West Bengal holds the key to BJP's 2014-like majority
Amid apprehensions of losing seats in the cow belt, the BJP is making a strong pitch to woo voters in West Bengal with clear indications that it will increase its vote share due to Narendra Modi’s popularity, polarisation, nationalism and some help from leaders that the party has poached from the Trinamool Congress.
West Bengal sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha and has a 30% Muslim population, factors that seem to have contributed to BJP eyeing this border state through Hindu polarisation. Trinamool Congress is still a formidable force under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee but BJP has been trying to wean away those unhappy with the brazen ways of her party workers. BJP has also dangled the carrot of more development and better governance if it gets a good number of seats.
Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP general secretary in-charge of the state, maintains that his party will do well if there are “free and fair elections” and the voters are not intimidated by Trinamool goons.
“During the recent panchayat elections, rigging took place in front of police personnel. We have submitted to the EC videos of booth capturing and violence that we collected from the media. Eighty seven of our party workers have been killed since 2016,” Vijayvargiya said.
BJP chief Amit Shah has set a target of 23 seats in West Bengal but it seems to be a tall order. In the 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections, BJP got only 4% votes but this jumped to 17% in the 2014 general elections. The saffron party, however, saw a fall in voter percentage in the 2016 state polls when it got 10.16% and won three seats. Trinamool got 44.91% votes in 2016.
In a state known for maintaining political status quo –– Left parties ruled the state for 34 years –– Banerjee has been in power for eight years. Nevertheless, voters have begun talking about a need for change and Modi seems to be the main reason for attraction towards the BJP.
Trinamool’s ideology is nebulous and this is not a binding factor for its cadre, unlike for CPM in the past and BJP at present. But Trinamool has created an ecosystem across the state where its cadre is the first beneficiary and they call the shots.
The Saradha Chit Fund scam and the Narada sting operation has put several Trinamool leaders in the dock. But BJP’s campaign on this issue did not get the required traction, perhaps because Mukul Roy –– one of the accused –– is now in the BJP .. Banerjee has created a support base for herself through welfare schemes –– monthly doles to Imams, schemes like Kanyashree and Rupashree for girl children, Nijoshree (affordable housing) and so on. Last October, she launched a food security scheme “khadya sathi” that benefits around 8.5 crore people as well as a special assistance scheme for those living in Jangalmahal and hill areas, farmers of Singur, tea garden workers and Toto tribe members.
BJP claims to have support in Jungalmahal and among tribals.
Locals give credit to Banerjee for building roads and making places cleaner. Some people alleged that several welfare schemes of the previous government have been renamed while some central government schemes are projected as state programmes.
Trinamool has a hold over local unions –– be it rickshaw-pullers, auto drivers or factory workers. BJP is yet to make significant inroads here while CPM’s grip has weakened. Trinamool has stronger and more widespread booth committees unlike the BJP that can only boast of having a capacity to man around 60% of the booths.
BJP has pinned its hopes on migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Modi factor is strong in this segment and they praise him for his “josh” and the Balakot attack.
While Muslim voters are clearly backing Trinamool and since some constituencies have more than 50% minorities, polarisation may not work for BJP. However, the saffron party is working on consolidating the Hindu voters in other seats. Had the Left-Congress alliance materialised, it would have aided the BJP in some seats due to a triangular fight.
BJP is also raking up the Citizenship Amendment Bill in those border constituencies that have a sizable Hindu population.
BJP is hopeful of winning seats in north Bengal, the region bordering Jharkhand, and some seats in North 24 Parganas. The seats include Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, Krishnanagar, Barasat, Basirhaat, Bangaon, Barrackpore, Asansol, Jhargram and Purulia. The party did well in the last two seats during the panchayat elections.
Shah’s team has been on a poaching spree in the past few weeks with a lot of help from Mukul Roy. Some of them have been fielded as candidates. Among them, Khagen Murmu (Malda North), Arjun Singh (Barrackpore) and Soumitra Khan (Bishnupur) are seen as strong candidates.
West Bengal will see polls in all the seven phases. Political rallies of both Modi and Banerjee are expected to have an impact on which way the votes will swing. Modi held two rallies ––
at Siliguri and Kolkata –– on Wednesday and will be in Cooch Behar on April 7. Senior BJP leaders said he has promised to increase the number of rallies. Banerjee will hold 82 rallies.