The keenly contested polls begin today with the odds heavily stacked against the Trinamool in the first phase
There is uncertainty and expectancy in the air as West Bengal readies itself for the first phase of the eight-phase Assembly elections beginning 27 March. In all, 30 constituencies will go to the polls in this phase spread across Purulia, Bankura, East and West Midnapore and Jhargram. In the last Lok Sabha poll held in 2019, the BJP swept through these districts controlled by the ruling Trinamool Congress till then.
One of the key factors for the BJP’s victory was the invisible presence of Trinamool supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s lieutenant and State Minister Subhendu Adhikari who wields tremendous influence in about 40 Assembly seats in the Jungle Mahal region. He had then fallen from her grace, but still continued to be a key party leader. He was moved out of the areas as the party’s in-charge and assigned to look after the party organisation in north Bengal.
The supremo’s nephew and MP Abhishekh Banerjee was, instead, asked to look after the four districts in place of Adhikari in 2018. The party’s rout in the subsequent LS poll in these districts was attributed to Abhisekh Banerjee’s leadership failure, arrogance, violence and alleged rigging during the panchayat poll held before the LS election. Even many Trinamool activists were not allowed to vote, while a highly respected octogenarian nine-time CPI-M MP Basudeb Acharya was savaged.
Now that Adhikari has joined the BJP and is pitted against Mamata Banerjee in the Nandigram constituency, an element of uncertainty has crept in, creating doubts about whether the BJP will be able to repeat its 2019 LS poll performance. Recently, he himself admitted he had established contacts with Union Home Minister Amit Shah way back in 2014. This has prompted Mamata Banerjee to label him as “a traitor, a Mir Jafar” at rallies in this region and other parts of the State. Whether he can do now what he could do from within the Trinamool in 2019 is a question uppermost in the minds of the people.
But the Trinamool chief’s long absence from Nandigram and Jungle Mahal has caused widespread resentment among the voters in the region. She is unable to satisfactorily answer the charge that she used the people of Nandigram for capturing power in 2011 riding the crest of the agitation against farm land acquisition for setting up the mega petrochemical hub by the previous Left Front-government.
The real key to electoral success in the first phase lies in the population matrix of the region. In Purulia and Jhargram, the Mahato-Kurmis with their distinct socio-political identity dominate the electoral landscape. The Adivasis, primarily the Santhals, the Scheduled Castes, mainly the Bauris and Bagdis and the Bengali Hindus constitute the bulk of the electorate. Of the total 85.5 per cent Hindu population, the SC/ST together account for 34 per cent. The Muslims have a negligible 10.5 per cent share.
Bankura has almost the same demographic pattern. Of the 84.3 per cent Hindu population, the SC/ST together account for 42.5 per cent. The Muslims’ presence is merely 8.1 per cent.
These people are seething with anger against the ruling Trinamool Congress for alleged decade-long rampant corruption since it came to power in 2011. Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram are the most backward districts of the State inhabited by a large section of Dalits and Adivasis, who are smarting under a sense of being left out of the policy benefits and wronged during the Trinamool regime.
The newly acquired lifestyle of the ruling party functionaries in terms of attire, vehicles and houses makes a mockery of the pervasive poverty in the region. There was a time when Mamata Banerjee drew huge electoral mileage by highlighting the poverty symbolised by the poor of Amlasol in Midnapore district, many of whom died of starvation during the Left Front rule.
Mamata is now at pains to assuage the hurt feelings of the people in the region. In rallies after rallies, she is telling how she has taken action against her party functionaries for letting them down and promising to cover them with new schemes if she retains power. But, such electoral promises sound inane. This has given rise to hope and expectancy to the BJP.
On the other hand, the powerful and influential Adhikaris are facing challenges from both Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool activists who have decided not to join his camp. They have come under attack in Nandigram and there have been clashes between Trinamool and BJP supporters during the run-up to the election. This is causing some uncertainty about the outcome of the poll.
Aside from the electoral rhetoric, it is going to be a fierce fight between the BJP and the Trinamool in the first phase, though the odds are heavily stacked against the Trinamool.
The Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance is unlikely to cause any problem to either of the two main contenders as they have negligible presence in the constituencies where polling will be held in the first phase.
(The author is political analyst, associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based political research organisation)
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