In Sheetalpur village, a little before the Raiganj town, a group of men are sitting by the tea-shop, playing cards. Conversation easily swings to the electoral mood, and Ganesh Das, a farmer, offers his political preference.
"We will vote for BJP this time. It is time to change the
government. Ten years is a long time." What does he think about Mamata Banerjee? "She is worse than CPM. She gives money to masjids, but not to mandirs."
In north Bengal highway bazaars, in Malda town, and in Kolkata, an increase in support for the BJP is palpable, driven partially by a narrative that the BJP perfected in north India, of accusing the government of the day of 'appeasement politics'.
Sitting in the party headquarters, BJP state president, Rahul Sinha, is confident of a better performance in a state where it has been traditionally weak. "There is a definite Narendra Modi impact. The hopes invested in TMC have now got dashed, but people are still angry with CPM. So we are seen as the new hope."
But it is through attacking Mamata Banerjee's outreach to Muslims that BJP is hoping to make an impact. When asked if they were hoping for a 'polarisation', Sinha responded, "She is polarizing. She sees Hindu-Muslim in everything." The party strongly objected to the government decision to provide allowances to Imams and Muezzins, which was later struck down by the judiciary.
Sinha alleges, "She also wanted to make a hospital only for Muslims. In schools, she gives cycles to Muslims, not to Hindus. She wears a burqa and does naatak." Alluding to a call by the Shahi Imam of the city's Tipu Sultan Mosque, N R Barkati, who urged Mamata to aggressively take on Modi, "Will a mosque Imam run politics and control the CM? Hindus are angry, and so are some Muslims with this dangerous politics."
But hitting back, Shahi Imam Barkati, a supporter of Trinamool Congress, told HT, "Rahul Sinha will feel bad if Muslims even eat a jalebi. These schemes are essential for Muslim upliftment."
Political observers point out that while BJP will see a rise in its vote-share, this may not translate into seat-wins yet because of the absence of a strong organisational network, ground-level leaders, and a relatively limited social base. But in the first-past-the-post system a swing in votes will affect the overall outcome.
A top CPM leader, on the condition of anonymity, told HT, "Their vote share usually hovered around four to six percent, sometimes going up to eight, but I won't be surprised if it reaches 10 to 12 percent." The left sees a silver lining in this – BJP could well eat into TMC votes, benefiting them.
The Howrah constituency is a case in point. In by-polls held last year, the TMC candidate footballer Prasun Banerjee beat the CPM's Sridip Bhattacharya by 26,000 votes. Bhattacharya told HT, "They won because TMC and BJP had an understanding. BJP put up a candidate, but he did not contest. BJP has at least a lakh votes in this area. TMC will lose those votes this time."
But these calculations are not set–in-stone. A taxi driver right outside the CPM's office in the constituency said he had voted for the party last time, but may vote for BJP this time because of the Modi factor.
In times where no voter's loyalty can be taken for granted, BJP's appeal has made West Bengal a truly multi-cornered contest, difficult to predict.
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