September 16, 2014

Bengal Bypolls: Of frontrunners, crow and whine.

I haven’t been following the set of by-elections in different states and have no real inferences to draw from results elsewhere. My focus has been very much on West Bengal, which saw two assembly by-elections: Chowringhee and Basirhat South.

When I was growing up, it was often said that Chowringhee was one of the Congress’ safest seats in the country. Located in the heart of Kolkata, it represented and still represents the urban core of our cosmopolitan state capital. In the May 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in the Chowringhee segment with 35,998 votes. Trinamool was close behind with 34,440 votes, the BJP had 29,500 and the CPI(M) 10,000.

The by-election numbers today throw up an interesting contrast. The CPI(M) has declined still more, to 8,890 votes and finished fourth again. The Congress has slipped badly and declined to 23,317 votes, a loss of 7,000 votes or about 25 per cent of its Lok Sabha tally. The BJP has slipped to reach 23,984 votes and finish second. Trinamool ran away with the seat, getting 38,328 votes.

How Chowringhee voted is an indicator of the continued popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool in urban areas, particularly in the context of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election of Summer 2015. It put paid to the BJP’s hopes of a spectacular show in the city. The party had invested a lot of hopes on Chowringhee. Amit Shah, BJP national president, had even cancelled a meeting in north Bengal to come for a canvassing event in Chowringhee.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Not even the smear campaign run by a section of the media could shake the popular trust that Mamata Banerjee enjoys. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage.

Basirhat South too has not been a traditional Trinamool seat. It was won by a CPI(M) candidate in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in the overall parliamentary constituency but led in the Basirhat South assembly segment by 32,000 votes. When the CPI(M) MLA died, and a by-election resulted, political analysts were predicting a BJP-CPI(M) fight.

We kept a low profile and picked Dipendu Biswas, a popular local boy and former captain of India’s football team, as our candidate. He campaigned hard and reduced the BJP’s lead of 32,000 to a mere 1,700 votes. The CPI(M), which had won the seat in 2011, ended up third. Seeing the response to Dipendu Biswas, in a typically emotional reaction the party announced him as Trinamool candidate for the 2016 assembly election. I must point out here that the winning BJP nominee was gracious in acknowledging Trinamool’s improved performance and our ability to cut the margin.

All in all, there is now only a battle for the opposition space in Bengal. The 2016 West Bengal election has only one frontrunner: Trinamool. As for some media groups, they can eat crow. It would go well with their whine.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress