Mamata’s Hindu card, Modi’s jibe & a hospital — polarisation & deprivation in north Bengal battle

Mamata’s Hindu card, Modi’s jibe & a hospital — polarisation & deprivation in north Bengal battle

Cooch Behar/Jalpaiguri: During her campaign earlier this week in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee posed a few crucial questions to voters. “What was Trinamool’s fault? Why did the BJP win all the seats in North Bengal? Am I not Hindu enough?” she asked as the crowd cheered.

Mamata’s invocation of her Hindu identity encapsulated the desperation of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to make inroads into the North Bengal region, where the BJP made significant gains in the 2019 general election, winning the six key seats of Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Raiganj, Balurghat and Darjeeling.

North Bengal — a region where Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes make up a large portion of the voter base — remains crucial for both the BJP and TMC. In the previous Lok Sabha poll, the BJP clinched six seats in the region, while in the 2021 assembly polls, the TMC secured victory in 23 of the 54 assembly seats in North Bengal.

The BJP is now looking to retain its six seats, while the TMC is aiming to make further inroads into North Bengal to reduce the BJP’s seat count. Voting will take place on these seats in the first two phases of the Lok Sabha polls on 19 and 26 April.

TMC chief Mamata emphasising her Hindu identity is not new and she has previously played the religion card in politics too. In 2021, for example, she had asserted that she was a “born Hindu” and recited the “Chandi path” (a religious hymn) publicly. In the assembly election that year, the TMC recovered most of the ground it had lost in the region.

However, political analyst Suman Chakraborty said Mamata’s “desperate” religious invocations wouldn’t help her win North Bengal, as she has not been able to gain the confidence of communities that are miffed with her.

“In the assembly elections, Mamata mentioned her Hindu identity and development projects and did gain ground but the people of North Bengal still feel that Mamata has deprived and sidelined them. This sentiment that they are still the backbenchers was the reason why the BJP was able to win all six seats in North Bengal in 2019,” said Chakraborty.

Political experts also point out that the BJP’s accusations of Mamata’s TMC being a pro-Muslim party have struck a chord with various sections of SC, ST, and Hindu refugee voters in North Bengal.

Also Read: BJP shouldn’t fight BJP in West Bengal. And repeat 2021 mistakes in 2024

Promise of a hospital

In Jalpaiguri, the TMC has fielded MLA Nirmal Chandra Roy against sitting MP Jayanta Kumar Roy. Nirmal is credited with winning the Dhupguri by-election by around 4,000 votes in September 2023.

At the TMC office in Jalpaiguri’s Babupara, the party’s ground volunteers are preparing to go on a door-to-door programme. Their agenda: pitfalls of the NRC (National Register of Citizens), development projects of the TMC, women-centric honorarium schemes and the construction of a multi-speciality hospital in North Bengal.

The healthcare facility in North Bengal has been one of the most evocative issues for voters that shifted them away from Mamata. In 2012, amid the Congress and TMC’s political standoff over the hospital that was to be built on the lines of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Mamata changed its location from Raiganj in North Bengal to Kalyani in Nadia (in the state’s east).

“Despite Mamata announcing developmental projects and giving monthly honorariums, people are not able to forget how the venue of the super-speciality hospital was changed. Healthcare facilities are one of several issues in North Bengal,” said Chakraborty.

The BJP has since 2014 also been demanding a hospital in North Bengal.

Siliguri MP and one of the state secretaries of the BJP, Shankar Ghosh, said the party was reaching out to voters to tell them how the TMC had “deprived them”.

“We are saying that North Bengal has been deprived for a long time. Neither do we have a proper hill structure, nor could we have an AIIMS-like hospital in Raiganj because Mamata shifted that to Kalyani,” he told ThePrint.

A TMC volunteer, asking to remain anonymous, said the party was reaching out to people with the promise that “a hospital will be built this time”.

In Alipurduar Lok Sabha constituency, where the BJP not only won in 2019 but also secured six of its seven assembly constituencies in 2021, the party is facing trouble.

Ganga Prasad Sharma, who was credited with strengthening the BJP on the ground, shifted to the TMC in 2021. The BJP’s sitting MP from the seat, John Barla, who had influence among tea gardens in Terai and Dooars, was denied the party ticket last month and is apparently disgruntled.

“This is going to have some effect on the ground. The BJP has been a little overconfident in Alipurduar and has not been able to get its act together that will have consequences in the elections,” a source privy to developments told ThePrint.

Role of the RSS

For the BJP, its ideological parent RSS has had a big role to play in its success in the North Bengal region.

“The RSS doesn’t hold political campaigns but is known to be a staunch Hindu organisation. North Bengal comprises diverse communities — Rajbongshi, Matua, Lepcha, Bhutia, Gorkha, Namasudras. The RSS works tirelessly with these communities and that is then up to the BJP to leverage because the TMC hasn’t been able to gain their trust,” RSS worker Udayan Pal told ThePrint.

Since the last Lok Sabha polls, the RSS has added 100 more shakhas in North Bengal with a total of 533 at present. With 415 weekly meetings or milans and 182 monthly meetings or mandalis, Sangh members in North Bengal claim that they have reached 95 per cent of the population through their popular mass weddings for tribal couples and increasing popularity of Sharada Vidya Mandir schools.

“We delivered Ram Mandir (inauguration) invites with rice grains to households in North Bengal, and the PM Awas Yojana and PM Ujjwala Yojana bolstered the BJP. Connectivity such as the Vande Bharat express train in this region has had an impact on the lives of the people of North Bengal and that is why the voters you see support the BJP over the TMC, which has now been reduced to a party of thieves stealing public funds,” said Pal.

BJP & TMC trade charges

This year, for the first time, the TMC-led West Bengal government announced a state holiday to mark Ram Navami on Wednesday, and also released its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections on the day.

The BJP, on the other hand, seems to hold the view that the newly inaugurated Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and Ram Navami will both favour the party in North Bengal.

Speaking to ThePrint, BJP’s Alipurduar candidate Manoj Tigga said: “This time, Ram Navami will be celebrated with even more fervour. The more the TMC tries to stop Hindus, the more they will become stronger.”

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t shy away from reminding voters about “how the TMC treats Hindus”.

“Ram Navami shobha yatras are not permitted. For that the devotees have to approach the high court. But those who pelt stones on the Ram Navami and Durga Puja shobha yatras have got permission from the Trinamool government,” the PM said in Balurghat Tuesday.

The TMC, however, rejected the BJP’s charges as “divisive politics”. TMC’s trade union president Ritabrata Banerjee said the party had consistently campaigned in North Bengal, especially focusing on tea garden workers.

“About 9 lakh workers are engaged in the tea gardens of North Bengal. The TMC has captured this labour section that has a sway in several North Bengal seats, especially Alipurduar and Darjeeling. Our government schemes and Mamata Banerjee and (her nephew and TMC MP) Abhishek Banerjee holding yatras and public meetings will ensure support in our favour. The BJP has failed to deliver on its promises and the people will reject them,” added Banerjee.

Mamata warned citizens at her rally that the “BJP could incite violence”. “They (BJP) are planning riots, we don’t want riots, we want peace. By spreading violence, they will try to win votes,” she said in Jalpaiguri.

According to political scientist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, “polarisation will not translate into votes ultimately. Other factors like good governance, schemes and new jobs will be dominant for voters.”

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also Read: BJP has a ‘non-Bengali’ image problem. Pawan Singh’s nomination makes it worse

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