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regular-article-logo Friday, 19 April 2024

North Bengal: PM Narendra Modi to hold rally in Siliguri on March 9

Prime Minister’s rally in Siliguri is part of the BJP’s plan to consolidate its support base in north Bengal, where it had bagged seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats in 2019

Avijit Sinha Siliguri Published 05.03.24, 06:29 AM
Modi at a public meeting, in Adilabad, Telangana, on Monday.

Modi at a public meeting, in Adilabad, Telangana, on Monday. PTI picture

The Narendra Modi juggernaut will reach Siliguri on March 9 after three back-to-back rallies in six days in south Bengal.

The Prime Minister’s rally in Siliguri is part of the BJP’s plan to consolidate its support base in north Bengal, where it had bagged seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats in 2019.

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Four meetings by Modi in the first nine days of the month, that too before the formal announcement of the poll schedule, is an indication of the importance the BJP attaches to the contest in Bengal, multiple sources in the party said.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address a public meeting at Kawakhali on the southern outskirts of Siliguri. We have always been strong in north Bengal.... We will get over 5 lakh people to the rally, which will be resounding proof of the party’s acceptability in the region,” said Arun Mondal, BJP president of the Siliguri organisational district.

As the party wants to turn it into a show of strength, the state leadership, especially those involved in organisational affairs in north Bengal, are busy planning for the rally, which is likely to see participation from neighbouring states like Bihar, Sikkim and Assam.

The importance of north Bengal in the BJP’s scheme of things has significantly gone up ahead of the 2024 elections, said a source in the party.

“In 2019, we got seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats while we secured 30 of the 54 Assembly seats in the region in 2021.... Organisationally, we are much stronger in north Bengal than in south Bengal. But there are some concerns at the ground level and those need to be addressed,” the source said.

“At a time when we are targeting more seats from Bengal than what we had won in 2019, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels in north Bengal.”

One of the major concerns for the party is the mood among the Rajbanshi community, whose votes matter in at least two Parliament seats — Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. The community has been at the forefront of the demand for a separate north Bengal state and recognition of the Rajbanshi language.

Though several BJP leaders from north Bengal have often echoed the call, the fact that there has not been any official movement on fulfilling the demand has not gone down well with the community leaders.

The sense of discontent with the Centre tumbled out in the open on Monday when Nagendra Roy aka Ananta Maharaj, who heads a faction of the Greater Cooch Behar Peoples’ Association and who secured a Rajya Sabha berth on a BJP ticket, spoke against the party.

“I feel I have been dumped in a waste bin. The party leaders never called me to any meeting and didn’t consult me before selecting candidates (for the Lok Sabha polls) in north Bengal. This is unfortunate. If they feel that they can continue to work without me, let it be so. The attempt to ignore me is unacceptable,” Roy told reporters.

The other faction of the community, the Kamtapur Progressive Party, which has considerable clout among the Rajbanshis, held a rally in Jalpaiguri on Monday and flagged the community’s longstanding demands.

The list of woes that the BJP leadership has to address in the run-up to the polls is long as a sense of discontent is brewing across the hills, which have firmly stood behind BJP nominees since 2009. The longstanding demands of Darjeeling hill residents for a permanent political solution and Scheduled Tribe status have not been met.

The saffron camp is also worried about a fresh challenge from Trinamul, which has over the past few years managed to revive a part of its support base by playing the development card and using identity politics. Moves like recognising Rajbanshi and Kamtapuri-medium schools and conferring land rights on tea garden workers have helped Trinamul claw back in some regions, BJP leaders conceded.

“We cannot deny that the battle is tougher this time.... We need the Prime Minister’s rally so that things begin to swing in our favour,” said a BJP leader in Jalpaiguri.

That the party is worried about its prospects became clear when it dropped John Barla, sitting MP and a Union minister of state, from its list of candidates for 2024 following reports about his non-performance.

“While it is true that the civic polls or the panchayat polls cannot be a true indicator of the BJP’s support base, it cannot be wished away that the party failed to win even a single civic body or zilla parishad in the municipal and rural polls in 2022 and 2023. That is why the BJP has planned to play its best card, Narendra Modi, to launch its poll preparations for north Bengal,” said Soumen Nag, a social researcher based in Siliguri.

Additional reporting by Bireswar Banerjee from Siliguri and Main Uddin Chisti from Cooch Behar

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