Kolkata: Reaping the fruits of a communal polarization, a sustained campaign against cattle smuggling and a promise to come up with an NRC in the state, the BJP coasted to victory in a number of West Bengal Lok Sabha seats close to the Bangladesh border with a substantial minority vote.
Besides, the saffron outfit polled 15-20 per cent Muslim votes in several constituencies, while it got over 5 per cent votes from the community across the state, claimed Ali Hossain, Convenor of the state’s BJP Minority Morcha. The BJP’s victory in 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state as against only two seats in 2014 reduced the ruling Trinamool Congress tally to 22, a sharp fall from the whopping 34 it won five years back.
Of the seats won by the BJP, eight are border constituencies – a part of which passes through the India-Bangladesh border – with substantial Muslim population. The BJP virtually swept North Bengal, claiming seven of the eight seats from the region. Except Alipurduar, all other six seats — Raiganj, Coochbehar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Balurghat and Malda North – are border constituencies with good concentration of Muslims.
In Raiganj, BJP candidate and now central Minister Debasree Chaudhuri defeated Kanaia Lal Agarwal of Trinamool Congress by over 60,000 votes. Two heavyweights, including CPI-M’s sitting MP Mohammad Salim, lost their security deposits. The constituency has 49-53 per cent Muslim voters, and the BJP candidate gained from a three-way division of the minority community’s votes among the Trinamool, CPI-M and the Congress. On the other hand, it succeeded in consolidating the Hindu votes.
In Coochbehar, which has between 27-30 per cent Muslim population, BJP’s Nisith Pramanick won by 54,000 plus votes over Trinamool contestant Paresh Chandra Adhikary. The BJP’s vote percentage jumped from 28 to 48 per cent here.
“The saffron outfit for long had a good organisation in Coochbehar, which they have further strengthened now,” said political analyst Bimal Shankar Nanda. According to Hossain, Pramanick got at least one lakh Muslim votes and this proved decisive.
In Jalpaiguri, which has between 17 to 20 per cent Muslim electorate, BJP’s medico candidate Jayanta Roy bettered Bijoy Chandra Barman of Trinamool by an impressive 1.84 lakh votes.
Similarly, in Balurghat, where over a third of the electorate is Muslim, BJP’s Sukanta Majumdar had a successful debut, upsetting sitting MP and theatre activist Arpita Ghosh by a slender 13,000 margin. Majumdar managed to consolidate the Hindu votes while the Muslim vote got divided between the Trinamool and the Left.
The Darjeeling constituency, with a mix of Nepalese and Bengali communities and extending from the hills to the plains, also includes around 14.6 per cent Muslim votes. Chopra and Fansideoa Assembly segments border Bangladesh.
The BJP retained the seat it won last time, with its new candidate Raju Bista trouncing Trinamool’s Amar Singh Rai by over four lakh votes. The BJP’s vote share went up by around 16.50 per cent as opposed to what its winning candidate S.S. Ahluwalia got in 2014.
Malda North, where nearly half of the electorate is Muslim, also went the BJP way, with its Khagen Murmu defeating Trinamool’s Mausam Noor by over 84,000 votes. Mausam won the seat in 2014 on Congress ticket.
The saffron party heavily benefitted from the split in minority votes between Noor and her cousin Isha Khan Choudhury, who fought on Congress ticket. He secured the backing of 305,270 voters, which was 22.53 per cent of the total valid votes. The CPI-M got decimated, with merely four per cent of the votes, a drastic fall of over 24 per cent compared to 2014. Interestingly, the BJP’s vote percentage went up by 22.52. The Trinamool’s vote percentage saw an upswing of 14.42, while the Congress vote share dropped by close to 11 per cent compared to the previous general election.
“Besides, Murmu managed to swing a huge percentage of Scheduled Caste votes in favour of BJP,” said Nanda. But the BJP narrowly missed pulling off a sensational upset in another border constituency, Malda South, where the Muslim population is between 55 and 60 per cent.
BJP’s Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury lost by only a little more than 8,000 votes to Congress’ sitting MP Abu Hashem Khan Chaudhury. The BJP’s votes went up by over 14 per cent but Abu Hashem had the last laugh, largely due to the CPI-M extending support to him.
“We got 15-20 per cent Muslim votes in both the Malda seats,” said Hossain. Coming to South Bengal, Ranaghat, a constituency in Nadia district that shares a border with Bangladesh, BJP’s Jagananth Sarkar beat Trinamool candidate Rupali Biswas by a staggering 2.33 lakh margin.
The Trinamool ploy to whip up sympathy for Biswas, the widow of slain party lawmaker Satyajit Biswas, did not pay off. The constituency with around 15 per cent Muslim electorate swung the BJP’s way following a strong consolidation of Hindu votes, say analysts.
A large section of the population in Ranaghat constitutes families of Hindu refugees who came to India during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. “The BJP’s campaign moved Hindus like us. My parents had a torrid time during the partition. So, we cannot allow Bengal to turn into another Pakistan,” Jiban Das, a resident of Ranaghat town, told news agency IANS over phone.
In South Bengal, in the Dalit Matua community-dominated Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency on the India-Bangladesh border, BJP candidate and late Matua matriarch Binapani Thakur’s grandson Shantanu Thakur unseated incumbent MP and his aunt Mamata Bala Thakur of Trinamool by around 1.11 lakh votes. Twenty per cent of the electors in Bongaon are Muslims.
“While there are some constituency specific reasons for the BJP’s surge in the border regions, some common causes are a sharp Hindu-Muslim polarization, the BJP’s highlighting of infiltration from across the border, the party’s promise to come up with an Assam-like NRC in Bengal, and its pledge to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill,” said Nanda.
Moreover, issues like cattle smuggling and infiltration from across the Bangladesh border are part of the BJP’s narrative. Besides, the BJP’s constant harping on the Mamata Banerjee government’s “appeasement policies” – giving allowances to Imams and Muezzins and initiating a plethora of measures for minority welfare – seems to have struck a chord with the Hindu community.