Battleground Bengal: BJP Hopeful of Breaching Trinamool’s South Bengal Citadel In Crucial Round Tomorrow

Battleground Bengal: BJP Hopeful of Breaching Trinamool’s South Bengal Citadel In Crucial Round TomorrowUnion Home Minister Amit Shah and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. 
Snapshot
  • The Election Commission has declared all the 10,871 polling stations as ‘sensitive’ and has deployed 618 companies of central forces.

    More than 78.5 lakh voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in this phase.

The third phase of polling in 31 constituencies spread across three districts of South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly in south Bengal tomorrow (Tuesday, 6 April) will be crucial for both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool.

The Indian Secular Front (ISF) floated by firebrand Islamist cleric Abbas Siddiqui, which is  expecting to bag a couple of seats in this phase, is likely to dent the Trinamool’s prospects in a few constituencies.

In 2016, Trinamool won 30 of the 31 seats that are going to the polls on Tuesday. The BJP made major inroads into these Trinamool bastions in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and is confident of wresting away many of them from the Trinamool.

The Trinamool is battling severe anti-incumbency in all these constituencies. All the assembly segments where polling will be held on Tuesday were battered by Cyclone Amphan, and the corruption, nepotism and partisanship that marked distribution of relief after the cyclone has left a huge number of people thoroughly embittered.

Most parts of these 31 constituencies are backward and rural or semi-urban where poverty and unemployment is high.

The widespread corruption and favouritism in distribution of relief (foodgrains) during the pandemic-induced lockdown last year had also triggered acute resentment against Trinamool functionaries and the government.

Lack of employment opportunities, Trinamool functionaries demanding cut-money for enrolling people in the list of beneficiaries of state and even central schemes, high-handedness of these Trinamool functionaries, the reign of terror unleashed by them on hapless villagers, their interference in lives of ordinary people and their strong-arm tactics have alienated many.

Along with all this, these areas of south Bengal have not seen any economic development over the last 10 years. In fact, many industrial units in some of these constituencies in Howrah and Hooghly have closed down, leaving many jobless.

The Trinamool is banking on the support of Muslims who form a majority in eight of the 31 seats and more than 30 per cent of the electorate in another 10 seats.

In another nine seats, Muslims form a substantial segment of the electorate (between 18 per cent and 30 per cent) and can swing the electoral outcome in those seats if they vote en bloc.

The Trinamool has been trying its best to prevent a split in Muslim votes. Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has, in all her public rallies, been desperately urging Muslims against supporting the ISF and has branded Abbas Siddiqui a ‘BJP stooge’.

A split in the Muslim vote will be calamitious for Banerjee since that will help an aggressive BJP.

But the Trinamool’s plans may come unstuck since Siddiqui is quite popular, especially among the youth of South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly.

Siddiqui has been drawing good crowds at his rallies. His speeches lambasting Banerjee for paying mere lip-service to welfare of Muslims, undertaking only cosmetic measures for the community and for not giving Muslims a fair share in the power structure have been very well-received.

Recordings and videos of Siddiqui’s speeches have been widely shared within the Muslim community.

The ISF has fielded candidates in eight of the 31 constituencies. In as many as 22 of these constituencies, the Left parties and the Congress are quite strong and the Left-Congress-ISF alliance can upset the Trinamool’s applecart in these seats, thus helping the BJP.

The consolidation of Muslim votes behind the Trinamool, and to a lesser extent the ISF, has led to a strong but silent counter-consolidation of Hindu votes in all the 31 constituencies.

This is more so in the 16 constituencies in South 24 Parganas where Muslims are either in a majority, or form a huge chunk of the populace.

The last 10 years of appeasement of Muslims by Banerjee had resulted in muscle-flexing and aggression by Muslims, especially in the rural areas.

Hindus had silently borne the brunt of this muscle-flexing and are angry with the Trinamool for appeasing Muslims and taking the majority community for granted.

The BJP has been campaigning very intensively and aggressively. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Union ministers Smriti Irani, Nitin Gadkari and many others have addressed multiple rallies and held mega roadshows in these 31 constituencies.

The BJP’s rallies and roadshows have attracted huge crowds, thus worrying the Trinamool which is fighting to retain its south Bengal bastion.

Since the battle for these 31 seats is crucial and the Trinamool has a lot to lose if it loses its grip over its citadel, the party can be expected to pull out all stops to thwart the onslaught by the BJP and, to a lesser extent, the Left-Congress-ISF combine.

Political observers say that the third phase of polling could witness a lot of violence with an embattled Trinamool getting desperate to retain the 30 seats it bagged in 2016.

But the BJP, and the Left-Congress-ISF combine will not give in so easily. The BJP has invested a lot in building its organisational muscle here and the Trinamool has been severely weakened by a huge exodus of functionaries from that party to the BJP.

The Trinamool’s last-ditch attempt to hold on to its bastion, and the BJP’s equally determined bid to breach it, can lead to widespread clashes on Tuesday.

Apprehending this, the Election Commission has declared all the 10,871 polling stations as ‘sensitive’ and has deployed 618 companies of central forces. More than 78.5 lakh voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in this phase.

The polling on Tuesday is also crucial because it will set the mood for the next few phases of polling.

If things go bad for the Trinamool, as they did in the first two phases of polling, the party’s cadres will be thoroughly demoralised. This will severely mar the Trinamool’s chances in the least five phases of polls that will be held in Congress and BJP strongholds.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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