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Can Mamata’s ‘daughter-of-the-soil’ pitch help her retain West Bengal?

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Intro: Media coverage of the West Bengal election has largely focused on the TMC-BJP battle. But most have the opinion that its the Left Front-Congress alliance will impact the outcome.

By Subhash Chandra Yadav

West Bengal will vote in eight phases -- March 27, April 1, April 6, April 10, April 17, April 22, April 26 and April 29. Polls will be held for 294 seats in the state and the results will be announced on May 2. However, even before Election Commission announced the dates for the crucial assembly polls, the election fever has been very high; for almost a year. Both the ruling TMC and a resurgent BJP have been putting in efforts to grab the throne of West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is fighting against its 10 years of anti-incumbency while BJP is looking forward to grab the throne of Bengal for the first time.

In an attempt to project Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as Bengal’s ‘very own daughter’ and the BJP as ‘outsiders’, the TMC launched a new slogan ahead of the upcoming Assembly polls in West Bengal. The slogan, Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay (Bengal wants its own daughter), was officially announced at the party headquarters in presence of senior party leaders.

Significantly, BJP has emerged as a huge threat after winning 18 seats out of the 42 lok sabha seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Bengal BJP under Dilip Ghosh as well as the work done on the ground through numerous central government schemes have grabbed large proportions of the SC/ST vote during the General elections and put TMC under huge pressure. The saffron party has tightened the screws by elevating three ex-TMC leaders to the post of General Secretary, also the inclusion of former West Bengal minister Rajib Banerjee, who recently quit TMC, joined BJP along with a four other members and MLAs Prabir Ghosal and Baishali Dalmiya, who was recently expelled from TMC, former Howrah mayor Rathin Chakraborty and actor Rudranil Ghosh flew to the New Delhi on a special plane and met central BJP members and joined the saffron party. Dinesh Trivedi has deserted Mamata. Many see him joining the BJP somewhere in near future.

Challenges galore for Mamata Banerjee

For decades, West Bengal was a communist bastion. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Front was in power in the state for an unbroken 34 years. Then in the 2011 elections, the TMC stormed to power, winning 194 seats in the 294-seat state assembly. Not only did it retain power in the 2016 elections but, with 211 seats, improved on its previous performance. The Congress won 44 seats and the Left Front won 33 seats fighting within an alliance. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha each managed to win only 3 of the 294 seats. But the table turned when in last general elections BJP won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats and reduced TMC to mere 22. Bagging more than 40 percent of the vote share, an increase from the previous time and in by-elections from 2016 to 2021, BJP had also increased their seats in the legislative assembly by 15 as of 2020.

In 2019, the BJP-led Narendra Modi government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) in the Indian Parliament, promising citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh and hoping to provide them with habilitation. The BJP's Bengali booklet released in January 2020 claimed that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be implemented to identify the undocumented migrants, but Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslims will be "shielded" by the Citizenship Amendment Act "They have their homelands secured". The Covid-19 pandemic also became an election issue. The Government of West Bengal was accused of "fudging" with the number of Coronavirus disease 2019 positive patients and death tolls by the opposition. In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan hit the state a year before elections. After the passing away of the cyclone, widespread allegations of mismanagement and relief scam were seen. Protest broke out in various district of the state over these allegations. The Opposition made it an election issue ahead of the Assembly polls. Rebellion and dissatisfaction of many TMC leaders are also likely to impact the elections.

EC has tough task to conduct the polls fairly

After several instances of violence, threats and murders even before the polls were announced, the Election Commission of India and Home Ministry ordered twelve companies of central forces were be deployed in West Bengal from February 20. At least 125 more central troops were ordered to reach West Bengal on February 25 to ensure law and order in the poll-bound state. The Election commission (EC) said that forces will lay stress on area domination, especially in sensitive zones.60 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), 30 companies of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), 25 companies of the Border Security Force (BSF) and five companies each of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Each company — headed by an assistant commandant — has 80 to 100 personnel. The state government has to bear the expenses incurred by the forces sent by the Centre. In the past, a few companies of central forces had been sent to the state for area domination after election dates were declared. About 30 companies were deployed after the dates of the 2016 Assembly polls were declared, and around 40 companies were despatched following the announcement of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Sending the CAPF to the state is unprecedented in Bengal’s election history. This could mean the EC is not satisfied with the law and order situation in the state, or it could be a stern message to the state government. It could also mean the EC is not satisfied with the neutrality of the state administration. Over the past several months, both the ruling TMC and the BJP have accused each other of killing their party workers. In the last year, political violence and murder has increased in the state. BJP president J P Nadda’s convoy was recently attacked allegedly by ruling party cadres, and several leaders of Opposition parties were murdered in last six months.

Deployment of a large number of central forces much before the poll dates are announced also hints that the EC may initiate all possible measures to ensure an incident-free election in the state this year.

The CAPF is generally deployed for area domination, to build confidence among people in sensitive regions. This year, the EC has sent forces for area domination in all districts of the state, which could mean it is considering all districts of the state to be sensitive in nature.

A Factor called Owaisi

Opinion polls indicate that the TMC will retain power in West Bengal. However, the BJP is expected to make major gains in the assembly elections. But All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) headed by Asaduddin Owaisi will harm TMC as party is expected to contcet seats in the two districts in Bengal.  On January 3 Owaisi came to Kolkata to meet Abbas Siddiqui cleric of the prominent religious shrine Furfura Sharif and party will contest for the upcoming assembly elections in the state under leadership of Siddiqui. Interestingly, he has launched his political party the Indian Secular Front (ISF) at the Kolkata Press Club. “We believed in Mamata and supported her. But we feel deceived now, her party created a divide between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. So, I thought let’s not depend on others this time and form our own party,” said ISF’s chief patron Siddiqui. The 34-year-old preacher has significant clout on social media and has, of late, been drawing huge crowds at meetings. Furfura Sharif is in Bengal’s Hooghly district. Siddiqui has been speaking out against the state government, holding it responsible for corruption and underdevelopment of Muslims.

The Hyderabad-headquartered party had declared that it would field candidates mainly in two Dinajpur districts, Maldah, Murshidabad and the two 24 Parganas districts due to the inflated Muslim populations there. North Dinajpur borders with Bihar’s Seemanchal region which was the centre of AIMIM’s accomplishments there. AIMIM’s entry is expected to indirectly help the BJP by splitting Muslim votes that go to the TMC. Muslims accounted for the state’s 27.01% population, according to the 2011 census.

Media coverage of the West Bengal election has largely focused on the TMC-BJP battle. However, the Left Front-Congress alliance could impact the outcome. Should the TMC fall short of a simple majority, the Left Front-Congress alliance, which is expected to win somewhere around 30 seats, could play an important role in government formation.

This Article First Published In Our Magazine

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