Can Trinamool Congress retain its hold in southern Bengal?

While BJP started out as favourites initially, TMC has an edge in the last phase

22-Mamata-Banerjee Power walk: Mamata Banerjee campaigning for Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar (in blue sari) in Barasat | Salil Bera

It feels like an eternity since the elections to the 18th Lok Sabha began on April 19. But the anticipation and anxiety over what lies ahead on June 4―the day of the results―is still palpable in West Bengal.

This sentiment is particularly pronounced in the nine constituencies in southern Bengal that will go to polls on June 1. These are the urban constituencies of Dum Dum, Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin and Jadavpur, rural seats of Mathurapur and Joynagar and those that have a mix of both―Diamond Harbour, Barasat and Basirhat.

While the BJP started out as the favourite initially, the Trinamool Congress has an edge in the last phase of the polls. Trinamool had won all the seats in 2019 and almost all assembly segments within them in 2021. Three of the Lok Sabha seats fall in South 24 Parganas district―Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour and Joynagar.

Mathurapur―reserved for the scheduled castes and with 35.57 per cent of Muslims―has become a Trinamool stronghold in the last decade. The Mamata Banerjee-led party has been increasing its winning margin ever since it first won the seat from the CPI(M) in 2009. However, its three-time MP Choudhury Mohan Jatua will be sitting it out this time because of poor health. In his place, the Trinamool has fielded Bapi Haldar against the BJP’s Ashok Purkait.

Neighbouring Diamond Harbour is a prestige seat for Trinamool, as Mamata’s nephew Abhishek is seeking a third term. There was a rumour that the Indian Secular Front MLA Nawsad Siddiqui could contest against him, which could have split the 39 per cent Muslim vote. But with Siddiqui stepping back and the CPI(M) and BJP fielding weak candidates, the Trinamool has an edge.

Joynagar, too, has 35 per cent Muslims. Trinamool’s Pratima Mondal has been its MP since 2014. The Trinamool has also held all the seven assembly segments in Joynagar since 2016. The BJP has again fielded Ashok Kandary, who had lost by more than 3 lakh votes in 2019.

What could cause a dent in the Trinamool’s Muslim base in South 24 Parganas is the Calcutta High Court’s order to cancel all Other Backward Classes certificates issued by the state government since 2010. The order is likely to affect Muslims. At a rally in Mathurapur, Mamata challenged the High Court’s decision, calling it a conspiracy during polls.

But women hold the key in South 24 Parganas, as they outnumber male voters. Mamata has cultivated this vote bank since her railway minister days. Initiatives like special local trains for women were a hit, as are the state government’s welfare programmes for women.

However, Mamata’s criticism of monks associated with religious organisations helping the BJP has added a communal colour. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have accused the Trinamool of being anti-Hindu.

“The strategy of both the parties has been to make Bengal’s elections a bipolar affair to ensure the third front’s vote reduces,” said Subhamoy Maitra, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, said that all constituencies, except Barasat, Dum Dum and Jadavpur, would see a polarised election. The three constituencies are seeing a left resurgence and therefore are less likely to vote on communal lines.

Dum Dum is seeing a three-cornered fight. Trinamool’s Sougata Ray has represented Dum Dum since 2009. He is pitted against the BJP’s Shilbhadra Dutta and INDIA bloc’s CPI(M) candidate Sujan Chakraborty. “The BJP and the Trinamool want to [make this about] Hindu-Muslim, so that they can say the fight is between them. We want to change this,” Chakraborty told THE WEEK. “We are telling people that this election is about protecting the Indian Constitution and the secular nature of our country.”

But Mamata is in no mood to give up Dum Dum―she held multiple rallies and road shows for Ray.

Meanwhile, All India Forward Bloc’s Sanjib Chatterjee is challenging the status quo in Barasat, where the fight is primarily between Trinamool’s Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and the BJP’s Swapan Majumder. Barasat has remained with the Trinamool since 2004, with Ghosh Dastidar winning it since 2009. Given that Muslims constitute over 25 per cent of the population and scheduled castes over 21 per cent, with a significant Matua presence, Barasat was poised for a repeat of the 2019 bipolar contest. With a robust campaign targeting the BJP on issues like unemployment, inflation and privatisation, and the Trinamool on corruption and scams, Chatterjee is seen as a formidable challenger. The key question is which candidate’s vote share will he impact.

In Jadavpur, the CPI(M) has fielded its young turk Srijan Bhattacharyya to take on the Trinamool’s Sayani Ghosh and the BJP’s Anirban Ganguly. Muslims form over 35 per cent of the population and scheduled castes over 30 per cent. The Trinamool won it in 2019 with a margin of almost three lakh votes. The BJP had gained 15.14 per cent voteshare, whereas the CPI(M) lost 15.05. Given Bhattacharya’s enthusiastic campaign and representation of a new left, the CPI(M) is hopeful of regaining the voteshare it lost to the BJP. Ghosh hopes for the same, as it would ensure that Trinamool retains Jadavpur.

Kolkata Dakshin is another Trinamool bastion. Its Mala Roy is hoping to get a second term, with a win against the BJP’s Debasree Chaudhuri and the CPI(M)’s Saira Shah Halim.

In Kolkata Uttar, the Trinamool and the BJP are locked in a tense battle. The Trinamool has fielded veteran parliamentarian Sudip Bandyopadhyay. His opponent is Tapas Roy, a Trinamool-turned-BJP leader. Experts believe Bandyopadhyay, 73, could be sabotaged by his own partymen. “In Kolkata Uttar, Trinamool could defeat Trinamool,” said political analyst Chakraborty. “Several local councillors and leaders, including Kunal Ghosh, have been speaking against Bandyopadhyay.”

“Why will people even vote for him? His health is not good and he is not visible in his constituency. His own party workers will not vote for him,” Roy, a five-time MLA, told THE WEEK while meeting a Trinamool leader in his office. He accused Bandyopadhyay of being a BJP person and held him responsible for the Enforcement Directorate raid at his house over alleged irregularities in civic body recruitments.

At the confluence of river deltas, Basirhat―with 25.82 per cent Muslims and 21.82 per cent scheduled castes―shares both land and water border with Bangladesh. The region has witnessed recurring communal tensions. Sandeshkhali is one of the assembly segments in Basirhat, which has been represented by the Trinamool since 2009. Given the allegations of sexual exploitation, land grab and violence against Trinamool leaders leading to a mass movement by women in Sandeshkhali, it appeared Basirhat was up for a change.

In 2019, Trinamool’s Nusrat Jahan won with a margin of over three lakh votes. Political analyst Chakraborty said Trinamool’s winning margin might come down to a lakh this time. The Trinamool has fielded Sk Nurul Islam, who was the MP between 2009 and 2014. The BJP has fielded Rekha Patra, one of the women protesters of the Sandeshkhali movement.

“There is no Sandeshkhali movement,” Nurul Islam told THE WEEK. “The entire country has now seen the videos of how the BJP conspired to defame Bengal and our women with Rs2,000. I am 100 per cent confident of winning. I will do it with the help of our mothers and sisters.”