People wait in queue to cast their vote outside a polling station in West Bengal's Purulia district. (Representative image: Reuters)
In a 2006 Bengali film, MLA Fatakeshto, actor Mithun Chakraborty essayed the role of an MLA who was made the home minister for a week to fix evil men and put order in a shaken system. So successful was the film, in 2007 its sequel Minister Fatakeshto was made where Chakraborty becomes finance minister recovering crores of rupees from goons who fleeced the West Bengal government.
On the last day of the election campaign for the fourth phase of polling in West Bengal, Chakraborty, who recently joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was back as ‘Fatakeshto’ sporting a dark kurta and white scarf on his head for road shows, targeting those whom the BJP accuses of malfeasance under the Trinamool Congress’ decade-old-rule.
Chakraborty, apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, is much in demand as BJP candidates want him to help connect to voters looking for a real change (asol poriborton).
But Chakraborty’s traction among the voters is not just about a successful Bengali film star’s stint in politics. Rather, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders are worried about the impact of his campaign and have stopped his road shows at some places.
It is apparent that the growing fear among TMC leaders in the face of the BJP’s aggressive campaign is lending uncertainty to the outcomes of the remaining five phases of the election. This has also led to violence in many places. Minorities Affairs Minister Giyasuddin Molla suffered a head injury when attacked at Rajarhat by some men. State BJP President Dilip Ghosh’s convoy was attacked in Cooch Behar’s Sitalkuchi.
Chief Minister and TMC leader Mamata Banerjee also shared her worries about the Muslims votes going away from her party because of the emergence of the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui who is dubbing her as a ‘BJP stooge’.
Siddiqui’s ISF is in alliance with the Congress and the Left, which have formed the ‘Samyukta Morcha’. Since the 2011 elections, the Muslim voters which make up for close to 28 percent have stood by the TMC. Siddiqui has shown that he wields a lot of influence among the Muslim youth in the Hooghly region with his hardline approach.
With the BJP working to consolidate the Hindu votes, a split in Muslim votes between the TMC and the Samyukta Morcha can alter the winning margins in favour of the BJP.
Just before the third phase of polling on April 6, Banerjee made an emotional appeal to the Muslims not to allow their votes to get divided. She remained brazen about her appeal on community lines even after the Election Commission of India (ECI) issued her a notice for violating the code of conduct in this regard.
Modi said that Banerjee’s appeal indicated that the minority community had started drifting away from the TMC. He also remarked that if he had made an appeal on community lines, all hell would have broken loose.
Banerjee is upset that her party's traditional methods to prevent voting by those backing her rivals have not succeeded. Not only are majority of the voters assertive about exercising their franchise, the ECI is deploying additional central paramilitary forces near ‘sensitive’ polling booths and villages where the writ of fear and intimidation have remained unchecked for long time.
This led to Banerjee alleging that the central paramilitary forces were working at the behest of Shah. She accused the paramilitary forces of asking people to vote for the BJP and exhorted people, particularly women, to ‘gherao CRPF personnel if they try to foment trouble’.
After the first three phases of polling, Banerjee appears to have realised that she may have underestimated the BJP’s prowess on the field.
She does count on the intra-BJP squabbles over selection of candidates for third and fourth phases of polling to improve the TMC’s prospects. At the same time, Banerjee also knows that Modi’s rallies and Shah’s intervention may have doused the resentment among BJP workers over the inclusion of turncoats from the TMC, particularly in Howrah and Hooghly areas.
The battle for 44 seats in the fourth phase of voting covers thickly-populated urban areas around Kolkata, Howrah and parts of Hooghly, besides Alipurduar and Cooch Behar in the north. Of the 44 seats, 14 are spread across two districts of North Bengal, nine in Cooch Behar and five in Alipurduar district.
Cooch Behar was once a TMC stronghold and later came under the influence of Forward Bloc, which was part of the Left Front. Since 2014, the BJP has worked to gain influence among the Rajbonshi community who complain of neglect. As the region has a border with Bangladesh, the BJP has been raising the issue of infiltration too.
Cooch Behar and other areas of north Bengal are also known for tea gardens. The BJP as well the TMC have promised an increase in the wages of tea garden workers. Banerjee has wooed them with projects such as ‘Cha Sundari’ with provisions of providing houses for tea garden workers. The BJP has pledged allocation of Rs 1,000 crore allocation for development of tea workers in West Bengal and Assam.