The Dinhata Assembly constituency in Cooch Behar district, which shares a border with Bangladesh came into the spotlight during the bypolls earlier this month. All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) candidate Udayan Guha trounced his nearest contender by 1,64,089 votes. BJP’s Ashok Mandal lost his deposit.
This win was a significant one and may have a number of long-term implications for Bengal politics.
1. BJP’s Demand For a Separate North Bengal Is Not Working
Despite the BJP’s defeat in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, the party was successful in winning a majority of seats in North Bengal – 30 out of 54.
Since then, various BJP leaders like MPs John Barla, Jayanta Roy and Raju Bista began raising the demand for a separate North Bengal state.
This demand is not a new one. Its origins can be found in the late 1960s, when the Congress lost power for the first time in the state but managed to win a majority of seats in North Bengal. A breakaway faction from the Congress formed a party named ‘Uttarkhand’ which raised the demand for a separate North Bengal. But this was seen as an attempt to hold on to power by any means and therefore, it failed to garner widespread support from the people. Eventually ‘Uttarkhand’ vanished from the political landscape of North Bengal.
The BJP may well be going in the same direction. This was the first election in North Bengal after this issue was raised by the BJP. The AITC, which opposed the division of the state, saw an increase in its vote share.
In the 2021 Assembly elections, the BJP had won Dinhata by a narrow margin of 0.02 percentage points. But it lost the bypoll to the AITC by a huge margin of over 70 percentage points.
2. Politics of Religious Polarisation on the Wane
Survey data from Lokniti-CSDS after the West Bengal Assembly Elections, showed that BJP succeeded in getting 50 percent of the Hindu votes in 2021 compared to 57 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Assembly election results showed that the state was still going through a phase of communal polarisation. But in the bypoll, BJP could get only 11 percent votes in Dinhata, where Hindus form almost 70 percent of the electorate.
Even if all 11 percent were Hindus, it would mean that the BJP couldn’t get even 20 percent of the Hindu votes.
The absence of polarisation was despite the fact that the bypoll took place soon after the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.
The results at Dinhata and other seats where bypolls were held – Santipur, Khardaha and Gosaba - indicate that the Bangladesh violence didn’t influence voters.
3. Rajbangshi Card No Longer Working for the BJP?
Since BJP’s outstanding performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in North Bengal where they won 7 out of 8 Lok Sabha seats in the region, a narrative started doing the rounds in the political circles of Bengal that this victory can be attributed to substantial Rajbangshi consolidation behind BJP.
Rajbangshis are the largest sub-group of the SCs in West Bengal. According to the 2001 Census, they form 18.4 percent of the total SC Population.
Almost all districts of North Bengal have a substantial number of Rajbangshi voters. Dinhata is no exception. It is estimated to have nearly 41 percent Scheduled Caste voters and most of them are Rajbangshis.
The 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly election results indicate that many Rajbangshis voted for the BJP.
Cooch Behar MP and Union Minister of State for Home Nisith Pramanik has been projected as a prominent Rajbangshi face by BJP time and again. But this time, the Rajbangshis seem to have deserted the BJP in large numbers.
There could be many reasons for this. For instance, Union Home Minister Amit Shah promised before the Assembly elections that there would be a Narayani Regiment in the paramilitary forces. But a recent RTI report showed that they have no such plans.
Then at a rally in Rashmela Maidan in Cooch Behar during the Assembly elections, Amit Shah had promised a Rs 200 crore project to install a statue of Panchanan Barma - a famous Rajbangshi icon – but this is yet to happen.
4. End of Achhe Din for Nisith Pramanik?
Despite his controversial image and Opposition’s allegations regarding his nationality and education, Nisith Pramanik has risen rapidly in the eyes of the BJP high command.
Pramanik, who started his political career with the AITC, became famous during the 2018 Panchayat elections when more than 300 Gram Panchayat members supported by him won as Independents, defeating incumbent AITC candidates.
The rift between the AITC and its youth wing in Cooch Behar was well known and Pramanik was the poster boy of the latter.
But the rift continued, which ultimately led to Pramanik’s suspension. He joined the BJP in February 2019 and became the party’s candidate from Cooch Behar. He won the seat by 54,231 votes, shocking many.
The BJP also surprised many by fielding Pramanik, a sitting MP, as its candidate from Dinhata.
He won by a mere 57 votes and then resigned after the elections. This led to resentment among his party workers.
However, Pramanik was made MoS for Home, Sports and Youth Affairs in the Union government. He is the first central minister from Cooch Behar and the BJP seems to have wanted to play the Rajbangshi card to strengthen themselves in North Bengal.
But the situation changed very quickly. Pramanik failed to control the growing resentment against him for being inaccessible and spending most of his time in Delhi.
The BJP’s local leadership is also said to have distanced themselves from him.
There are also allegations that he failed to provide polling agents for BJP in his booth. BJP lost by 265 votes in Pramanik’s own booth – the AITC got 360 votes against the BJP’s 95.
This was a clear warning for Pramanik and the BJP that Cooch Behar is no longer a safe seat.
5. Urban Voters Vote Against Price Rise
Dinhata is primarily a rural Assembly constituency, but it also has a good number of urban voters in the Dinhata Municipality.
The Dinhata municipality used to be a strong area for the BJP but the trend changed in the bypoll.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Pramanik had trounced TMC’s Paresh Adhikary with 10,793 votes in Dinhata municipality. That margin came down to 7766 votes in the 2021 Assembly Elections.
In this bypoll, AITC was able to take the lead from the municipality by a big margin of approximately 16,000 votes. This was also the first time any AITC candidate has led in Dinhata town.
What made people change their minds in just six months? Apparently, the rising price of petrol, diesel and LPG alienated the urban voters from the BJP.
This overrode factors like Bangladesh violence or the proposed North Bengal state.
(Spandan Roy Basunia is a student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Sumanta Roy is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)