told Frontline : “It is not out of any ideological shift that the people are voting for the BJP, it is simply to get rid of the Trinamool. Their attitude is, first let us throw out the Trinamool, then we will deal with what comes later. Aage Ram pore bam [first Ram, then Left] is the new catchword in Bengal politics.” The common people are reluctant to divulge their choices, but when they do speak up, there is an outpouring of anger and resentment against local Trinamool leaders.
A resident of Jhinguti, which falls under the Bardhaman Uttar constituency, said: “Yes, development has taken place. Development of the leader! Those who could earlier afford only bicycles, are today flooring their terraces in marble.” A marginal farmer in Ausgram put it concisely: “It is time to cast aside the old broomstick and get a new one.”
Although there is no denying that there is a strong BJP wind blowing in the region, the saffron party’s internal problems could hinder its success. Bitter strife between party old-timers and those who recently defected from the Trinamool came to the fore ahead of the election. A BJP source told Frontline : “There is undoubtedly a lot of resentment among the old members of the party who feel that undue importance is being given to turncoats and opportunists from the Trinamool who joined the BJP, but we are all trying to focus on what is important now, defeating the Trinamool. None of us want internal bickering to destroy our chances after coming so far.”
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Even in Paschim Bardhaman, where the BJP clearly appears to be in a better position, the party has been facing internal issues that threaten to neutralise the gains it made in 2019. However, sharp polarisation on religious lines, which has caused occasional communal flare-ups in the region, and defection of influential Trinamool leaders such as Jitendra Tiwari and Krishnendu Mukherjee to the saffron camp are issues that the ruling party will have to deal with in this industrial belt of the State.
Interesting contest in Nadia
Nadia will witness an interesting contest this time. Although the BJP has a traditional base in the district, the Trinamool has been holding on to its status of power doggedly. Although it won 13 of the 17 seats in 2016, the Trinamool found itself lagging behind the BJP in the 2019 election. The saffron party had a lead in 11 Assembly segments, the Trinamool salvaged six and even managed to retain the Krishnanagar Lok Sabha seat. However, with the BJP managing to consolidate its support among the Scheduled Castes and Matuas (S.C. community that migrated from Bangladesh) across the State, it can pose a challenge to the Trinamool. The Matua and the S.C. votes are a major factor in eight of the 17 constituencies in the district. The BJP has fielded some of big-time candidates, including Jagannath Sarkar, Member of Parliament representing Ranaghat, who will be contesting from Santipur; Mukul Roy from Krishnanagar Uttar; and Mahadev Sarkar from Krishnanagar Dakshin. The Ranaghat Uttar Paschim seat will see two heavyweights, Partha Sarathi Chatterjee of the BJP and Sankar Singha of the Trinamool, in a straight contest. In 2016, Singha, who was then in the Congress, defeated Partha Sarathi, who was then the sitting Trinamool MLA. Partha Sarathi joined the BJP recently.
According to Jagannath Sarkar, who is also the BJP’s district president, the party hopes to win at least 15 of the 17 seats in this election. He told Frontline : “Our organisation has become stronger; every day more and more people from other parties are joining us; people are accepting the BJP wholeheartedly. Even some of the Muslim votes will come to us. On the other hand, the Trinamool is fraught with factionalism, and most of the big leaders of the district have joined the BJP. All the goal-scorers of Mamata Banerjee’s team have left, and so she is forced to stand at the goal post with her bandaged leg.”. But Mahua Moitra, the Trinamool’s Nadia district president and Lok Sabha MP from Krishnanagar, feels the party will reverse the Lok Sabha result in Nadia. Mahua told this correspondent: “This time we will win a minimum of 11 seats. The Lok Sabha vote was a one-off. It was a vote for the Central government, not an endorsement of the State government’s policies. There was no opposition face as an alternative to Modi. The BJP also played the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] and the NRC [National Register of Citizens] cards among Hindus. Today, whatever worked for the BJP in 2019 are the very same things that are going against it in West Bengal. The BJP does not have a report card to show like ours. It does not have a face to counter Mamata Banerjee, the way we did not have a face to counter Modi. Moreover, the fuel price hike, for which the Centre is responsible, are at an all-time high, and people are seeing through its CAA designs, which the Centre has still not been able to implement. On top of that, the BJP does not have the kind of organisational base we have.”
Keen fight in Birbhum
In Birbhum, too, a keen contest is expected between the ruling party and the BJP. Though considered a Trinamool stronghold, the BJP has been able to make rapid inroads into Birbhum thanks to the presence of a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. Corrupt dealings of local leaders, arrogance and high-handed behaviour of those in a position of power, mushrooming of syndicates (a euphemism for extortionists and other criminal elements operating in the private housing and infrastructure industries), and widespread political violence have alienated a substantial section of the electorate from the ruling party. In 2016, the Trinamool had won nine of the 11 seats (the remaining two seats had gone to the Congress and the Left), but by 2019, the situation changed: the BJP led in five Assembly segments and the Trinamool in six. Besides the BJP surge in the region, the Trinamool must deal with vicious infighting, which the saffron party hopes to capitalise on .
