New Delhi: West Bengal is among the four states that will go to polls in all the seven phases of the Lok Sabha elections. After polling in two constituencies in the first phase, three constituencies of Bengal province — Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj — are set to vote during the second phase.
The contest till 2014 in these constituencies have been bipolar or tripolar, i.e. either between Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress, or between CPM, Congress and the Trinamool Congress. However, while Congress is losing its hold, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making inroads in the state.
Leaving no stone unturned, the parties have mostly nominated existing publicly elected members of the legislative assemblies (MLAs). Trinamool has gone one step ahead by joining hands with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
The constituency is currently held by SS Ahluwalia of BJP. It is one of the two seats won by the party apart from Asansol. Ahluwalia had won in 2014 defeating the football hero and Trinamool candidate Bhaichung Bhutia by almost 1.97 lakh votes. The former had got a vote share of 42.75% and the latter could only attain 25.48% — the highest ever that the Trinamool has got in the constituency. Bhutia has now formed his own party, Hamro Sikkim Party and is contesting in Sikkim.
Ahluwalia is the second BJP MP from the constituency after Jaswant Singh, who won the seat in 2009. He was also often addressed as an outsider MP and was previously representing Bihar and Jharkhand as a Rajya Sabha member.
The constituency also borders Nepal and Bhutan; it includes seven assembly constituencies: Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Kurseong, Matigara-Naxalbari (SC), Siliguri, Phansidewa (ST) and Chopra.
Apart from a significant 10-15% Muslim population, the constituency with both hills and plains also have sizable proportions of Christians and Buddhists — 5-10% each. With a population of about 22 lakh people, the constituency had 14,37,154 electors in 2014 — 7,37,184 males and 6,99,942 females.
Widely known for its tourism and tea estate, the constituency was burning in 2017 in demand for a separate state, the Gorkhaland. The hills experienced a massive uproar for 104 days during July-September 2017 that claimed at least 11 lives in police action. However, the issue, by and large, has taken a backseat in the run up to the elections. Yet, keeping in the mind the intensity of the strike and also demand of some sections to nominate ‘son of soil’, the state ruling party Trinamool-GJM alliance fielded Darjeeling MLA Amar Singh Rai for the polls.
Ahluwalia was reportedly unseen during the Gorkhaland movement. Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) had even filed a missing complaint for Ahluwalia, who has this time declined to contest from Darjeeling. The BJP has replaced him with a fresh face, Raju Bista for the upcoming polls. What worked for Manipuri-native Bista other than his association with the RSS are his Nepali origins and backing from the GNLF as well as GJM. Sankar Malakar, Matigara-Naxalbari MLA, will represent the Congress; and CPM has retained its trust on Saman Pathak, who had secured third position in 2014 with a vote share of 14.64%.
The GJM has maintained its demands to identify and give tribal status to the 11 Gorkha communities, land rights (patta) to the cinchona and tea estate workers, implementing minimum wages for tea garden workers, linguistic minority status for Nepali community, constitutional recognition for GTA and making it part of the North East Council. GTA is a regional administrative body of the hills looking after the matters of three sub-divisions: Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Kurseong and 18 mouzas of Siliguri Sub-Divisions.
BJP in its manifesto has committed to recognise the 11 Gorkha communities as Scheduled Tribes; and to find a permanent political solution to the issue of Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri Terai and Dooars region.
The narrow stretch of land lying between the Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayas and Gangetic West Bengal, Jalpaiguri is famously called as the land of ‘Tea, Timber and Tourism.’ It emerged as a constituency during the third Lok Sabha polls in 1962. Post Emergency, this seat was a stronghold of CPM. As per the latest delimitation exercise in 2008, Jalpaiguri is a reserved constituency for the Scheduled Caste. It is being currently held by Trinamool Congress’s Bijoy Chandra Barman. In 2014, he had defeated the CPM candidate and sitting MP, Mahendra Kumar Roy, by 69,606 votes. The two had secured 37.93% and 32.6% vote shares, respectively. Before delimitation, CPM’s Minati Sen won thrice from 1998 to 2004. Barman is contesting the 2019 elections too.
In the 2014 elections, there were 1,531,469 electors and the voter turnout was 85.02%—the highest in the last five polls. It includes Mekliganj (SC), Dhupguri (SC), Maynaguri (SC), Jalpaiguri (SC), Rajganj (SC), Dabgram-Phulbari, Mal (ST) assembly constituencies. Despite being a reserved seat and a population of average 42.57% of SC population (Census 2011), minority-representative party Bahujan Samaj Party has not been able to establish any ground here. For the last two general elections, it had an average vote share of a little more than one per cent.
This northern Bengal constituency has 1,818 polling booths. The male and female elector counts are 795,704 and 735,765, respectively.
It mostly houses rural population, mostly tea garden workers. Speaking of its ethnicity, the population of about 22.7 lakh people comprise of Bengalis including over 10-15% Muslims, Rajbanshis (Indo-Mongoloid tribes) and refugees from Bangladesh.
Raiganj is one of the two seats retained by the CPM. The current MP, Mohammad Salim, had defeated the sitting Congress MP, Deepa Dasmunsi, by a mere 1,634 votes. Salim got a vote share of 28.64%. The constituency was held by Congress for three consecutive terms from 1999. In the last five general elections, the vote share of winners from Congress are significantly more than that of CPM. Congress’ Deepa had won with a vote share of 50.29% in 2009 – more than her husband, late Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who had represented the constituency in the Lok Sabha in 1999 (46.74%) and 2004 (45.97%). Salim is the fourth CPM candidate from the constituency since 1952.
The assembly constituencies this parliamentary seat includes are Islampur, Goalpokhar, Chakulia, Karandighi, Hemtabad (SC), Kaliaganj (SC), and Raiganj.
With a population of over 23.5 lakh including about 40-45% Muslims, the constituency has total 1,387,526 electors in 2014; male and female electors being 724,014 and 663,512, respectively.
The constituency was engaged in bipolar party system till 2009. However, since 2014, the fight is neck-and-neck and four-cornered. As Deepa and Salim are re-contesting from Congress and CPM, respectively, the BJP has fielded general secretary of its party in the state, Debasree Chaudhuri. Kanaialal Agarwal, the Islampur MLA from Congress, who used to strategise campaigns for Deepa, would now contest against her on a Trinamool ticket.
Deepa is banking on Trinamool leader and CM Mamata Banerjee shifting the proposed AIIMS from Raiganj to Kalyani in south Bengal. Congress president Rahul Gandhi in a recent rally has promised to set up the medical institution at Raiganj if voted to power.
Among these three constituencies, Salim is the only MP who has utilised the MP funds completely for the development of his constituency.
In the Panchayat General Elections 2018, while Trinamool exhibited great show of strength, BJP from almost nowhere emerged to be the runner-up in Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samity and Gram Panchayat polls. CPM remained at third spot, followed by the Congress at fourth.
BJP’s rising popularity on one hand, and the Gorkhas’ identity issue on the other; these are the two issues might frame the minds of the voters on April 18.