Panchayat polls in West Bengal to be litmus test for Trinamool’s support among minorities

Mamata Banerjee takes course correction steps after Sagardighi bypoll loss

March 18, 2023 10:54 pm | Updated March 20, 2023 07:53 pm IST - Kolkata

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. File

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Are the minority voters in West Bengal shifting away from the Trinamool Congress? This is the question that is being asked in political circles of West Bengal since March 3, when the results of the Sagardighi byelection took political parties by surprise.

On Friday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee touched on the issue, and assured her party leadership that minorities continued to be with the party and the electoral loss at Sagardighi was because of the party’s “internal weakness”, which included a number of issues such as candidate selection.

During the closed-door meeting at Kalighat, Ms. Banerjee reprimanded Jangipur Lok Sabha MP Khalilur Rahman and Murshidabad MP Abu Taher Khan, saying that they had not performed the work assigned to them.

The Chief Minister also came down heavily on party minority cell chief Hazi Nurul Islam and replaced him with Itahar MLA Mosaraf Hossain. Ms. Banerjee chided Mr. Islam for not making enough trips to the districts. Trinamool candidate Debasish Bhattacharya was defeated by Congress candidate Bayron Biswas at Sagardighi by a margin of 22,968 votes.

High-level meeting

During the high-level meeting on Friday, the State’s Library Minister and key minority leader, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, also came up with the report on the Sagardighi debacle. Ms. Banerjee had set up the committee to draw up the report.

The attempts at a course correction, particularly in the context of minority votes, is being made ahead of the panchayat polls in the State.

The panchayat polls would be the last major litmus test for all the political parties ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

While the dates of the panchayat polls are yet to be announced, under the three-tier panchayat system in the State, polling will be held across 825 seats spread across 20 zilla parishads, 9,217 panchayat samitis, and 48,649 gram panchayats.

The Trinamool Congress leadership has also started appointing senior leaders and Ministers as ‘observers’ to districts ahead of the panchayat polls.

While the loss in Sagardighi — with over 65% population of the population — was an embarrassment for the Trinamool Congress, Bhangar — another minority-dominated constituency — is also posing a challenge. The Trinamool had lost the seat to Indian Secular Front candidate Nawsad Siddique in 2021. The MLA has recently been released from prison, and, to counter his influence, the Trinamool will be sending key leaders of South 24 Parganas district to Bhangar as “observers” during the panchayat polls.

Some political observers are of the view that the panchayat polls may not be the real test of the people’s support, as allegations of State government interference has been rampant in earlier rural polls. Biswanath Chakraborty, head of the department of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, cited the panchayat polls of 2018 when a large chunk of seats was won uncontested by the Trinamool Congress. The panchayat polls are held by the State Election Commission and its control remains with the State government, he said.

Professor Chakraborty also pointed out that the Sagardighi defeat may not reflect which way the minority voters will ally. “At Sagardighi, the BJP was not really in the contest. The real test for minority voters will be when they have to choose between voting against the Trinamool when the BJP stands to gain,” he added.

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