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West Bengal Election 2021: Battle shifts to Gorkha turf, can BJP repeat 2019 performance in North Bengal?

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Going by Lok Sabha numbers, the BJP was leading in 35 of 54 seats in North Bengal.

West Bengal Election 2021: In Bengal’s fast-changing political landscape, 2019 has become a benchmark. Calculations are being based on the year the BJP marked its arrival in Bengal and surprised many by winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. If disaggregated, the BJP was leading in 121 assembly seats. So if it were to win this election, the saffron party will have to hold on to what it had got in 2019. Its best performance was in North Bengal, where it won 7 of 8 Lok Sabha seats. This region — mostly dominated by tribals and other ethnic groups — has 54 assembly segments, Alipurduar (5), Cooch Behar (9), Jalpaiguri (7), Darjeeling (6), North Dinajpur (9), South Dinajpur (6) and Malda (12). Going by Lok Sabha numbers, the BJP was leading in 35 of 54 seats in North Bengal.

The BJP will have to hold fort here to win the battle of Bengal. On that count, the BJP has lost one sherpa where the Gurkha issue is still alive and kicking in North Bengal. Bimal Gurung — the man who has been spearheading the Gorkha movement and helped the BJP win the region in the last election — is now with Mamata. Gurung can win at least 3 seats — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — for Mamata, who has left these constituencies for the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The GJM won these seats in 2011 and 2016.

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Besides, the GJM has support in a dozen of other assembly segments. If the BJP loses here, the road to Nabanna would either lead to nowhere or back to New Delhi, at least for some top leaders camping in Bengal. But Sambit Pal, author of ‘The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC’, thinks that the results in this region won’t seen any drastic change. He says 2019 Lok Sabha elections results show that North Bengal has tilted towards the BJP. And “the TMC has not done much (in North Bengal) to tell you for sure that they are going to recover the lost ground in 2021. Rather they (TMC) have tried to do something in West Midnapore and Jhargram in terms of organisation to recover the lost votes with the help of Prashant Kishor’s team”.

Sambit says the ruling party is not strong here in North Bengal. “TMC is mainly a South-Bengal party. It doesn’t have an organic base in North Bengal. Here, it has been riding primarily on the leaders from the Congress and Left. Since 2019, Mamata has tried to woo the tea garden workers, tribals, Rajbangshis through various welfare schemes and development boards. Still, it seems that voting in this region is expected to be in line with what had happened in the Lok Sabha polls.”

“The TMC may recover a few seats, but voting would be on similar lines. But firing in Sitalkuchi — it will have to be seen how it affects the electorate further. The booth where the firing happened was a minority-dominated, ratios could be 60:40 or 70:30. And this issue is being used by both TMC and BJP for their own political gains,” the author adds.

Following firing in Cooch Behar, both sides have been trading charges against each other – BJP says Mamata instigated women to gherao central forces while Mamata alleges that the forces were acting on instructions of Modi and Shah. These charges and counter-charges are leading to a further polarisation of votes that was already polarised.

In 2016, the TMC had won 25 of 54 assembly seats in North Bengal. But by 2019, the BJP had made inroads into the region critical to its win in Bengal. If we take out the Gorkha factor out, there would still be enough seats of which the BJP can corner 30. Sambit says Gurung has a sway in three hilly seats, but in other seats in the foothills, he can have some influence but cannot authoritatively change the results.

Tea workers are among the dominant constituents in North Bengal. Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to increase daily wages for tea workers to Rs 350. But since that same promise was not fulfilled in Assam may raise doubts among voters’ minds. Then there are Ranbangshis and Namasudras — both together constitute over 36 per cent population. Both BJP and TMC are vying for their votes, but the saffron party has a better chance of gaining their support. Matuas are the biggest group in Namasudras. The BJP has been saying that it will give citizenship to refugees under CAA.

On which way the tribals are moving, Pal says there are different castes and communities. “Mamata tried to address them separately. She had formed various development boards, which she had done before 2019. They (TMC) had divided the whole population that way. Both of them are trying to reach out to Rajbangshis like promising a separate battalion for the Rajbangshis in West Bengal police.” But, so far, “it seems” they are going with the BJP. Overall, North Bengal looks safe for the BJP.

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