Stoke the fire of separatism, divide the people, threaten the Muslims describing them as infiltrators from Bangladesh–this seems to be the electoral motto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in north Bengal.
In the 2019 elections, out of eight Lok Sabha seats in north Bengal, the BJP swept and won seven, leading in 36 out of 57 Assembly segments. However, the victory was not very positive as some of the members of the Parliament (MPs) won with a slender margin with one or two Assembly segments awarding them with a massive margin ensuring their victory.
The Union Minister of State for Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Nityananda Rai has, on record, stated in the Parliament that infiltration from Bangladesh has gone down and there were only 489 cases in 2020. But Shah harped on the issue during his recent visit to Cooch Behar on Thursday, February 11th 2021, because he knew that the majority of seven Lok Sabha seats which the BJP bagged were by sheer fluke and it will fetch him good results if he could ignite the fire against Muslims while encouraging the divisive forces demanding a separate state of Kamtapur.
Take the case of Raiganj parliamentary constituency from where BJP nominee Debasree Chaudhuri won with a margin of 60,593 votes defeating Mohammad Salim of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], who polled 1,81,330 votes while Deepa Das Munshi of the Congress polled 83, 460, Kanhaiya Lal Agarwal of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) 4,49,269 votes dividing the anti-BJP electorate. The BJP led in four out of the seven Assembly segments while the TMC led in three.
Debasree, a Union minister, could win because a single Assembly segment of Kaliaganj, bordering Bangladesh, with a Hindu majority population, gave her 1,18,895 votes with a massive margin of 56,782 out of her victory margin of 60,593.
In Balurghat Lok Sabha constituency, Sukanto Majumdar of the BJP defeated TMC’s Arpita Ghosh with a slender margin of 32,114 votes leading only in three Assembly segments out of seven while only two Assembly segments Balurghat and Gangarampur gave him a lead of around 82,000 votes. This again was not a sure seat for the BJP and in the forthcoming West Bengal Assembly polls, they can hope to win only two Assembly seats.
In Cooch Behar Lok Sabha constituency, Nishith Pramanik, a former TMC youth leader who had defected to the BJP, won by a margin of 55,235 votes leading in five out of eight Assembly segments. In four Assembly seats, he polled more than 100,000 votes and the margin was around 20,000 votes in each of them. As such, the BJP might be confident of winning these four seats only.
The Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, with three Assembly constituencies in the hills and four in the plains, is a paradox as since 2009 any candidate supported by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) won by default. The BJP nominees like Jaswant Singh, SS Ahluwalia and even Raju Bista, a Nepali from Manipur, won because the GJM supported them as the Party promised them a separate Gorkhaland, carved out of West Bengal.
Raju Bista won with a massive victory margin of 3,66,343 votes defeating Amar Singh Rai of the TMC, leading in six out of seven Assembly segments which was very impressive as the BJP even led in three Assembly segments in the plains.
However, the scenario has since changed as the TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bandopadhyay could win over two warring leaders of the GJM—Bimal Gurung and Benoy Tamang—who have pledged support to the TMC in the Assembly polls. Not only in the three hill Assembly constituencies of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, where the GJM might have a poll alliance with the TMC but also in the four Assembly seats in the plains like Siliguri, Matigara Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Chopra, the BJP is likely to lose.
Two Lok Sabha seats in North Bengal threw up very complicated results during the 2019 polls because Maldah district, which has two seats, has always been considered a Congress party stronghold courtesy late Union Railway minister ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury.
The then-sitting MP of the Congress party, Mausam Benazir Noor, could have easily won had she not joined the TMC and the anti-BJP votes weren’t divided. Khagen Murmu, a tribal who was four times CPI(M) member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Habibpur, was won over by the BJP with lots of promises. He defeated Mausam with a margin of 84,288 votes leading in only three Assembly segments of Habibpur, Gazole and Malda (SC) from where he got massive leads polling more than 100,000 votes from each.
