By Ashis Biswas
Unforeseeable occurrences apart, the outcome and the broad trends of the Uluberia Lok Sabha and Noapara Assembly by elections in West Bengal on Jan 29, are predictable.
The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) should win both seats on current performance. Given the state of the divided opposition, if TMC loyalists take victory for granted and concentrate more on increasing their winning margins, they cannot be accused of tempting providence.
There still remains a fly in the ointment for the TMC. Current trends also indicate that while effective opposition from the Congress and the CPI(M)-led Left Front may have been forestalled, there has been no reversing the growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The saffron party may not emerge as a close runner up to the TMC as of now. But it is certainly poised to emerge as the major challenger to the ruling party for 2019.
In fact, what has indirectly helped the BJP at the expense of the TMC, the Congress and the Left Front (LF) in the context of Bengal is a recent decision of the CPI(M) Central Committee. As state-based Congress and Left leaders acknowledge, a Congress-LF electoral understanding would have avoided a three-way split among opposition anti-TMC votes. But the recent CPI(M) CC decision not to have any alliance with the Congress has made sure that this will not happen. It has certainly made things easier for the TMC.
The CC decision has intensified the agony within the state CPI(M) and Congress camps. Both camps after six years of virtually unchallenged TMC dominance in Bengal politics have been hit hard by an erosion and demoralisation within their ranks. Small groups from both formations have made peace with the TMC by joining it. But the majority of deserters, comprising the more militant elements, itching to take on the TMC politically, have been lining up behind the BJP.
There was proof of this at the recent Sabang Assembly seat bypolls. The BJP sans much organisational support or effective campaigning still increased its vote share (from a very low base) by several times, despite a good LF showing as runner up to the TMC. The Congress, not for the first time since 2011, ended up forfeiting security deposit.
As a CPI(M) state committee member puts it, ‘It should be understood that if the Congress is totally gobbled up by the TMC or the BJP in Bengal, through erosion, it does not help Left and secular parties. Among the state units of the CPI(M), Bengal was the strongest in terms of Parliamentary or Assembly seats. Today, it is experiencing a sharp decline in the face of the near fascist tactics of the TMC. The policy of equi-distance from both the BJP and the Congress needs urgent reconsideration, or it may affect the long term prospects of the CPI(M) itself. On the other hand, it helps the TMC in the short term and the BJP in the long term.
As things stand, the Congress is poised to lose more ground. The Noapara seat in North 24 Parganas had been won in 2016 by the late Madhusudan Ghosh, known for his political integrity and commitment. The Left- supported Ghosh had defeated the TMC. Now TMC’s well-heeled strongman Sunil Singh, with assets worth Rs 2.56 crore, has emerged as the most promising challenger. With a 34 percent Muslim population, Noapara is currently seen as a comfortable seat for the TMC, although the Congress –LF combination had bucked its challenge in the past.
Gargi Chatterjee, the CPI(M) candidate in Noapara, is a campaigner in the traditional Left mode. With declared assets of only Rs 56,000 and a long record of involvement in the trade union issues, she has worked hard campaigning, but remains way behind the TMC in terms of manpower and material support. The Left has been attacking the TMC for duping many locals through the serial chit fund scams in the state, whereas the TMC has been highlighting its ‘development’ agenda.
In contrast, Congress candidate Gautam Basu (assets Rs 2.5 cr) is financially stronger, but lacks manpower and adequate support from a limping state/central party machinery. As for the BJP, its candidate is Sandip Banerjee, a local with a record of party work. However, his pitch as well as the party’s own, was queered by bungling BJP policymakers, who tried to put up dissident TMC leader Manju Bose, who withdrew under TMC pressure.
Writing off Noapara, the Bengal BJP unit, still unable to set up a state-wide organisational structure, is concentrating on putting up a good fight at the Uluberia (in Howrah district) LS seat. Its candidate Anupam Mullick (assets Rs 1.5 cr) putting up a strong campaign against TMC nominee Sajeda Ahmed (assets Rs 2.5 cr). Sajeda Ahmed is the widow of TMC MP Sultan Ahmed.
The BJP targets the TMC’s dubious chit fund links (Sultan Ahmed was one of the accused in such scams) in its campaign. It also expects to win unexpected support from within the Muslims as well, especially for its anti-triple talaq campaign. On its own it won only 8 percent of the total votes in 2016, but expects things to change, citing the Sabang bypoll results. Corruption also figures strongly in CPI(M) candidate Sabiruddin Mollah’s (assets Rs 3 lakh) campaign.
The TMC, apart from stressing local development, is confident that the local Muslims, (around 32 percent of the electorate) will support it.
Opposition parties fear that given the TMC’s known tactics of unleashing terror by ‘armed party goons’ during bypolls and even panchayat or civic elections, their experience on Jan 29 will be negative. They have appealed to the State Election Commission to deploy more para military companies, while the Centre has spared 35 companies so far. There will be over 2,400 booths to guard. Pre-poll campaigning for the Opposition has been generally difficult with the police allowing only the TMC to hold rallies and processions, not the Opposition. There have been scores of complains of intimidation and strong arm tactics on the part of TMC activists, but the Bengal administration has, not surprisingly, taken no action. (IPA Service)