By Ashis Biswas
KOLKATA: It is not often that a particular election result pleases both winners and losers —although broadly, that was the gist of the recently concluded Gujarat Assembly polls. The BJP was happy to win (however narrowly) for a record sixth time bucking anti-incumbency issues, while the Congress put up its best showing in years.
Sunday saw a rerun of the phenomenon, this time at the Sabang Assembly constituency by-election in West Bengal. As expected, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) romped home comfortably, outscoring the combined challenge of the CPI(M), the BJP and the Congress. Yet, the final stats left even the jubilant TMC leaders worried — between 2016 and 2017 in 18 months, the BJP’ s vote share has risen from 5610 to 37,476! ‘Not bad for an opposition party that is still looking for volunteers to man the polling stations,’ said an analyst.
Despite putting up a brave, determined pre-poll campaign, the CPI(M) as well as the Congress ended up as the losers, especially the latter. After all, Sabang was its stronghold for years and in Dr Manas Bhuyan, the Congress had an effective local leader.
Bhuyan quit his party to join the TMC some time ago in questionable circumstances. He was accused of involvement in a local murder case and with the police hounding him, he found it difficult to operate. The fact that he had won the seat in 2016, beating the TMC, also went against him.
Eventually discretion triumphed over delusions of valour and he took the easy way out by joining his TMC-backed accusers, who are reportedly not too keen to proceed with the case pending against him.
‘Such tactics to smother all democratic opposition are too crude for words, but they are par for the course in Mamata Banerjee-ruled Bengal,’ says BJP leader Shantanu Sinha. And it is not the BJP alone, leaders of the Left Front and the Congress concur wholeheartedly with him. No wonder CPI(M)’s youth leader Shatarup Ghosh found the run-up to the polls bizarre, to say the least. ‘Is this how the state police is supposed to work?’ he asked.
With Bharati Ghosh operating as the Midnapore district’s Police Superintendent, no answer is necessary. The lady is in the habit of referring to the Chief Minister as ‘our mother” at official meetings and gatherings!
To save his blushes, Bhuyan, a senior leader, put up his wife Gita as the new TMC candidate this time, stolidly ignoring the gibes from his critics for switching his loyalties so late in the day for the sake an an Assembly seat. He accused two major leaders in the state Congress of conspiring against him.
The State Assembly speaker, despite repeated pleas from the opposition, ensured that Bhuyan retained his membership in the house as a Congressman even as the TMC announced that he had joined the ruling party! No wonder the combined opposition in West Bengal no longer attends even the customary thanksgiving meeting with the Speaker at the send of each session!
For the opposition, the pre-poll campaign followed the usual pattern under the TMC rule. There was routine harassment and intimidation from the ruling party supporters and the police of opposition workers and supporters alike. Rallies etc were not allowed or disrupted. Only the ruling party had a free run.
Bhuyan, who did most of the talking on behalf of his TMC candidate wife, said before polling day, ‘I think the Left will hold its own and as for the BJP, they will be nowhere. They are not in the running. There is no question about our victory.’
After the results were declared on Sunday, Bhuyan sounded more chastened.’ I’m glad that the TMC has won by winning 1,06,179 votes and securing a record winning margin of over 64,000 votes. That is higher than my winning margin (as a Congressman) in 2016 over the TMC in 2016 (nearly 50,000). But the BJP seems to have won more votes than expected, we have to look into this. I think the BJP has ended up cornering the Left votes. Our (TMC) vote share has gone up from 77,820 to over 100,000 this time.’
The records show that in 2011 Assembly polls, the BJP candidate at Sabang had won 2,507 votes and in 2016, the party did somewhat better, winning 5,610 votes claiming a 2.6 percent vote share as against 36 percent by the TMC and 59 percent for the Congress that year.
This time, BJP candidate Antara Bhattacharya, without much organisational effort, has won 37,476 — giving a tough run to the second placed CPI(M) candidate Rita Mondal (41,987 votes) . However the CPI(M), as stated before, had put up a determined fight, manning polling booths and resisting TMC area domination. Still, the Left vote declined sharply from the 85,571 votes as registered in 2011. In 2016, a weak LF candidate was put up, who lost unceremoniously.
TMC leaders sounded self-congratulatory, pointing to the increase in their victory margin and attributing it to the dynamic leadership of their Chief Minister. But party insiders wondered at the relentless increase in the BJP”s votes despite the right wing party’s known weaknesses. ‘It shows that the people are flocking to them,’ admitted one TMC leader.
More worryingly, this is happening despite the Chief Minister’s consistent anti-BJP harangues in all her speeches — whether at administrative meetings, party sessions, musical conferences or cultural functions. The more she attacks the saffron party, the more votes it keeps winning, a clear case of the law or diminishing returns at work. ‘Does she realise it? By attacking it night and day, from housetops to street corners, she gives it more publicity than anyone else,’ says one observer. (IPA Service)