Stakes high for BJP in Bengal by-polls on Nov 25

Kolkata, Nov 8: Six months after its high-voltage Lok Sabha poll performance in West Bengal, the BJP faces another crucial test of its popularity in the eastern state - albeit on a much smaller scale - in the by-elections to three assembly constituencies slated for November 25.

While the by-polls are in no way going to bring down the Mamata Banerjee government, it could give an indication to the BJP, its rivals, political observers as also to the people at large as to where the saffron outfit stands one-and-a-half years before the all-important assembly polls in the state.

The byelections would also indicate whether the BJP's showing in the April-May general election was a trailer of bigger things to come its way or it was only a flash-in-the-pan.

The fact that two of the by-poll-bound constituencies -- Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur district and Kharagpur Sadar in West Midnapore district -- gave massive leads to heavyweight BJP candidates in the general election makes the coming battle virtually a matter of prestige for the state party leadership.

While Union minister Debosree Chowdhury, who won from Raiganj, left behind her rivals by miles in the Kaliaganj segment, state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh remained ahead of his opponents by around 48,000 votes in Kharagpur Sadar onway to recording an impressive victory from Medinipur Lok Sabha constituency. Karimpur, however, had given a huge margin to Trinamool Congress.

In the 2016 assembly polls, Ghosh had won from Kharagpur Sadar, ending Congress stalwart Gyan Singh Sohanpal's stranglehold over the seat. Kaliaganj had gone to the Congress's Pramathanath Roy, whose death has necessitated the by-election.

Trinamool candidate Mahua Moitra had bagged Karimpur, and her elevation to the Lok Sabha has created the vacancy.

Political analyst Bimal Shankar Nanda felt while the first electoral fight in the state after the Lok Sabha contest holds significance for all the big players - the BJP, Trinamool and the newly stitched Congress-Left alliance -- the stakes are very high for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has emerged as a serious challenger to the Trinamool ahead of the 2021 assembly election.

The BJP's vote percentage had shot up to 40 in April-May -- a four-fold increase over the 2016 polls where it had got a mere 10 per cent votes. The figure was also more than double of the party's poll percentage in the previous Lok Sabha elections, which saw the saffron outfit grab 17 per cent of the mandate.

"It will be interesting to see whether the party manages to retain the massive support it got from the people earlier this year. If the party loses two of the three seats, it will be a setback for it. It would show that a good part of the votes it got was because of the Modi wave and the national scenario, and it cannot count on it now.

"On the other hand, if the BJP wins in Kharagpur and Kaliaganj, and also manages to upset the Trinamool's applecart in Karimpur, that may change the course of politics in the state, as the message will go to the people that it is a party on the rise," he said.

In the aftermath of the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had gone on the aggressive, wresting seven municipalities from the Trinamool, as councillors of Banerjee's party started switching sides in large numbers. However, the euphoria proved only a temporary phenomenon for the party, with the Trinamool regaining the board in all the municipalities during the past few months.

"It seems BJP has now adopted a wait-and-watch policy. Possibly the thinking in the party is that if they get too much aggressive, it could be counter-productive for them in Bengal. It hasn't made much effort to stop the councillors from returning to the Trinamool fold," said Nanda.

"The results of the bypolls will give yet another indication of which way the wind is blowing in Bengal politics, and may lead to permutations and combinations accordingly," he said.

Another political commentator Udayan Bandopadhyay said a gripping aspect would be how the BJP performs against the Congress-Left alliance. "The BJP's rise was mainly possible because of the severe dent it made in the Left Front vote share. So it remains to be seen if it still manages to retain those votes or causes more erosion in the ranks of the LF and the Congress," Bandopadhyay told IANS.

The LF-Congress alliance has put up candidates in the three seats. While the Congress is in the fray in Kharagpur and Kaliaganj, LF major CPI-M is in the race in Karimpur.

A senior BJP leader claimed they would make a clean sweep of the three seats.

"People will vote for us as they are fed up of the massive corruption during the present regime, and the atrocities of the Trinamool leaders and workers," state BJP general secretary Sayantan Basu told IANS.

However, Trinamool Rajya Sabha member Manas Bhunia rejected Basu's claim.

"BJP's real face has been exposed, particularly in Kharagpur, a railway town. The same people who had voted for the BJP in the recent polls, are now totally cut up with it, after the Centre spoke about privatising a part of it.

"Karimpur will be a no contest, we will win big. Only in Kaliaganj there will be a close fight," Bhunia told IANS.