The BJP has renewed its focus on north Bengal, where it had bagged seven out of eight Lok Sabha in 2019, to retain the support of tea garden residents who play a deciding role in three constituencies.
Tea estate residents can influence results in the Lok Sabha seats of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar, both in the hills and in the plains.
“The party has asked MPs who have got elected from the tea belt to pick up issues concerning garden workers and their families. Some of them have already started visiting tea gardens, interacting with people and gathering information about local problems. More MPs and MLAs will soon join their colleagues. We cannot afford to lose the support of the tea population,” a state BJP leader said.
After winning 18 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal in 2019, the BJP has faced a number of challenges in the state. While legislators and leaders had to face people's anger for the halt in the allocation of funds for prominent central projects like the MGNREGA and the housing scheme, internal differences and defections by MLAs also hobbled the Bengal unit.
Many believe that the BJP is facing a major challenge in the tea belt as there is a perception that the Centre had not done much for the garden population.
Observers pointed out that in 2021, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced an assistance of Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of women and children in the tea belt, but not a single penny had been allocated so far.
“The Trinamul government, on the other hand, came up with a series of welfare schemes like free houses for tea workers. Also, the state has for the first time announced that tea workers would be given land rights. The state has revised the daily wage rate regularly. These decisions have put the BJP under pressure ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls,” said Soumen Nag, a social researcher based in Siliguri.
Raju Bista, the Darjeeling BJP MP, has started visiting tea gardens in the hills. Recently, he was vocal against the Mamata Banerjee government on the issue of land rights and for the delay in finalising the minimum wage rate.
Alipurduar MP John Barla, who is also a junior minister at the Centre, held a demonstration with BJP workers on Wednesday in the district on issues related to tea workers.
“Meetings would soon be held where leaders of trade unions associated with the party would be called to have a better understanding of the situation in the tea belt. Based on their feedback, reports would be sent to the state and central leaderships to draw up strategies to ensure that the tea population stands with the party,” said a BJP leader in Jalpaiguri.
The BJP had done reasonably well in the tea gardens in the 2021 Assembly elections as well, winning around 11 seats against Trinamul's two.
However, in the panchayat elections held earlier this year, the BJP failed to create any impact. Trinamul won most of the rural bodies in the tea belt. Soon after, Trinamul wrested the Dhupguri Assembly seat, which has tea gardens, in a bypoll.