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BJP likely to gain numbers, Left may face rout in 2018 rural polls in Bengal

The voteshare of the Left parties is going down steadily in the state since the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

kolkata Updated: Mar 30, 2017 10:59 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee
Tanmay Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
After the landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh and the apex court decision upholding the CBI investigation in Narada sting, BJP is eyeing major gains in Bengal in the next few years.(HT Photo)

Political mainstay of the Marxists for 34 years and now hunting ground for Trinamool Congress and BJP, Bengal’s villages may significantly alter the political equilibrium when panchayats go to the polls in 2018, feel many opposition leaders.

The Left, many of them fear, could be pushed towards political isolation while the BJP would rise because of sustained activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Bengal’s districts where religious divides have started to emerge as raging issues; a phenomenon not witnessed during the Left regime.

Read: Left doesn’t get it right in Bengal, fails to rise from the dead

Going by the results to the last Lok Sabha, Assembly, municipal and panchayat polls, the Left has lost ground faster than anyone had anticipated. Villages that once enjoyed the benefits of Operation Barga (land reforms) implemented by the Left Front government in the 70s have witnessed a paradigm shift in voting pattern.

The Left Front old guard. The voteshare of the Left are on a free fall over the past few years in the state. ( HT Photo )

The Saradha chit fund scam was already a political issue when the three-tier panchayats last went to the polls in 2013. Mamata Banerjee’s party still managed to establish control over the zilla parishads in 13 out of 17 districts. The Marxists won in Jalpaiguri while the Congress scored only in its old citadel, Murshidabad. In the 3354 gram panchayats, Trinamool Congress scored at more than 54 per cent. Over the last five years however the Trinamool has wrested many of these opposition seats using political tactics.

Read: RSS, VHP plan mega Ram Navami celebration in Bengal

To win back the confidence of villagers who are still largely dependent on farming, the CPI(M) is trying to reactivate its peasants front, the All India Kishan Sabha. On May 22, the Kishan Sabha will lead its first agitation to Nabanna, the state secretariat, to project 16 issues that have affected farmers in recent years.

Left, Congress and BJP leaders who have started preparing for the biggest micro-level electoral exercise feel that 2018 will present a picture Bengal hasn’t witnessed yet.

“People shouldn’t get carried away by the Uttar Pradesh election results. The Hindu card won’t work here. Moreover, had religion been the sole deciding factor the BJP wouldn’t have lost elections in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan after the Babri Masjid crisis. But it’s a fact that Trinamool Congress and BJP are allies and will help each other,” state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury told HT.

However, when asked whether the Congress and CPI(M) would forge an alliance for panchayat polls, Chowdhury said: “Why only the CPI(M)? We will team up with all democratic forces.”

What Chowdhury couldn’t say on record is that the alliance (officially it was called ‘seat adjustment’) between the Congress and Left parties prior to the 2016 Assembly polls have become a thorny issue. The CPI(M) central committee officially ended it after the debacle and ruled out any electoral understanding in future. Even Left front partners have already decided to contest the panchayat polls on their own although they know that RSS, their main adversary, may not be into electoral politics but runs a disciplined and cadre-based structure seen only in Marxist organisations.

Read: Election results: Why BJP’s sweep in UP could be ominous for Mamata Banerjee

“The electoral tie-up with Congress was a blunder. While our cadres voted for Congress candidates, their supporters voted freely without listening to the leadership. The Nalhati Assembly seat in Birbhum and Joypur in Purulia are glaring examples, Both were our strongholds and yet we lost both to Trinamool,” said Naren Chatterjee, the new state secretary of the Forward Bloc which now has now only two seats in the Assembly against three held by the BJP.

Many leaders are apprehending a surge in BJP votes in the panchayat elections and holding the Trinamool responsible for the rise of RSS. “Going by what we have observed since 2011, Trinamool will definitely use force to stop Left candidates from contesting. And, this void will be filled up by the BJP,” said Manoj Bhattacharya, national secretariat member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) which is left with three seats in the Assembly.

TMC supporters celebrating after the 2016 Assembly elections in Bengal. Despite the small number of BJP MLAs and MPs in Bengal, TMC leaders are acutely aware that the party is going to emerge as the biggest opposition in the state. ( HT Photo )

“During Trinamool regime, the number of RSS sakhas (branches) in Bengal has gone up from 475 to 1680 and their members are steadily increasing. This is helping the BJP,” added Bhattacharya.

“It is mostly supporters of the CPI(M) and other Left parties who have switched allegiance to join the BJP in recent years. They comprise the bulk of our mass base. Next come Congress deserters. It is only in the last five-six months that some people from Trinamool have crossed over,” said Ritesh Tiwari, BJP state secretary.

Read: Post UP, BJP to focus on Bengal

Asked to prove his point, Tiwari cited the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat where by-election was held precisely 11 days after demonitisation was announced last year. “Trinamool won the seat but our candidate came second with 3.8 lakh votes while the Forward Bloc, which virtually controlled the area till a few years ago, got only 87,000 votes. BJP’s vote share in this Parliamentary seat has touched an all-time high,” said Tiwari.

“Mamata Banerjee has helped the RSS consolidate its position in Bengal. Since she is facing the odds because of Narada and chit fund scams she will help the BJP fan out and eat into opposition vote banks. The Trinamool-BJP-RSS combine is the biggest threat we face. But people of Bengal must have faith in their ethos and culture. It is time for the Left to rejuvenate itself from the grassroots,” said Md Salim, CPI(M) Politburo member.

Stopping the RSS, however, may not be easy for Bengal’s opposition leaders. A resolution adopted on March 21 at the three-day meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the top policy making body of the RSS, condemned “Muslim appeasement” by the Bengal government, exploitation of Dalits and infiltration from Bangladesh. “The decline in Hindu population in West Bengal is a matter of serious concern to the unity and integrity of the country,” RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale said after the meeting.

First Published: Mar 29, 2017 15:39 IST