At Sonia Gandhi’s April 13 rally in Sujapur, about 20 km from Malda town, there was an unfamiliar face on the podium – Ashok Choudhary, the Bihar Congress chief and now the Education Minister in Nitish Kumar’s Cabinet. He had come to showcase the Bihar maha gatbandhan (grand alliance, between Congress, Nitish’s JD-U and Lalu Prasad’s RJD), and how it worked to defeat the mighty BJP.
“It will work in Bengal, too, as divergent political forces come under one umbrella,” Choudhary forecast. Whether that forecast will remain valid is a story that will be known only on May 19, but as the West Bengal Assembly elections enter the crucial second phase, after a two-part first phase, it covers a vast geographical spread of seven districts, and 56 seats, where the “maha ghatbandhan” in Bengal should pin their hopes on. Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda are the six north Bengal districts among seven from where the largest chunk of the Opposition seats may come if past trends are an indication. Birbhum, the seventh, is a south district with TMC supremacy.
In a majority of Assembly segments in this region, the Congress-CPM combined vote share of 2014 Lok Sabha elections should make the Trinamool Congress (TMC) camp press the panic button. The 2014 polls were also one in many years in which all four – BJP included – major parties had fought on their own. Although Lok Sabha and Assembly polls have different voting patterns, the Assembly segment-wise combined 2014 vote-share of the Congress and Left Front candidates far exceeds that of TMC in this region.
That arithmetic of vote-share, “and a common goal of removing TMC,” brought the rivals together for seat adjustment, O P Mishra, senior state Congress leader and Jadavpur University professor, said. In fact, the Opposition’s hope of turning the tables is largely based on “Malda-Murshidabad, and other north Bengal districts such as Dakshin and Uttar Dinajpur, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri”, he said.
These are districts where the Congress, over the years, held on to its base even as it collapsed sharply in south Bengal.
Interestingly, migration of Muslim voters from the united Congress to CPM in the 1980s, and later to TMC in 2008-9, particularly in south Bengal districts, was not seen in districts such as Malda, Uttar-Dakshin Dinajpur and Murshidabad.
But the story may not be as simple as the Congress-Left alliance leaders would want it to be. While TMC had left these seats to Congress in 2011, helping the latter win most of its seats from this belt, the party has taken steps to make inroads in this belt since then. Mamata Banerjee engaged one of her most successful lieutenants, Suvendu Adhikari, to set up TMC bases in these areas. Adhikari, who had been the observer for Malda and Murshidabad, told The Indian Express that there could be surprise in store on May 19. “You will find spectacular results for TMC,” he said, confidently. “We would have swept these districts if the Congress and CPM were not in alliance, but we have still done our groundwork.”
The TMC is in the contest in at least four of Malda’s 12 seats: Englishbazar, Manikchawk (constituencies with sitting TMC MLAs, Krishnendu Chowdhury and Sabitri Mitra, respectively), Harishchandapur and Malatipur.
North and South Dinajpur together have 15 seats that are traditionally Congress bastions, but the TMC has worked hard to set up a base here, too, though the party is riddled with internal squabbles.
The combined strength of the CPM and Congress will be a factor in seats such as Gangarampur, Karandighi, Kaliaganj. Uttar Dinajpur used to be better known as the district of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, the ailing Congress leader who comes from Kaliaganj, and later as that of wife Deepa Dasmunsi, before she lost to CPM’s Mohammed Selim in Raiganj by a narrow margin in 2014. The BJP’s huge vote-share in this region in 2014 had given it unassailable leads in several Assembly segments. But the party may not see a similar surge this time, and these votes are likely to shift to different candidates without following any pattern. If that goes for the “gatbandhan”, Choudhary’s forecast will be that much closer to fruition.