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Mamata has a real fight on her hands

The BJP, which has been weaning away top Trinamool leaders, has emerged a strong number two in Bengal. The election result could be a surprise

Firstpost print Edition

Political rivals have not stopped sniggering since Dilip Ghosh, the BJP’s West Bengal chief, declared that his party will win 23 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in these elections.

Jumla!” scoffed Dinesh Trivedi, Member of Parliament from Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress, dismissing the claim as preposterous. BJP has only two MPs from the state.

Yet, Opposition derision notwithstanding, glaring evidence on the ground suggests that the saffron brigade is making inroads into the green turf of Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool chief and Bengal chief minister. Indeed, what lends credibility to the BJP’s claims is not just the party’s steadily rising vote share in subsequent elections – it shot up from a mere 6% in 2009 to nearly 17% in 2014, for instance – but the trend in gaining seats, whether in the general elections of 2014, the state elections of 2016 or during last year’s rural elections, when it formed panchayats in traditional Trinamool strongholds.

Jhargram district’s Gopiballavpur block is a case in point.

It is a sunny day in the tribal villages of Jungle Mahal, as the vast area has come to be known for the long stretches of dense forests that cover it. Since Trinamool came to power with an overwhelming majority in 2011, the party has won every election from these remote regions – once the haunt of Maoists. So much so that even in the midst of the Narendra Modi wave which swept the country during the general elections of 2014, TMC’s Dr Uma Saren defeated BJP candidate Bikash Mudi, as well as his CPI(M) and Congress counterparts, by a margin of over 3,50,756 votes. One of CM Banerjee’s self-proclaimed success stories in fact, Jungle Mahal was flushed of Maoists and the tribal villages were inundated with public distribution schemes like subsidised rice.

But five years on the only party “visible” in some of Jhargram’s villages is the BJP. The whitewashed walls of the hamlet huts are painted with orange and pink lotuses and the graffiti reads, “vote for BJP”. Saffron flags are ubiquitous.

“We have all turned BJP,” admits 49-year-old Kali Shankar Dey of Gopiballavpur. As reason for why they voted in a BJP panchayat, he and his neighbours enumerate a host of grievances against the state’s ruling party. The most common crib is: “Money from public distribution schemes get pocketed by local leaders and their relatives.” Intimidation of voters and candidates during elections, by goons allegedly associated with the ruling party, too, is cited as a major deterrent.

Yet, anti-incumbency clearly is not the only reason for the BJP’s rise in Bengal. It must be remembered that the state has two other leading political parties, the Congress and CPI(M) – as well as their Left Front partners – which occupy the anti-Trinamool space. Indeed, to defeat Mamata, the Congress and the communists joined hands in the state elections of 2016. But, it was the BJP which emerged as the number two political party in the state.

And, with the Congress-communist alliance falling apart after disagreements over seat-sharing, the BJP is almost sure to rake in the divided votes.

“But what the BJP is banking on for any spectacular gain is the breakaway vote from the Trinamool,” explains political scientist Professor Biswanath Chakraborty. “And this by separating the Hindu vote from the Muslim vote.”

The party is proactively building up organisational strength at the grassroots, which was the Trinamool’s (that incidentally means “grassroots”) strongpoint.

The BJP has been wooing into its fold some of Trinamool’s topmost leaders known for their organisational skills. In this category, the most high-profile induction has been of Mukul Roy, one of the Trinamool’s founding members and once Didi’s right-hand man.

Roy, who commands a huge support base of cadres, is said to have engineered the defections of others. They include former Trinamool strongmen and state ministers. Murshidabad’s Humayun Kabir walked out of the Trinamool with a virtual army of 10,000 cadres and marched into the BJP, and North Dinajpur’s Abdul Karim Choudhury, with close to 3,000 workers, followed him. Among other recent defectors into the BJP is Nishit Pramanik, once considered one of the Trinamool’s strongest “ground managers”, who has contested on a BJP ticket from Cooch Behar in northern Bengal (which went to the polls during the first phase on April 11).

In the Barrackpore parliamentary constituency, in southern Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, too, the BJP has pitted a former Trinamool heavyweight, Arjun Singh, against his former colleague, Dinesh Trivedi. It is expected to be a tough contest for Singh, as Trivedi, who has held the seat for the last two consecutive terms, is a hugely popular candidate. “He drops by to check on us regularly,” said a beaming Biswanath Biswas, 55, a teashop owner in Barrackpore’s Naihati.

Yet, a saffron flag unmistakably protruded out of the terrace of his shop. Ask about it and he says, “Look, I am a supporter of our current MP because he is doing good work, but there is no denying that the BJP is coming up in a big way in these parts.”

“In each constituency we have fielded strong candidates throughout the state,” Ghosh tells Firstpost. “We have also been sending the message of BJP’s development programmes to the people.”

He reiterates, “On May23, there will be 23 BJP MPs in Bengal.”

As evening descends on the jungle villages of Jhargram, a storm begins to brew over the horizon. The political colour in these parts can change as rapidly as the weather. Driving past the wildly swaying forests and with the voices of villagers fading in the distance behind, clusters of Trinamool’s grassroots-green flags appear in sight every now and then. But just as soon they make way for clumps of flaming saffron. Only time will tell whether the flower that blooms for Bengal will be the joda phool (the Trinamool symbol of twin daisies) or the lotus.

Your guide to the latest seat tally, live updates, analysis and list of winners for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 542 constituencies on counting day of the general elections.

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