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BJP and Battle for Bengal

Look Eastwards: It is a relentless bid by BJP to wrest as many seats as possible

BJP supporters cheer to welcome Home Minister and BJP leader Rajnath Singh upon his arrival for election campaign in support of party candidate Rahul Sinha for Kolkata North constituency seat in Kolkata, Friday, May 10,2019. (PTI Photo)

West Bengal is witnessing a significant change in political equations during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Once a minor player in the state, BJP has become the main challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). With the CPI(M) and Congress struggling to retain their political relevance, BJP is keen on making up for its potential loss of seats in the Hindi heartland states by increasing its tally in West Bengal.

However, the saffron party has to overcome the formidable challenge of West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee. Lacking any state leaders with a stature to take on Mamata, BJP is banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah to increase its tally in the state.

 

The Modi-Shah duo has adopted a two-fold strategy: engineering defection within TMC, rope in their MLAs and MPs to resolve BJP’s leadership crisis in West Bengal; second, targeting Mamata and TMC by using Central agencies.

Let us look into BJP’s defection tactics first. It became clear that the saffron party has no qualms in fielding turncoats in Bengal when BJP state president Dilip Ghosh admitted that they are roping in leaders from other parties to field as candidates as they lack leaders of required stature and experience. Apart from the fact that BJP has fielded five turncoats from TMC including one MLA and two MPs, its dependence on defection tactics became evident when the prime minister himself said at an election rally in Hooghly district that Mamata’s MLAs will leave her after the results are declared and 40 of them are in touch him.

However, BJP’s aim of winning 23 seats in Bengal will not succeed if they are unable corner the firebrand TMC supremo. Both Modi and Shah during campaign in the state have repeatedly alleged almost in every rally that the TMC government was obstructing Hindu religious festivals such as Durga puja and Saraswati puja. The purpose of such allegation is nothing but consolidation of Hindu votes in BJP’s favour through polarisation.

Another aspect of BJP’s strategy involves the alleged use of Central agencies such as CBI and ED to target TMC leaders by taking advantage of their alleged involvement in the Sarada chit fund scam and Narada sting operation cases.

However, the strategy backfired to a certain extent when CBI officials tried to interrogate the then Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar at his residence in relation to the chit fund scam. Mamata stumped BJP when she sat on a three-day long dharna in central Kolkata in February. She turned the protest into another opportunity of unifying the opposition against BJP. During the 2016 Assembly elections also, the TMC was able to shrug off the chit fund issue and returned to power with a massive mandate.

Then there is the caste equation in West Bengal which although was never clearly acknowledged by the major political parties, has always been a key factor in the state. At the centre of this is the Matua community, a socio-religious sect which was formed by the 19th Century social reformer Harichand Thakur in modern day Bangladesh.

The Matuas, belonging to the Namosudra caste, are the deciding factor in 21 Assembly segments spread across the three districts of Nadia, North 24 Paraganas and South 24 Paraganas. Prior to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Left Front enjoyed steady support from the Matuas. However, after that they started favouring TMC which became evident in the 2011 Assembly elections. The Matua’s support for TMC also became clear in the 2016 Assembly elections when the ruling party in the state got 48.57 % votes in the 21 Matua dominated Assembly segments in Nadia, North 24 Paraganas and South 24 Paraganas.

Till the 2014 Lok Sabha elections there was very little possibility of division of Matua votes. But it all changed after the death of TMC MP Kapilkrishna Thakur, son of the late Matua matriarch Binapani Devi.

Revolting against the TMC supremo’s decision to field Thakur’s widow Mamata Thakur in the ensuing by election in Bongaon constituency, Manjulkrishna Thakur, another son of Binapani Devi and a former TMC Minister left the party and fielded his son Subrata Thakur as a BJP candidate.

This time BJP has fielded Santanu Thakur, the grandson of Binapani Devi, from Bongaon while TMC has renominated Mamata Thakur. Both parties seem to be trying to draw the Matua support by capitalising on the legacy of the late matriarch.

Recently Santanu met with an accident when his vehicle collided head on with another one with a state police sticker sparking an exchange of allegations of attempt to murder and denial between BJP and TMC.

While Santanu alleged that it was TMC’s attempt to remove him from the elections, TMC Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick said that the vehicle with a police sticker was actually being used by CRPF jawans. Mallick further alleged that the accident took place because Santanu was carrying a large amount of cash in the vehicle to influence voters and the collision took place when he tried to flee after seeing the CRPF vehicle.

The NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are also key aspects of BJP’s strategy in Bengal. While Shah has been constantly harping on conducting NRC across the country including Bengal to drive out infiltrators, he has also been at pains to counter Banerjee’s allegations that even refugees will be driven out of the country because of NRC and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

The two factors will be key issues in areas of the state close to the Bangladesh border and among the Matua community as well. There is confusion regarding the citizenship status about a large number of members of the Matua community.

Another reason behind BJP’s emphasis on NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is to polarise voters by convincing them that Banerjee is opposing the two measures for shielding infiltrators who have become TMC’s vote bank and this will go against the other voters in the state.

As for the CPI(M)-led Left Front and Congress, both sides are struggling to retain their current seats. After the talks on seat sharing between the two collapsed in seats such as Raiganj and Murshidabad (currently held by CPI-M) the TMC may benefit from the division of votes between CPI(M) and Congress.

Congress, on the other hand, is expected to retain the four seats - Malda Uttar (North), Malda Dakshin (South), Jangipur and Bahararampur. However, in Malda Uttar and Baharamur odds may get stacked against the grand old party due to the defection tactics of TMC. The ruling party in West Bengal has roped in several Congress MLAs from Murshidabad district and even the sitting Congress MP of Malda Uttar Mausam Noor. It remains to be seen whether BJP can repeat their performance of Tripura and Assam in West Bengal or has the Modi-Shah duo met their match in the TMC supremo.

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