By-elections in the three Assembly constituencies in West Bengal will take place on Thursday, 30 September. All media attention will be singularly focused on the Bhabanipur seat where incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is contesting to re-elect herself to the Assembly after facing defeat in Nandigram by a slim margin.
The other two, relatively unnoticed, constituencies that will see bypolls on the same day are Samserganj and Jangipur, which fall under the Murshidabad district.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) adjourned elections in these two Assembly segments after Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) candidate from Jangipur, Pradip Nandi, and Congress candidate in Samserganj, Rezaul Haque, died of COVID-19.
A Fractured Opposition
By-elections, for obvious reasons, do not get a lot of media attention.
This set of bypolls, however, generated a buzz among opinionated Bengalis for two primary reasons.
First, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and sole star of the party herself is contesting. Secondly, this will also be a primer on the possible fate of the Opposition parties in West Bengal.
Both Congress and Left failed to open an account in the recently completed state Assembly election. BJP won 77 seats, but in the last four months, four of their MLAs joined the ruling TMC and two of them resigned after winning to save their membership in the parliament.
This brings down the saffron party's tally to 71 from 77 in the West Bengal Assembly. Many more BJP MLAs are expected to switch and are awaiting the TMC leadership’s approval.
BJP national vice-president, Mukul Roy returned to the TMC fold after spending 44 months in BJP. Former Union minister and sitting BJP MP from Asansol, Babul Supriyo joined TMC last week.
In this context, it is to be seen how the BJP performs in the upcoming three by-elections.
Murshidabad district used to be the bastion of Congress and the party had considerable hold over the region till the last Assembly election in 2016. However, since then the TMC started making inroads.
In the 2014 general election, Congress won two of three parliamentary seats in the district and one went to the Left. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, TMC managed to win two of the three seats and Congress was reduced to one in the region.
In the 2016 Assembly election, TMC won four out of 22 seats in the district of Murshidabad. The Left managed to win four as well, and the Congress maintained their dominance by winning 14 seats.
Between 2016 to 2021, a lot of water has flown through Ganga as Congress was wrapped out of the region. Congress couldn’t win a single seat of 20 seats in Murshidabad district, which went to poll in April. What's even worse is, in 14 of the 20 seats, Congress was pushed to the third position, in nine of them the grand old party lost deposits.
Since 2019, TMC continued to make massive inroads and managed to win 18 of 20 seats from the district. At the same time, the Berhampore and Murshidabad seats went to BJP.
In the by-polls in Samserganj and Jangipur, TMC has a clear edge because of their current organisational strength, demography and lackadaisical approach of Opposition parties including BJP.
The Muslim Vote in Murshidabad
In the 2021 Assembly election, the minority communities overwhelmingly voted for the ruling TMC.
Micro-analysis of the election data reveals that TMC won 40 of 41 seats where Muslim population was above 50 percent. Where the Muslim electorate ranges between 35 percent and 50 percent, TMC won 27 of 28 such seats. Further, where the Muslim electorate ranges between 20 percent to 35 percent, TMC won 61 of 76 such seats, and BJP bagged 15 of them.
In the Samserganj Assembly segment, close to 80 percent of the electorate are Muslims. And in the Jangipur seat, close to 52 percent of the electorate are Muslims. So it is safe to say, in the Samserganj and Jangipur by-election, TMC has a demographic advantage.
Over the years, TMC’s organisational strength in the region has increased. Many prominent Congress leaders like Abu Taher, Khalilur Rahaman, Mannan Hossain, and Humayun Kabir have joined TMC. The alliance between Congress and CPI(M) is one of the primary reasons for the mass exodus from Congress to TMC in Murshidabad and Malda region.
“No one here accepted the Jot (alliance between Congress and Left). At the same time, people stopped believing in our party because of the lack of credible leadership both at the state and national level,” said a Congress leader in Berhampore, Murshidabad.
Congress in Bengal has become directionless. In three poll-bound seats, the party has fielded candidates in Samserganj, didn’t field any candidate in Jangipur and supported Mamata Banerjee in the Bhabanipur seat.
TMC's Organisational Strength That Trumped Congress in Murshidabad
During this reporter's time in Murshidabad on the election trail earlier this year, we found that among the Muslims, TMC clearly emerged as the preferred choice in the fight against the BJP.
Moloy Sarkar, Congress party worker from Jangipur said, “Congress right now has a leadership crisis. Adhir Babu (Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury) is never available, and he spends most of his time in Delhi. Also, people here, especially the Muslims, felt it was Mamata who opposed BJP’s CAA law the most. So, the majority of Muslims voted for her party.”
Recently, former President Pranab Mukherjee's son Abhijit Mukherjee, and Congress candidate from Hariharpara constituency, Mir Alamgir Palash, joined the TMC.
On Thursday, 23 September, veteran Congress leader Moinul Islam joined TMC in the presence of party’s national general secretary, Abhishek Banerjee. Islam was a five-time MLA from Farakka and a known face in Murshidabad district.
Currently, BJP’s house in Bengal is not in order. The saffron party is virtually imploding with an acute leadership crisis at the state level. Mass exodus of grassroots-level workers, local leaders, MLAs and MPs further aggravated the situation. This has forced the central leadership to remove its state president Dilip Ghosh and appoint Balurghat MP Sukanta Majumdar as the new chief on 20 September.
The saffron party, multiple times, objected to the by-election at this point of time and said “law and order situation and COVID-19 conditions in the state aren't appropriate to conduct the by-elections”.
A public interest litigation (PIL) was also filed in the Calcutta High Court alleging that the announcement of a by-poll to the Bhabanipur Assembly seat was “unconstitutional”.
BJP is focusing on only one seat, that is Bhabanipur. The party hardly put any effort in Samserganj and Jangipur. BJP fielded Milan Ghosh from Samserganj and Sujit Das from Jangipur.
At a time when Union Cabinet ministers like Hardeep Singh Puri, Smriti Irani are flying down to Kolkata to campaign in Bhabanipur, hardly any of them are visiting Murshidabad.
Recently removed state president Dilip Ghosh and leader of Opposition in West Bengal Assembly just visited the two poll-bound Murshidabad constituencies once.
If the Opposition's attitude towards the bypolls in Murshidabad are any indication, it seems like the TMC will sail through in both seats in the district.
(Himadri Ghosh is a Kolkata-based journalist reporting on politics and policy in the state of West Bengal. He tweets @onlineghosh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)