West Bengal Polls: With New Parties in Fray, Elections could Assume National Character
Kolkata, Jan 27: The election-bound state of West Bengal is witnessing an incessant political churn, and it appears that the state Assembly poll, due in summer, will assume the character of a national battle with a number of political parties in the fray.
The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the senior Congress partner in the Jharkhand government, intends to field several candidates in parts of West Bengal’s Jungle Mahal region which are in proximity to the mineral-rich eastern state. Senior JMM leaders JMM are expected to lend voice to the party’s intentions at a public meeting in Jhargram on January 28. Jharkhand’s transport minister, senior JMM leader Champai Soren confirmed this to NewsClick on Tuesday from Seraikella-Kharsawan distrtict, where he was on an official tour.
Soren represents Seraikella, a reserved Scheduled Tribe seat, in the Jharkhand Assembly.
This development in the political landscape of West Bengal comes a week after cleric Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui of the well-known Muslim pilgrimage Furfura Sharif in the Hooghly district launched, as indicated earlier, a political outfit christened the Indian Secular Front (ISF) on January 21. This marked a split at Furfura Sharif, whose long-time face was Pirzada Twaha Siddiqui, a known supporter of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress.
In addition, Sanjay Raut, senior leader of the Mumbai-headquartered Shiv Sena, has gone on record to say that his party will field some candidates in the polls. “Our leaders will soon visit Kolkata to concretise matters in consultation with local party workers,” Raut had said recently.
When asked how many seats his party would contest and whether the JMM had considered the political implications of its move, given that the Congress and TMC were rivals in the upcoming polls, Soren said that the JMM had “about 15 reserved seats in mind in the Jungle Mahal region for fielding candidates”. Notably, he went on to add: “Our Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who is likely to address the proposed Jhargram meeting, is in touch with his West Bengal counterpart Mamataji”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), intent on capturing the state, did well in large areas of the Jungle Mahal region in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. Therefore, it is possible to look at the JMM’s move as one done with the TMC’s concurrence. However, the JMM will have to pacify the Congress, say observers.
The Sena’s intentions are also intriguing. Observers wonder if it is just a move to add votes to its kitty for the purpose of the Election Commission’s status-determining exercise for political parties, or whether it is aimed at helping the CM and damaging the BJP’s chances. However, the focus will be on the JMM, given the concentration of reserved seats in the two neighbouring states.
There is some clarity on the possible steps of Siddiqui’s ISF. Addressing the party’s first public meeting at Ashoknagar in North 24 Parganas district on January 24, the Furfura cleric flayed the BJP for using religion to play divisive politics. He blamed the TMC for the BJP gaining ground in the state and called the two parties two sides of the same coin. The crowd at the meeting included Dalits, Advasis and people from other disadvantaged sections. Given its stance, observers believe the ISF will have an understanding with the Left-Congress platform.
Siddiqui’s emphasis on addressing the disadvantaged might present an opportunity, both for the Left and the Congress, to work out a tie-up with the ISF, thereby also increasing their chance to gain the support of Muslims, who Mamata had succeeded with in 2011. At 27% of the state’s population, Muslim voters form a critical mass of Bengal’s electorate.
An indication that a preliminary dialogue between the ISF and the Left has already begun was when senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Ashok Bhattacharya was asked by NewsClick whether his party, or the Left, would reach out to Muslim leaders. Bhattacharya, the Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation and a member of the party’s state secretariat, hinted at a rethink towards Muslim outfits with established secular credentials and said they would keep the Left-Congress platform in view.
The likely tie-up with the Siddiqui also means that the Left-Congress leaders have already factored in the understanding that All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi has with the Furfura cleric.
The scenario does suggest that the Muslim support for the TMC will be dented. Lending weight to this assessment are two other factors. First, the BJP’s Minority Morcha is active in enlisting Muslims between the ages of 18 and 40 years as members. Speaking to NewsClick, the morcha’s West Bengal unit president Ali Hossain claimed he had already been able to enrol about ten lakh members and that “he had been given a target by the party to enlist at least ten per cent of the state’s electorate”.
He claimed that the morcha was quite active in the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur and Cooch Behar, an area he hails from. Asked if he faced opposition in his recruitment drive because of the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva stance, Hossain remarked: “Our country is well known as Hindustan; what is wrong in promoting Hindutva?”
Secondly, the Congress still has a sizeable presence in Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. In Malda, the Khan Choudhurys still matter (Abu Hashem Khan Choudhury is a Lok Sabha member from the district) and Lok Sabha MP and state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury still wields clout in Murshidabad.
There is a contrarian view, however, which still guarantees Muslim support for Mamata and a third term as CM. It comes from the TMC-affiliate Bangiya Sankhyalaghu Buddhijibi Manch (Bengal minority intellectual platform) president Oajul Haque, who said: “All sections of the people have benefitted from Mamata Banerjee’s welfare schemes. People acknowledge that she is committed to their welfare. Why will they back out from supporting the TMC?” When asked about the rampant corruption and involvement of TMC activists’ Haque did concede corruption was an issue. The party chief has taken action and she will deny tickets to corrupt MLAs and persons holding other posts, he told NewsClick.
CPI (M) leader Bhattacharya is of the view that people are turning to the Left again, saying it had been a slow process which is now gaining traction. He said the Left had been quite active in highlighting people’s issues throughout the COVID-19 crisis and that the people were taking note of the Left-Congress tie-up; it will be a factor, he suggested.
The party’s youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), has seen an increase in membership by almost 1.19 lakh over the 2019 figure, to 28.75 lakh. DYFI state secretary Sayandeep Mitra told NewsClick the rise in numbers boosted morale and that it was possible due to sustained social networking and agitation programmes on people-centric issues. In the first week of February, the DYFI will undertake symbolic foundation stone laying programmes at Singur, Shalboni, Haldia, Durgapur to highlight their industrial potential and the failure of the incumbent government to realise it. On February 11, a march to the state secretariat, Nabanna, has been scheduled. About 50,000 DYFI members are expected to participate, Mitra informed.
Meanwhile, from representations made at the recent meeting of the full bench of the Election Commission here, it appeared that the BJP wanted the EC to look into the abnormal increase in the number of voters in border districts. BJP’s state vice-president Pratap Banerjee told NewsClick that the issue had assumed serious proportions and that the party has reasons to suspect foul play. The unhappy experience of the Opposition during the 2018 panchayat polls, when a large number of candidates were not allowed to file nominations by TMC activists, has also been brought to the notice of the EC, Banerjee informed.
The memorandum submitted by CPI (M) has demanded that preparation of the list of sensitive polling stations should not left to administration officials and that suggestions by political parties should be considered. The party has sought a ban on “biased propaganda” through state-controlled and private media. The party has also brought to the notice of the EC instances of unparliamentary, abusive and provocative utterances of BJP leaders in public meetings like “... goli maro saalon ko”, which was alien to Bengali culture. However, today it is commonplace, CPI (M)’s Sukhendu Panigrahi, who represented the party at the meeting with three other members, told NewsClick.
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