Modi's magic vs Mamata's might - The Tribune

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BJP has made steady gains in West Bengal and emerged as the principal challenger at the cost of Congress and Left, but is on a sticky wicket in Tamil Nadu where its alliance with AIADMK is seemingly not faring too well

Shubhadeep Choudhury in Kolkata

Addressing an election meeting in Chopra, one of the seven Assembly segments of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, a while back, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said casting a vote for the CPI (M) or the Congress would be foolish as it would split the vote against the BJP. To ensure that Narendra Modi does not become the Prime Minister again, people must vote for the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which was at the forefront of the fight against the BJP, said Mamata.

For about three years now, Mamata has been targeting Modi in all her speeches. Rarely, if at all, does she say anything against the CPM or the Congress, the two largest opposition parties in the state Assembly. On rare occasions when the CPM or the Congress figure in her address, it is merely to accuse them of coming to the aid of the BJP.

The BJP won only two seats out of 42 in West Bengal in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It piggybacked to victory in Darjeeling on the support it extended to the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). However, much water has flown through the Ganges since then and the saffron party has turned its attention towards West Bengal in a big way. This month alone, Prime Minister Modi has addressed three huge rallies in the state, including one at the iconic Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. 

BJP gains ground

Byelection results in the last three years have shown that the BJP has been steadily spreading its tentacles in the state ruled by the communists in the past. Since the last Assembly elections three years ago, West Bengal has seen eight byelections — three for the Lok Sabha and the rest for the Assembly. While the ruling TMC unsurprisingly won all eight, the BJP secured the runners-up slot in two Lok Sabha and three Assembly seats.

The byelection held for the Kanthi Dakshin Assembly constituency in April 2017 showed an interesting trend. While the TMC retained the seat with an increased margin, the BJP notched up impressive gains too. It secured three times the votes it had got in the 2016 Assembly polls, thus establishing itself as a force second only to the TMC. 

Trinamool candidate and former minister Chandrima Bhattacharya won the seat with 95,369 votes, managing to increase the party’s vote share by about two per cent. BJP candidate Sourindramohon Jana came second with a whopping 52,843 votes. The Left and the Congress were crushed with their candidates losing their deposits too. The result proved the deep dent made by the saffron brigade into the opposition vote bank in record time. The constituency is one of the strongest bases of the Trinamool Congress and is dominated by veteran MP Sishir Adhikari and his sons, transport minister Suvendu Adhikari and MP Dibyendu Adhikari. The bypoll took place because Dibyendu was elected to the Lok Sabha, resulting in the seat falling vacant.

Recalling the election, Chandrima said there was a nexus between the Left, the Congress and the BJP. “In 2016, the Left got around 59,000 votes but in 2017, just 17,000! Probably Biman Bose (the Left Front chairman) has an explanation,” she said.

Niranjan Sihi, secretary of CPM’s East Medinipur district committee, admitted that many Left Front supporters had voted for the BJP candidate. Sihi said the party had analysed the trend and found that many Left supporters of the area were of the view that only the BJP could teach the TMC a lesson. Sihi added that the contest being a byelection and the Left Front candidate in the fray being from the CPI, CPM cadre did not take much interest in the fight. Asked if the Left Front supporters might vote for the BJP candidate in the Lok Sabha polls as well, Sihi said the possibility “cannot be ruled out”.

Appeasement charge

The BJP performed well in the panchayat elections held last year too. While the TMC won the majority of seats, the BJP emerged as its main rival in almost all districts. In districts such as Purulia and Jhargram — the former Maoist bastions — the saffron party did especially well. It won 644 of the 1,944 gram panchayat seats in Purulia and 329 of the 806 seats in Jhargram. An exasperated Mamata said that all forces opposed to the TMC, including the Maoists, had ganged up and backed the BJP in these districts. She has always advocated that the strongest among the forces opposed to the BJP should take on the saffron party. Ironically, during the panchayat elections, she found herself at the receiving end of such a bipolar contest and the gainer was the BJP.

Ashok Bhattacharya, CPM MLA from Siliguri, said Mamata ought to be blamed for the growth of the BJP in West Bengal. “Steps such as giving allowance to imams and muezzins by the TMC Government are being seen as appeasement, leading to the fanning of Hindu communalism,” Bhattacharya said. Close to 56,000 imams and muezzins are given a monthly stipend of Rs 2,500 and Rs 1,000, respectively, in West Bengal. This was part of a scheme announced by Mamata during her first term in office. Last year, when she announced a grant of Rs 28 crore for Durga Puja organisers across the state, Muslim groups launched a massive protest in Kolkata, demanding an immediate hike in the monthly stipends given to the clerics.

On the other hand, the BJP continues to milk the issue of giving allowance to imams. Last week, BJP president Amit Shah said the Mamata Banerjee-led government provided monthly allowance to imams, but not to the priests. Addressing a rally in West Bengal’s Alipurduar Lok Sabha constituency, Shah also alleged that the West Bengal Government allocated Rs 4,000 crore for madarsas, higher than the state’s annual budget for higher education. The BJP leaders, including Shah, also make it a point to talk about the alleged infiltration into West Bengal by Bangladeshis and the Mamata-led government turning a blind eye to the problem. 

As in Assam, there is no credible figure about the presence of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in West Bengal too. Here, the bogey of infiltration is being used to mobilise Hindus against Muslims. The BJP has promised to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal and drive away the Muslim immigrants if voted to power. “Hindus need not worry,” Shah thundered, oblivious to the fact that at least half of the people left out of NRC in Assam are Bengali Hindus.

There is no doubt that in many of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, the contest will be between the TMC and the BJP, with old guards like the CPI (M) and the Congress reduced to the status of marginal players. Shah wants the BJP to win at least 23 seats in the state this time.

Ambitious? Yes. Outlandish? No.

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