With the Trinamool and the BJP are trying to prove which of the two is a better representative of Bengali culture, the Bolpur Assembly seat has assumed particular significance because of its association with Shantiniketan and the Visva Bharati University set up by Rabindranath Tagore. It is considered the most famous cultural and intellectual hub in the State after Kolkata. Although the BJP candidate, the erudite and urbane Anirban Ganguly, has been largely accepted by the intelligentsia in the region at an individual level, there is deep resentment among the masses against the Visva Bharati University and its Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty for various unpopular steps he has taken in the past couple of years. Since Visva Bharati is a Central university, its Vice Chancellor is seen as the choice of the ruling party at the Centre, which is now the BJP. It will be interesting to observe whether Anirban’s personal appeal can override the resentment against what is perceived as a representative of the BJP or whether Fisheries Minister Chandranath Sinha will be able to retain the seat he has been winning since 2011.
The Congress bastion
The three Muslim-majority districts—Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur—will see the Sanyukta Morcha putting up a strong fight. According to the 2011 Census, Muslims constitute 66.27 per cent of the population in Murshidabad; 51.27 per cent in Malda; and 49.92 per cent in Uttar Dinajpur. Both the incumbent Trinamool and the CPI(M) -led Left Front, which ruled the State for 34 years until 2011, found it tough to breach these traditional strongholds of the Congress. Even in its worst days, the Congress could rely on winning seats in these three districts. In 2016, when the Trinamool won 211 of the 294 Assembly seats, the Congress won eight of the 12 seats in Malda, 14 of the 22 seats in Murshidabad and three of the nine seats in Uttar Dinajpur. Over the years, often by the alleged use of brute force, the Trinamool has seized control of most of the municipal bodies and panchayats in the districts, particularly in Murshidabad.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election witnessed a significant shrinkage of the Congress’ sway in the three districts. In Murshidabad, the Trinamool led in 16 Assembly segments, the Congress managed to fare well in only five, and surprisingly, the BJP secured a lead in the Murshidabad segment. In Malda, the BJP established a lead in six Assembly seats, while the Congress led in four and the Trinamool in two. In Uttar Dinajpur, the Congress found itself out of the competition, with the Trinamool taking a lead in five seats and the BJP in four. The BJP, in fact, ended the Congress’ presence by winning the Malda Uttar Lok Sabha seat; the Congress came third after the Trinamool here. In the Malda Dakshin seat, Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, the Congress district president and brother of the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, eight-time Congress MP from Malda, edged out the BJP by a narrow margin of 8,222 votes. The fact that the BJP almost won the seat is a matter of concern both for the Congress and the Trinamool, particularly since the ruling party needs a consolidation of Muslim votes in its favour to counter the apparent Hindu polarisation that is taking place in different parts of the State in favour of the BJP.
This time the Congress, bolstered by its alliance with the Left and the ISF, hopes to win back some of its lost ground in its traditional bastions. While Murshidabad is expected to see a contest mainly between the Trinamool and the Sanyukta Morcha, the electoral battle in Malda will be a triangular fight. Polarisation of the electorate on communal lines has made BJP a strong contender in Habibpur, Baishnabnagar, English Bazaar and Malda constituencies although the saffron party is organisationally weak in the district. In constituencies such as Chanchol and Gazole, where the Hindu population is relatively predominant, the BJP may benefit from a division of votes between the Trinamool and the Sanjukta Morcha. In constituencies such as Ratua and Sujapur, the fight is between the Sanyukta Morcha and the BJP. Despite the gains the Trinamool has had in the district, the legacy of Ghani Khan Choudhury is still strong among the electorate. Ghani Khan Choudhury passed away in 2006, but the Congress, through his successors, continues to enjoy the support of the people of the region, making the fight tougher for the Trinamool. To add to the complication, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has fielded seven candidates in the Muslim-majority constituencies of Ratua and Malatipur in Malda; Jalangi, Sagardighi and Bharatpur in Murshidabad; Itahar in Uttar Dinajpur; and Asansol Uttar in Paschim Bardhaman. It is doubtful whether Owaisi, who pulled off a surprise victory by winning five seats in the Bihar Assembly election in 2020, will be able to repeat the performance in West Bengal; but Abbas Siddique, his erstwhile political ally, is certainly a big draw among the Muslim electorate in the State.
In Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur, the CAA will be a factor that is expected to work in favour of the Trinamool. It may be recalled that in November 2019, following the Trinamool’s strident opposition to the CAA and the NRC, the Kaliaganj seat in Uttar Dinajpur slipped away from the BJP’s grasp in a byelection, though the saffron party had a lead of around 56,000 votes against the Trinamool in the same Assembly segment in the Lok Sabha election. According to Biswajit Lahiri, the BJP’s Uttar Dinajpur president, , the party has “recovered completely” from the setback. “Now it is the BJP all the way. Our opponents have not yet been able to get their act together,” Biswajit told Frontline. It remains to be seen if the situation has deteriorated for the saffron party or whether it has been able to recover lost ground.
Kolkata, the Trinamool citadel
Kolkata, particularly south Kolkata, has always been fond of Mamata Banerjee. Even at the height of the CPI(M)'s rule in the State, she could always count on winning seats in the State capital. In 2016, the Trinamool won all the 11 seats in the city, but in 2019, breaches began to appear in this Trinamool citadel. It was not just the fact that BJP could secure a lead in three Assembly segments that was worrying for the Trinamool, it was also that the BJP was not only in a tight race with the ruling party in Mamata Banerjee’s Bhawanipore constituency, but was leading in Ward 73, where Mamata Banerjee is a voter. In the Bhawanipore Assembly segment the Trinamool’s Mala Roy could manage a lead of only 3,168 votes, and the BJP had a lead of 496 votes in Ward 73. In fact, Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram instead of Bhawanipore this time gave rise to speculation that the seat may not be safe for her anymore. The Chief Minister, however, rubbished such speculations by saying that Bhawanipore was hers for the taking even if she did not contest from there. This time her trusted lieutenant and Power Minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay is contesting from Bhawanipore. The Lok Sabha election saw the BJP lead in 53 of the 144 wards in the city, an unprecedented upset for the Trinamool. Moreover, following alleged mismanagement in the handling of relief distribution in the wake of the Amphan cyclone that hit the city on May 20, 2020, and the perceived breakdown of the health care system during the pandemic, may work against the ruling party in this election.
But the BJP cannot afford to be complacent. There is widespread resentment among the middle class against the BJP government at the Centre for escalating prices of cooking gas and petrol. This may not bode well for the saffron party, which is trying to project the election as a direct contest between Mamata Banerjee and Modi. Faced with rising unemployment rate, job loss, and salary cuts, a large section of the youth are wary of the BJP’s promise of providing a ‘Sonar Bangla’ (golden Bengal).
The “double engine” of development that the Prime Minister assures is something they will believe only if they see it. “They are promising us the moon before the election, let them first give us at least a pebble,” said 33-year-old Arup Sarkar, a salesman who was retrenched from a private company. He lost his job along with a number of other colleagues in September last year and has not found any employment. “One party wants votes in exchange of dole, and the other in return of promises,” he said.
Several new factors and developments may also determine the outcome of the election in the last three phases. The death of four Muslim youths in the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) firing in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar when violence broke out during the fourth phase of the election on April 10, and the insensitive remarks made by two top BJP leaders subsequently , may serve to consolidate Muslim votes in favour of Mamata Banerjee, particularly in Muslim-majority constituencies. State BJP president Dilip Ghosh had not only justified the killings but warned that "more such incidents will take place if people take the law into their own hands”.
Psephologist and political observer Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline : “The Sitalkuchi incident will certainly polarise the minority in favour of the Trinamool Congress. It will directly affect the poll prospects of the Sanyukta Morcha, particularly in the districts of Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad. Further, the prospects of the ISF, which has proved itself to be a growing political force among Muslim voters in south Bengal, may also receive a setback, especially in North 24 Paraganas and Purba Bardhaman districts.”
Surge in COVID cases
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases have continued to rise at an alarming rate in the State. Between April 1 and April 13, the State recorded an over 300 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases. On March 27, in the first phase of the election, 812 new cases were registered; on April 10, on the day of the fourth phase of polling, 4,043 new cases were registered. On April 13, the number of daily cases rose to 4,817. With most of the beds in government and private hospitals already filled, the State is looking at a major catastrophe ahead.
According to Punyabrata Gun, convener of the Joint Platform of Doctors, the physicians in the State had warned the government and the Election Commission of the danger ahead of the election, but their warnings were not heeded. “We saw that the second wave had begun in several other States, though not in Bengal, from the time the election campaigns had started. We had appealed to the State administration, the Election Commission, and political parties to take necessary protective steps and maintain COVID protocol. But nothing came of it. Now, almost all the COVID beds are filled, but still people are unconcerned and not wearing masks, and the government is not paying any heed. Those in health administration understand the gravity of the situation, but their political masters do not seem to care, and a disaster is on the cards,” Gun told Frontline .
On April 15, with four more phases of election remaining, Mamata Banerjee urged the Election Commission to hold the election in one go. In a social media message she said, “Amid an ongoing pandemic, we firmly opposed @ECISVEEP’s decision to conduct WB polls in 8 phases. Now, in view of the huge surge in #COVID19 cases, I urge the ECI to consider holding the remaining phases in ONE go. This will protect the people from further exposure to #COVID19.