By Uday Basu
The third phase polling in West Bengal on April 6 will be a litmus test for the ruling Trinamool Congress. The 31 constituencies where the election will be held in this phase are spread across the three districts of South 24 Parganas (16 seats), Hooghly (seven seats) and Howrah (eight seats) where the Trinamool could hold its fort even when the BJP made heavy inroads into its bastions bagging 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
In the 2016 Assembly poll, the Trinamool’s dominance in these seats was unquestionable and it won 30 seats and the Congress managed to bag only the Amta constituency.
But, the picture changed remarkably in the 2019 LS poll, when the BJP surged ahead of all the other Opposition parties and occupied the second position after the Trinamool in 29 of these seats. The saffron party even secured lead over the Trinamool in two seats - Goghat and Pursura in Hooghly. This means the Trinamool was still invincible in these south Bengal seats at a time when the BJP fought back so well that it grabbed 18 seats against the Trinamool’s 22 and the Congress’ 2. Nearly 44 per cent of the LS seats in Bengal went to the BJP’s kitty. In such a saffron storm the Trinamool could retain lead in almost all the 31 seats in the three districts.
But, a dramatic change took place in these Trinamool strongholds weeks before the Assembly poll dates were announced this time. MLAs after MLAs from this region and even two key ministers of the Mamata Banerjee-cabinet quit the party to join the BJP, while the state Sports Minister and a former cricketer of Bengal Lakshmi Ratan Shukla representing a Howrah constituency resigned and quit politics at least for the time being. If the political career of one such minister - Subhendu Adhikari - was dogged by controversies, the other minister - Rajib Banerjee - is known for a clean image. It was Banerjee who brought serious charges against a senior minister and the party’s Howrah district president and complained to the party supremo Mamata Banerjee that honest people like him were not being allowed to work. One of the reasons he cited while quitting Trinamool was that his complaints were not addressed by the top leadership.
Mamata Banerjee was so much unnerved by the development that after maintaining a studied silence for some time, she hit back at Rajib Banerjee alleging that there was rampant corruption in the forest department headed by the latter. This infuriated Rajib so much that he publicly said it was the Chief Minister who had shielded corrupt elements of the party who indulged in malpractices in the forest department overruling his objections. He even claimed he had documents and call records to prove the complicity of the Trinamool supremo.
All these developments have shown the deep divide within the Trinamool in the Howrah and Hooghly districts indicating the erosion of the party’s base in these areas.
The situation for the Trinamool in South 24 Parganas is further compounded by the unforeseen emergence of a Muslim religious leader, Abbas Siddiqui, a Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, as a “secular” ally of the Left and the Congress.
Siddiqui poses a major threat to the Trinamool for his ability to split the Muslim votes so long going in the Trinamool’s favour. Of the 16 seats in this district where the third phase polling will be held the Trinamool was ahead of all its rivals in the 2019 LS poll, but the BJP breathed down its neck securing the second maximum number of votes. Hence, this time it will be tough for the ruling party. The Hindus comprise 63.2 per cent of the district’s population and the Muslims account for 35.6 per cent. The various allegations of corruption against the Trinamool over distribution of Amphan relief and recruitment test for school teachers, besides widespread unemployment will weigh on the voters’ mind. Added to this is the Siddiqui factor which will further dent the Trinamool’s minority vote base. The Hindus are likely to rally behind the BJP in large numbers.
In the Howrah district the problems for the Trinamool have multiplied following revolt by Minister Rajib Banerjee and influential MLAs, including Baishali Dalmiya. The Hindus are the dominant group constituting 72.9 per cent of the population against the Muslim’s 26.2 per cent. A split in Muslim votes due to the Siddiqui’s control of a sizable number of the population does not augur well for the Trinamool. A mixture of non-Bengali population in the district will also go against the ruling party because of Mamata Banerjee’s campaign pitch castigating the BJP as a party of “outsiders”.
In the Hooghly district also the Trinamool is facing an intra-party feud. The extent of the rift within the party is such that Rabindranath Bhattacharya, the 89-year-old MLA from Singur, whose name became synonymous with the Trinamool-spearheaded agitation against the Tata Motor’s small car project in Singur, quit the party and joined the BJP. He has been representing the constituency for the past 20 years, first as a Congress nominee and later Trinamool. Journalist-turned-MLA Prabir Ghoshal, who enjoyed the trust of Mamata Banerjee, also joined the bandwagon of Trinamool MLAs switching their loyalty to the BJP shortly before the polls. The population matrix of 82.9 per cent Hindu and 15.8 per cent Muslim voters are likely to cause major upsets for the ruling party.
The author is a Political Analyst, associated with Peoples Pulse, Political Research Organization. email@example.com