Lok Sabha polls: In West Bengal, the ‘khela’ begins

The focus is on North Bengal and the Darjeeling hills in the first two phases, and observers predict close, bitter and fierce contests across the state

Trinamool Congress supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee's aggressive campaigning aims to reclaim lost ground (photo: PTI)
Trinamool Congress supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee's aggressive campaigning aims to reclaim lost ground (photo: PTI)

Rahul Mukherji

The union minister of state for home, Nishith Pramanik (38), is locked in a close fight to retain the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat in North Bengal, where polling is taking place in the first phase.

The Trinamool Congress candidate, Jagadish Chandra Barma Basuniya, has been reminding voters of Pramanik’s failed promises, however.

In 2019, the BJP had promised to bifurcate the state and create a union territory for the Rajbongshis, who constitute 40 per cent of the voters in the North Bengal plains. It had also promised to form a Rajbongshi regiment in the Indian Army. None of the promises have been fulfilled, even as Mamata Banerjee has claimed credit for setting up 200 ‘Rajbongshi schools’ and raising a ‘Narayani’ battalion in the state police.

Pramanik remains unfazed though. As a union minister, he declares with a swagger, he has a pan-India presence and has been virtually inaugurating so many schools from Cooch Behar. Earlier ministers would come down from New Delhi to inaugurate them, but he does the honours now, he points out.

Above all, he has Modi-ji with him and that, Pramanik is certain, is going to ensure his victory.

In both 2019 and the Assembly elections of 2021, the BJP had performed exceedingly well. The BJP’s resources, the well-paid and better-motivated booth-level workers and RSS volunteers have all added heft to its campaign, even as Mamata Banerjee is campaigning harder than ever to recover lost ground in North Bengal.

With Mamata Banerjee perceived to be out of national politics, many voters seem convinced that it is in their interest to vote for Modi in the Lok Sabha election—but still for ‘Didi’ in the Assembly and panchayat polls.

Neither the CPI(M) nor the Congress, the two other contestants in the game, have a comparable figure to challenge the binary. The Left Front still has pockets of support, however.

The Muslim community, who constitute a major chunk of the voters despite being a minority, are torn between their desire to vote for the Congress, their loyalty to the Left and the comfort they feel under Mamata Banerjee. The West Bengal chief minister is also blunt in asking both Rajbongshis and Muslims why they vote for the ‘others’ while she does so much hard work for them and delivers the services they want and need.

When a freak tornado last month devastated a small pocket of Jalpaiguri, killing six, injuring hundreds and uprooting houses, Mamata flew down within hours, by night, to supervise the relief work.

Jalpaiguri is one of the three Lok Sabha seats where polling is on today, 19 April, and the Trinamool is hopeful of wresting the seat away this time.

But the stakes are high for the BJP too. The loss of any of the six North Bengal seats in the first two phases, including Darjeeling, will be a bad signal. So the party's cadres are hard at work on the ground.

A prominent regional journalist believes that the BJP actually has an edge across all the six seats, although the pro-Modi wave is not as pronounced as it was in 2019.

The failure to fulfil promises is haunting the BJP, however, and there is dissatisfaction among the Rajbongshis. While the BJP’s Rajya Sabha member from the region, Ananta Maharaj, has publicly voiced his dissatisfaction over the failure to create a union territory here, voters in Darjeeling hills are equally disappointed at the BJP abandoning the demand for a separate Gorkhaland.

INDIA bloc candidates are meanwhile hopeful of springing a surprise or two. With Muslim voters expected to rally behind the strongest candidate against the BJP, their votes should go to one of three: the Trinamool, the Left or the Congress.

Take, for instance, Raiganj: In the constituency once represented by the late Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi and his spouse Deepa for the Congress, current candidate Ali Imran Ramz (aka 'Victor') is a popular figure. He is believed to be within sniffing distance of other heavyweights.

Darjeeling, Raiganj and Balurghat go to polls on 26 April.