What happened in Maldah Uttar was that the votes got divided as Mausam’s cousin, Isha Khan Chowdhury of the Congress party polled 3,05,270 votes and had led in one Assembly segment with a good margin. As a result, Murmu with the help of his earlier base among the tribals as a CPI(M) MLA could emerge victoriously.
Among all the eight Lok Sabha seats in North Bengal, Maldah Dakshin result was quite surprising though. Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury of the Congress party managed to retain his seat though with a slender margin of only 8,222 votes because the CPI(M) nominee Md Moazzem could bag around 350,000 votes.
Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury of the BJP, though a greenhorn in politics, gave a run for his money to “Daluda” as Hashem Khan is fondly called, as she polled a massive number of 4,36,048 votes. In the English Bazar Assembly segment, within which Malda town is located and the majority being Hindus, she polled 1,32,860 votes and a lead of around 93,000 votes, while in Manikchak and Baishanabnagar Assembly segments she bagged 30,000 votes more than “Daluda”. These are three Assembly constituencies which the BJP can hope to win in the forthcoming Assembly elections.
With such electoral results during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP central leadership is very much aware that it cannot retain the leads in the 36 Assembly segments and win those seats except the ones where it had a huge lead.
As a result, the poll strategy of the BJP is a little different this time with the motto to first create a division. Shah knows very well that his party can no more take the Gorkhas of Darjeeling for a ride promising them a separate state which the BJP had been doing since 2009 with three different nominees who could never dare to contest for the second time. As such, the party does not seem to have much hope in the hills of Darjeeling as well as in the four Assembly segments in the adjoining plains.
For the BJP, the silver lining in the dark clouds of the Himalayan terrains of North Bengal is in the districts of Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, and Jalpaiguri, which comprise the Rajbongshis, who have been demanding a separate state of Kamtapur for a long time. The Rajbongshis are 62% of the population in Cooch Behar, 50% in Alipurduar, 38% in Jalpaiguri, and another huge chunk in the two districts of North and South Dinajpur. They are the largest Dalit community in West Bengal.
During the 2019 parliamentary polls, they had moved away from the TMC and voted heavily in favour of the BJP. Realising that Bandopadhyay would never support their movement for a separate state, they aligned with the BJP.
The Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association is led by a self-styled godman Anantha Rai, who resides in the Chirang district of Assam, adjoining Cooch Behar. He allegedly manipulates the separatist agitation from there. The Kamtapur Liberation Organisation which believes in violence and wants to secede from India is the militant wing of these separatists.
Knowing all these facts, Shah on Thursday first went to Chirang to meet this godman and seek the votes of around 1.7m Rajbongshis just for electoral gains as a minor section of the community led by Dulal Roy have decided to support Bandopadhyay’s TMC.
Shah, while addressing a public rally before flagging off the “Poriborton rath yatra” at Cooch Behar town saw himself that there were a lot of yellow flags of the Rajbonghsis and few of the saffron of the BJP. As such, he promised a slew of projects amounting to billions of rupees for the Rajbonghis and Cooch Behar.
He again harped about Muslim infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh which is a non-issue at present in West Bengal even for the state BJP, according to a recent survey which stated that only 2% of Bengal’s population was bothered about the issue. The aim was to sow seeds of communalism and threaten the Muslims while creating a bogey of Muslim “terrorism” aided by the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh among the Hindus.
The BJP it seems aims to first divide the Hindus of North Bengal into casteist lines, create a division among Hindus and Muslims in the Muslim majority districts of North and South Dinajpur, and Malda to reap the best poll harvest. With this strategy, it will be able to also demolish all the forces opposed to its Hindutva ideology and attempt to snatch power in West Bengal.
Arup Chanda is a Kolkata-based journalist with 36 years of experience, and he has worked with major English dailies of India like The Telegraph, The Statesman, New Indian Express, The Economic Times, etc.