The villages were a bastion of Left parties till a Trinamool Congress (TMC) wave changed the political landscape of West Bengal in 2011.
Now, the 40,203 villages in the state have emerged as the priority for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the assembly polls due in another six months.
Launched on Tuesday, a new three-phase programme will be carried out by the BJP to reach out to the state’s farmers through interactive sessions, where party leaders will listen to their problems and convince them about the benefits of the new farm laws that were recently passed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.
Also read: Six Union ministers, MPs to lead BJP’s outreach plan in West Bengal
TMC and Left leaders, who, too, are working on the ground to counter the BJP, feel that the saffron camp wants to make deeper inroads into the villages because they hold the key to get a majority in the 294-member Bengal legislative assembly.
In the 2018 panchayat polls, which were marked by violence, the BJP could make dents only in a few rural pockets.
However, the equation had changed in last year’s parliamentary elections after the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. Each of these seats is made of seven assembly segments. According to the 2011 census, there are 40,203 villages in Bengal, where 68.13 % of the state’s 9.13 crore people lived. Bengal has 909 towns.
The state’s current projected population is 10.09 crore.
“Till October 15, we will visit farmlands and discuss people’s problems and the new laws. On October 16, meetings will be held in the BJP’s 14,000 shakti kendras (organisational centres) each of which will cover one panchayat samiti area. In the last phase, seminars will be held from October 18 to 20,” Mahadeb Sarkar, president of the state unit of the Kisan Morcha, the BJP’s peasants’ front, told HT.
“The strategy for the seminars will be decided by the state leadership in Kolkata on Wednesday,” he added.
On Tuesday, Sarkar met farmers in the Lalmath area in Nadia district’s Ranaghat North-West assembly constituency that the TMC had won in 2011 assembly and 2014 parliamentary elections with 54 % of the votes polled.
The tables were turned last year and the BJP won the Ranaghat Lok Sabha seat with 53 % of the votes polled, a 35% increase over its last election result. The saffron camp is sensing an opportunity to go for an electoral kill in the assembly polls.
“After the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had come to power in 1977, it had promised land ownership to farmers with the slogan ‘langol jar, jomi tar’ (land belongs to those who own the plough). But the farmers suffered because the CPI (M) did not formulate any substantial agricultural policy. The TMC followed suit, although it had won the 2011 polls on the strength of its agitation against acquisition of farmland for industries,” said Sarkar.
“In sharp contrast, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took major steps for the benefit of farmers. PM Narendra Modi has taken it forward with the new farm laws and schemes such as Kisan credit card, Kisan Samman Nidhi etc. Farmers have suffered during the TMC regime because of middlemen. The Kisan Morcha is convincing farmers that Modi’s one-nation-one-market policy will transform their lives. The BJP will reap the benefits of our efforts,” said Sarkar.
The analysis of last year’s parliamentary election results showed that the biggest contribution to the BJP’s performance came from the vote bank of the CPI (M) and its partners. Out of 40 Left candidates in the race, 39 failed to secure one-sixth of the votes cast in their respective seats. The direct beneficiary was the BJP.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury had admitted the electoral trend as well.
This huge shift in Left votes was seen in agricultural belts as well, including those where the BJP could not win.
For example, at the TMC stronghold in Contai in East Midnapore district, two-time TMC Member of Parliament (MP) Sisir Adhikari got 50% of the votes polled, and the BJP’s Debasish Samanta and CPI(M)’s Paritosh Pattanayak had bagged 42% and 5.3% of the votes polled, respectively.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the CPI (M) had come second after it secured 34.72 % of the votes polled in the Contai parliamentary seat.
CPI(M) Politburo member Md Salim has been campaigning in the agrarian belts of South Dinajpur, Malda and other districts against the farm laws and the TMC’s policies since last week.
“We have seen a good turnout at our meetings. The BJP and the Kisan Morcha have the advantage of using the network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Small groups of four–five people are visiting the homes of farmers. However, the poaching won’t help the BJP. The farm laws will become its Achilles heel,” Salim told HT from a village in Malda.
“Land is a precious thing. Mamata Banerjee’s campaign against us at Singur (the site of the aborted small car project by the Tata Group) and Nandigram (the site of a proposed chemical hub) helped her win in 2011. But she did nothing for those farmers. No project came up at these places. Land that had helped her win will also lead to her loss. The Left-Congress alliance will be the main contender against the TMC in next year’s assembly polls,” said Salim.
The TMC, too, is campaigning against the BJP, especially in the north Bengal districts, where the BJP had won seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats last year.
Former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha (RS) member Ritabrata Banerjee, who is now a part of the TMC’s state committee, is campaigning in north Bengal’s Alipurduar district.
“The new farm laws have created fear in the agrarian belts. It is no small thing that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which was all along an ally of the BJP, left the NDA. In Bengal, farmers have staged agitation. We are telling them that these laws may lead to a food crisis,” said Banerjee.
A formal campaign might not help the BJP win votes in the agrarian belts, said Kolkata-based political science professor Udayan Bandopadhyay.
“Telling people what is good and what is bad does not work in our villages. The BJP, or any party for that matter, has to listen to their grievances and understand their feelings. In both Singur and Nandigram, it was the local population that had started the agitation. They already knew the problem. Mamata Banerjee only took it forward,” said Bandopadhyay.
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