Updated: April 22, 2021 7:29:40 am
There are BJP posters everywhere in Barrackpore, the party’s stronghold since 2019. The posters display the faces of the candidate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Some have BJP president J P Nadda or state party president Dilip Ghosh. But visible across each poster is the photograph of Arjun Singh, a former TMC MLA who joined the BJP in 2019 and defeated then TMC candidate Dinesh Trivedi in the Lok Sabha elections.
Singh vacated his MLA seat after winning the Lok Sabha elections. His son then won the Assembly constituency — Bhatpara — on a BJP ticket.
As Rinku Singh, a rickshaw puller, puts it, “Yahan toh saaf hai. Yahan toh Arjun Singh hi raja hai. Poster mein bhi woh hi dikhenge (It is clear here. Arjun Singh is the king. The posters also feature him).”
Across West Bengal, the common trope in the elections is the BJP campaigning on the plank of the TMC’s alleged corruption and “violence” of its local leadership. In 2019, Singh, who listed 24 cases against him in his poll affidavit, including criminal intimidation and murder, jumped over to the BJP. It led to the BJP leading in five out of seven Assembly seats in the area — all seven seats go to polls on Thursday.
There are many allegations of violence, both by and against Singh. In March, the BJP alleged that bombs were hurled at Singh’s residence, called ‘Mazdoor Bhawan’; last year, Singh was blamed for a TMC leader’s death in Kakinara.
“Here, the moment Arjun Singh came, the BJP was strengthened. He knows everyone; yes, there are allegations, but he is popular too, especially among the huge Hindi-speaking migrant community in this industrial belt. With him, we will win six of the seven seats, although he is not contesting,” said a local BJP leader in Barrackpore.
In Bhatpara then, the roles seem to be reversed, and it is the TMC that is talking of a “violence-free campaign”. The TMC’s candidate is Jitendra Shaw, who fought the 2016 elections as an Independent and came second, losing to Arjun Singh by close to 30,000 votes. Up against him is Pawan Singh, Arjun Singh’s son.
For the local TMC cadre, there are two main points of attack. “The first thing we tell people is that by voting for the TMC, Arjun Singh’s reign of terror must be brought to an end. The second is that while we have a large migrant population, there is a large Bengali population too that does not like Arjun Singh. Even if the BJP took a lead in 2019, this time there is no Pulwama and Balakot, and we are confident of wresting back some seats,” said a TMC worker.
But even outside Bhatpara, violence is a motif for the elections in Barrackpore, and not always against the BJP. In Barrackpore town, the BJP candidate is Dr Chandramani Shukla, fighting the TMC’s Raj Chakraborty, a popular Bengali actor. In the posters in Barrackpore town, there are photographs of both Shukla and his son, Manish Shukla. The latter because in October last year, the BJP youth leader and former councilor of Titagarh municipality was shot dead.
Shukla, a known doctor in these parts, had led allegations against the TMC, which, in turn, had blamed the death on internal rivalry within the BJP. For many in Barrackpore though, a father’s allegations have stuck. “Why will a father lie about the death of his son? It is good he is contesting. With the sympathy for him, and Arjun Singh’s influence, it seems that the BJP will win here. Look around, how many TMC posters can you see here,” said Ram Avtar Tiwari, who owns a shop near the Barrackpore railway station.
For the BJP, the North 24 Parganas district, and therefore Barrackpore, is of immense importance. The district has 33 seats, the highest for any district in Bengal; in 2019, the BJP dominated in 12 of these seats (including five out of seven in Barrackpore), while the TMC led in the remaining.
But despite the impression of the BJP’s dominance in Barrackpore, data shows that it was a close contest. Of the seven seats, only two – Amdanga, with a significant Muslim population, where the TMC led; and Bhatpara, Singh’s home constituency – were clear wins. The others saw a winning margin of less than 10,000 votes.
Local BJP leaders say they are targeting six of the seven seats, with Amdanga being the outlier. One element of the campaign is clear. Across Kakinara for instance, the saffron flags are not the BJP’s party flag, but have “Jai Shri Ram”, and “Hanuman” written on them instead.
“Here, people are tired of the TMC’s Muslim appeasement. In six seats, the Hindus are in absolute majority. Is it not their right to vote for a Hindu party?”, said a BJP leader.
Nearby, in a shanty that is occupied primarily by migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there is still some conflict in their choice. “We want to vote for a Hindu party. The BJP is that party, and we voted for it and Modiji in 2019. But the TMC says our schemes will stop if they lose. So I am still thinking about it,” said Ravindra Arya.
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