Monday's Assembly bypoll in Murshidabad will be critical for the BJP and the Left-Congress combine as the result will show which Opposition force stands where in Bengal's political spectrum as they prepare to take on the mighty Trinamul Congress in the ensuing panchayat polls.
The bypoll, which has been necessitated by the death of sitting Trinamul MLA Subrata Saha, has set the stage for a three-cornered contest among Trinamul’s Debasish Banerjee, Bairon Biswas of the congress and the BJP’s Dilip Saha.
In the 2021 Assembly polls, the CPM-supported Congress candidate had bagged 19.45 per cent votes in Sagardighi, compared to its little over 23 per cent votes in 2016. While the Congress-CPM vote share dipped in 2021, Trinamul bagged 50.95 cent in 2021 in comparison to its 2016 figure of 26.23 per cent. The Congress-CPM vote share dropped so much in 2021 that the BJP managed to edge past and occupy the second position with 24 per cent votes.
These crucial mathematical calculations hinging on vote share have made the bypoll in this minority-dominated constituency critical for the Opposition parties. While the Congress-Left candidate Biswas is eager to exploit his “popularity” among the minorities to give tough competition to Trinamul’s Banerjee, who has the obvious advantage of representing the ruling party, the BJP has a much humbler target. The BJP seeks to retain the consolidation of the majority of the constituency’s 31.56 cent Hindu voters it had polled in 2021 and retain the Number 2 slot.
“The aspiration for the BJP is to retain the Number 2 slot in Sagardighi and reverse the party’s trend of losing its voters in poll after poll since the 2021 Assembly elections,” said a BJP leader in Murshidabad. However easy the BJP’s target for the bypoll might sound, party insiders say they lack the organisational base to pull it off.
Eager to exploit the political void that Subrata Saha’s death has created, the Congress-Left combine wants to project Bairon Biswas to voters as “one of their own” in a constituency where 64.68 cent of the electorate represents the minority community.
The Congress, however, knows despite fielding a popular face in Biswas and bagging the support of the CPM, triggering a swing in the minority vote bank will need some convincing on the ground.
“Mamata’s strength is the minority vote bank and we are doing our best to breach it even if by a bit. Fielding Biswas is part of that strategy and the mood of the electorate is giving us hope to fight it out by securing our voters and booths on poll day. These will be the two most crucial tasks on polling day if we want to see ourselves anywhere near our target,” a Congress leader said.
The Congress is holding up the result of last year’s Ballygunge by-poll as a beacon of hope. Although Trinamul’s vote share had eroded by 21per cent in Ballygunge, its candidate Babul Supriyo won by defeating CPM’s Saira Shah Halim, whose vote share rose to 30.06 per cent compared to the party’s six per cent vote share in 2021.
Despite exuding optimism, the Congress leader admitted that the discontent among minorities in the Ballygunge bypoll had much to do with the ruling party’s choice of candidate than anything else.
“However, since then, much water has flown down the Bhagirathi as a series of scams has exploded in the face of Trinamul. The Sagardighi bypoll could well reflect the mood of the minorities towards these issues and the ruling party,” the Congress leader added.
State Congress chief and Behrampore MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is hoping for a miracle on Monday. Sagardighi is also a prestige fight for Murshidabad strongman Chowdhury as the Congress’ score was zero in the 2021 polls, while Trinamul bagged 18 out of 22. Chowdhury felt the party’s performance would depend much on how the poll would be held.
“I will request the Election Commission and the administration to ensure free and fair polls... Then wait and watch what miracle happens,” he said.
CPM’s state secretary Md Salim feels that the ruling party was “showing its nervousness on the ground” and a positive result for Biswas would give the Left-Congress alliance a much-needed boost before the panchayat polls.
“It is important to break the Trinamul-BJP binary. People have realised that neither of the two can be an alternative to the other. We will provide them with the alternative,” Salim said. He added that a good performance by Biswas would help project the alliance as an alternative to the saffron camp.
Salim had his finger on the pulse as the fight within the Opposition space is also about giving a shout-out as to who the “real Opposition to the Trinamul” on the ground is and not just in the Assembly.
This is what worries the BJP, particularly leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari for whom the bypoll is much about personal prestigious he had been making tall claims about his grip on the district.
Adhikari’s confidence stems from the fact that he was in charge of Murshidabad while he was in Trinamul. The BJP is still searching for an answer to its continued erosion in the vote bank since the 2021 Assembly polls and the party leadership, particularly Suvendu Adhikari, is trying their best to revert the trend from Sagardighi.
“There is considerable support for the BJP in Sagardighi. We need to ensure that we can hold on to that support,” Adhikari told journalists and on Saturday added that who won the by-poll was not the immediate target for the Opposition, the critical responsibility he felt was to ensure that the ruling party did not have a free run on polling day.
“Seventeen companies of central forces were deployed at first. Now it has been increased to 30 companies on our request…There will be agents of Opposition parties in all 246 booths and we will fight it out shoulder to shoulder. Who will win or lose will depend on the people, but we will not allow the Sagardighi by-polls to turn into a joke ahead of the panchayat polls,” Adhikari said.
The Trinamul Congress is unfazed by the political calculations of the opposition parties. Debasish Banerjee is confident of victory and claims that the trust of the minorities in Mamata Banerjee cannot be shaken.
“I’ve been a block president in Sagardighi. I know all 246 booths of this constituency. Minorities continue to stand strong with the Trinamul and Mamata Banerjee,” he told The Telegraph.