The upcoming by-elections in four Assembly constituencies in West Bengal is hardly making any headlines. While ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is pulling out all stops, the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign has been uncharacteristically muted.
The saffron party named Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, union ministers like Smriti Irani and Giriraj Singh along with 17 leaders from Bengal as the star campaigners for the four by-polls. All the above-mentioned heavyweights are missing and didn’t campaign for the by-election.
The byelection will take place in Shantipur and Dinhata assembly seats in Nadia and Cooch Behar district respectively as two BJP MPs, Jaganath Sarkar and Nisith Pramanik contested from these two seats and resigned after winning to save their respective membership in the parliament.
The demise of TMC MLAs Kajal Sinha, and Jayanta Naskar necessitated re-election in North 24 Parganas’ Khardah and Gosaba in South 24 Parganas.
By-elections, for obvious reasons, do not get a lot of media attention. In the just completed by-election last month, TMC won all three seats, with chief minister Mamata Banerjee winning with a record margin from Bhabanipur. But this time it is even worse, as the main opposition poses no challenge to the ruling party.
BJP a Divided House
The BJP unit in Bengal is plagued with infighting, defections and acute leadership crisis, which is giving a free run to TMC. Since the humiliating defeat in May, at least four BJP MLAs switched to TMC and one has quit the party.
After being dropped from the Union Cabinet, BJP MP from Asansol Babul Supriyo quit BJP and joined TMC. TMC leaders who joined BJP months before the 2021 assembly election are making a beeline to return. The latest in this series is Sabyasachi Dutta.
To tackle BJP’s leadership crisis in the state, the central leadership recently appointed Sukanta Majumdar as party’s state president by removing popular politician Dilip Ghosh.
After the election drubbing in Bengal, the party's leadership remained invisible. Local workers from various districts took to social media to vent their anger against BJP leadership claiming that one helped them during post-poll violence.
On 22 October, when the current and former state president visited Daihat in East Burdwan, for an organisational meeting, party workers raised “Go back Dilip Ghosh" slogans and made objectionable comments against Majumdar. Soon the situation became volatile as BJP workers of two factions clashed, broke chairs in the presence of Majumdar and Ghosh.
The main allegation of the workers is that the state BJP leadership abandoned them when they were attacked and terrorised by TMC workers after the assembly poll results.
The constituency located in North 24 Parganas is predominantly urban and used to be a CPI(M) bastion till 2011. Finance minister of West Bengal Amit Mitra was a two-time MLA from this assembly.
In May 2021, TMC nominated organisation man Kajal Sinha, who won the seat with a margin of 28,140 votes. Sinha passed away due to covid-19 complications before the results were declared.
In the last assembly election, TMC did exceedingly well in North 24 Parganas district by winning 28 out of 33 seats.
State agricultural minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay who vacated his seat for TMC supremo is now contesting from Khardah.
Speaking to The Quint, he said “I have been visiting Khardah from May and have completed visiting the entire constituency. People here are very warm and have already accepted me. My target is to continue the development work started by Amit Mitra and the vision of late MLA Kajal Sinha.”
When asked if this election is tougher than the Bhabanipur election in May 2021? Chattopadhyay said, “Bhabanipur was tougher as I had just recovered from Covid and was physically very weak. Also, the entire national media had hyped and made several projections against the TMC”.
Joy Saha, BJP candidate from Khardah is an unknown face in the constituency. The party’s is also facing organisational problems.
“I am not working for the party any more. Many workers like me stopped working for the party. The leaders have just used us for their gain, they never cared for us,” BJP worker from Khardah, Madhusudan Ghosh, told The Quint over phone.
In the 2019 parliamentary election, South 24 Parganas is the only district where BJP couldn’t take a lead in a single assembly segment.
In the 2021 assembly elections, TMC won 30 of 31 seats in the district. The remaining one was won by Indian Secular Front (ISF). So, it’s safe to say that among four by-poll seats Gosaba is the safest seat for TMC.
The TMC has been winning Gosaba since 2011. Popular TMC face Jayanta Naskar became MLA for the third consecutive time earlier this year. In June, Naskar died in a Kolkata hospital due to Covid-19.
Located in the Sundarbans region, Gosaba is a 100 percent rural constituency reserved for scheduled caste (SC) candidates. More than 60 percent of Gosaba’s electorate are from scheduled castes while Muslim voters are around 10 percent.
Sundarbans has witnessed nature’s fury in the last two years - cyclone Amphan and cyclone Yaas wrecked the islands. Gosaba too was severely affected during these cyclones.
TMC has nominated the block-level leader Subrata Mondal from Gosaba. A section of TMC workers were disappointed as Naskar’s son was denied a ticket. However, this may not dent TMC’s chances in Gosaba.
BJP has fielded Palash Rana while CPI(M) supported Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) fielded Anil Chandra Mondal.
Shantipur in Nadia district is located close to the India-Bangladesh border. In the May assembly election, BJP’s Jagannath Sarkar won the seat with a margin of over 15,000 votes. However, Sarkar resigned to keep his Lok Sabha membership. Interestingly TMC has never won this seat.
Around 33 percent electorate here SCs and a majority within these belong to the Matua community. Matuas migrated from Bangladesh to Bengal during and after Partition.
They consolidated behind the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Two Matua leaders were elected on BJP tickets – BJP MP and Union Minister Shantanu Thakur and his brother Subrata Thakur, BJP MLA from Gaighata.
The recent spate of communal violence in parts of Bangladesh became a talking point in Bengal. BJP leaders used the violence to polarise before by-polls. BJP leader and leader of the opposition in the West Bengal assembly Suvendu Adhikari said, “After the Bangladesh incident, BJP will win the Shantipur by-election with three times bigger margin than last time.”
The party is using the attacks in Bangladesh as well as the killing of migrants in Kashmir as an election issue.
Shantipur has always been a tough seat for TMC, the possible polarisation can make it even more difficult for the ruling party.
BJP won the Dinhata seat in Cooch Behar district by a slender margin of 57 votes. Just like Sarkar, Nisith Pramanik resigned to save his MP seat. BJP turned Cooch Behar into a fortress and won 7 out of 9 assembly segments.
TMC’s factionalism further helped the saffron party gain ground in the district. But since the last election TMC has made some course corrections, changed the district president, and sidelined a senior leader, who seemed to have damaged the party.
TMC has fielded Dinhata’s former MLA Udayan Guha, while BJP has nominated Ashok Mondal. Interestingly Mondal was TMC’s MLA from Dinhata in 2006 and defeated Guha, who was then in Forward Bloc. Guha and Mondal’s father were arch rivals and contested against each other.
In the recent union cabinet reshuffle Pramanik has been made a junior minister. However, he does not enjoy much popularity among the BJP cadres. As Pramanik was with TMC but joined BJP months before the 2019 Lok Sabha, many BJP workers see him as an outsider.
“After the post poll violence BJP workers stopped trusting their leaders in Dinhata. And their MP remained inaccessible at the time,” said a local journalist.
Interestingly, Pramanik who is currently staying in Dinhata for the past two weeks, didn’t participate in the election campaign, barring two days.
Issues like price rise, inflation have dented the image of PM Modi and the desertion of BJP MLAs/MPs has also affected the morale of workers, putting TMC in an advantageous position in Dinhata.
While BJP is extensively using Bangladesh violence as a poll issue, the union government appreciated steps taken by the Bangladesh administration.
The Congress is contesting only from Shantipur, while CPI(M) fielded Debojyoti Das from Khardah. However, these parties, at present, hardly have any political capital to make an impact. In the recent by-elections, CPI(M) lost deposits in all three seats.