Lok Sabha Elections 2019:In north Bengal, BJP set to emerge as main challenger to TMC
The north Bengal town of Cooch Behar is witnessing a keen contest between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP, which has grown in size and influence across eight Lok Sabha constituencies in this part of West Bengal.
It’s almost 8 pm and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is still closeted with her key leaders in a hotel in the centre of Cooch Behar town.
The general election is a battle of prestige for the Trinamool Congress chief, and she is not relying merely on her party colleagues to repulse the march of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She has already spent three days in the town and remains in the thick of the action.
Barely a few metres away from her hotel, four top BJP leaders are huddled together, discussing strategy.
BJP’s general secretary in-charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders, Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon, had just finished their green tea when Mukul Roy, a former Banerjee loyalist, entered their room along with others. It’s now time for a strategy meeting in the BJP camp.
The north Bengal town is witnessing a keen contest between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP, which has grown in size and influence across eight Lok Sabha constituencies in this part of the eastern state. The slide in the fortunes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress has helped the BJP gain ground in this region, experts say.
“There is a certain buzz about the BJP here,” said Pradeep Das, who drives a battery rickshaw. “There is a novelty value about Modi and his BJP. People are tempted to give them a chance for once.”
The BJP stood third in Cooch Behar with a vote tally of just 2.17 lakh, against 5.26 lakh polled by Trinamool Congress in 2014. The BJP is in the race to win the seat this time, after it fielded a Trinamool Congress turncoat, Nishith Pramanik, and forged an alliance with Rajbongshi groups such as the Greater Cooch Behar Peoples’ Association of Atul Maharaj. In Alipurduar, where it finished a close third in 2014 polls, the BJP has roped in a prominent tribal face, John Barla, who is known for his grip over tribal votes among workers in tea gardens.
Of the eight Lok Sabha seats of north Bengal, the BJP could win just one in the 2014 parliamentary election. Its victory in Darjeeling was largely credited to the support it received from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, an outfit with a base in Darjeeling hills. The Trinamool Congress won four seats, the Congress two and the CPM one.
Things have changed in the past five years.
“My family has always voted for the CPM. We will vote for the BJP, as it has emerged as the principal challenger to the Trinamool Congress,” said Suman Kundu, a shopkeeper in Alipurduar town.
A CPM veteran said: “Mamata Banerjee’s politics to appease the minority votes has fuelled the BJP’s rise in north Bengal. It was always a fertile ground for the BJP; some groundwork by the RSS has helped its case.”
The BJP polled over 21 lakh votes across these seats, compared to 26 lakh by Trinamool Congress and 25 lakh by the three Left parties. CPM leaders admit that there is a certain drift among its floating voters, who are tempted to go along with the BJP to defeat Trinamool Congress.
“We expect to win at least six of the eight seats of north Bengal this time,” Vijayvrgiya said. Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Darjeeling and Balurghat are among seats in which the BJP has emerged as the main contender.
Experts argue that, in the absence of an alliance between the CPM and the Congress, the BJP stands a better chance, but it will still remain a distant second to Trinamool Congress, which has a very well laid out structure in every part of the state.
“The BJP has been growing slowly over the past several elections, and the absence of an alliance in the opposition is helping its case,” said Verniers, co-director at the Trivedi Centre of Political Data. He said the BJP has done well in the non-Bengali speaking areas of Bengal. In non-Hindi speaking states, such as in the northeast, wherever the Congress has collapsed, the BJP has filled the vacuum, he said.