CBI shadow on the Darjeeling Hills

The shadow of central agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate is unavoidable this election season, it seems. Several BJP leaders and candidates have been taunting their Trinamool adversaries with imminent raids by the central agencies.

The arrest of several state ministers on corruption charges over the last year or two has certainly weakened the ruling party in the state and given the BJP a stick to beat them with.

The stories of rape and molestation from Sandeshkali that the mainstream media has been carpet bombing us with, with even the National Human Rights Commission and the National Women’s Commission swinging into the act, provided additional ammunition for the BJP’s arsenal.

Now the BJP’s candidate in Darjeeling, Raju Bishta, is the latest to dangle the threat of a CBI team soon driving up into the hills.

The threat is aimed at his Gorkha detractors, who complain of Bishta being an outsider and point to his lacklustre performance as sitting MP since 2019. Bishta’s CBI trump card is clearly also aimed at those who run or work for the Gorkha Hill Development Authority—for irregularities in the appointment of teachers have been alleged.

How the threat affects voting patterns remains to be seen.

Driving up the serpentine Pankhabari Road to Darjeeling, one is struck by the ubiquitous saffron flags fluttering from house tops and from shops. They, however, are not BJP flags but the banner of Bajrangbali Hanuman, a popular deity in the hills for long.

The Gorkhas are also devotees of Durga, Kali and Mahadev, of course.

Strangely for a party which has represented Darjeeling since 2009, the BJP does not have much of an organisation in Darjeeling, Kalimpong or Kurseong, the three prominent hill towns.

The party has always ridden in on the back of the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) or GJMM (Gorkha Janmukti Morcha), promising a separate Gorkhaland in solidarity with the local outfits. It won the seat in 2009 for the first time with the support of the GJMM, and then needed both the GJMM and GNLF to win in 2019.

Former foreign secretary Harshvardhan Shringla was a strong contender and hopeful of getting the BJP nomination this time. He had started his campaign early. Hailing from the Darjeeling hills himself and being fluent in Bangla, he seemed a natural choice. But Bishta pipped him to the post by rallying the GNLF, which seems to have a better comfort level with him.

The fact that the BJP raises emotive issues like Gorkhaland only before the polls is not lost on the people.

The failure of the party to find a 'local' candidate even after representing the constituency for three successive terms is also fanning the flames.

Sitting MP Raju Bishta has, however, been more visible and proactive compared to S.S. Ahluwalia (2014) and the late Jaswant Singh (2009) before him.

The BJP also seems to have an edge in the three Assembly constituencies of Siliguri, Matigara–Naxalbari and Phansidewa, which are all part of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency.

The ruling Trinamool Congress in the state had put up former WBCS officer Gopal Lama well in advance.

Since 2019, the Trinamool has reduced its deficit margin in the three Assembly constituencies in the plains, increased their margin in the minority-dominated Chopra AC and won the Kalimpong constituency in 2021.

The Trinamool also controls the administration of the hills through the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) strongman Anit Thapa—at the Panchayat and municipality levels and also by way of the Gorkhaland Territorial Authority (GTA).

There is something amiss, though: Mamata Banerjee has been conspicuous by her absence from Gopal Lama’s campaign, suggesting a certain trust deficit.

The contest has also come alive with the rebellion of Kurseong's BJP MLA Bishnu Prasad Sharma, who filed his nomination as an Independent candidate. There is also high-profile Gorkhaland activist Bandana Rai, who has thrown her hat in the ring.

The Congress, which last won from Darjeeling in 2004, has put up a respected academic based in New Delhi—Dr Munish Tamang. It has also inducted Binay Tamang, a well-known face in the hills, and roped in the support of Ajoy Edward and his Hamro Party. The Congress seems to enjoy a certain degree of goodwill and is credited for sincerely addressing the hill folks' issues.

But neither the hills nor Gorkhaland found a place in the party’s manifesto, its Nyay Patra, and that has disappointed people.

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