With Amit Shah's pitch for a nationwide NRC exercise and the recent Ayodhya verdict having received mixed reactions from various quarters, the November 25 by-polls to three Assembly seats in Bengal will be a litmus test for the TMC and the BJP, ahead of 2021 state elections. It will be the first electoral contest between the two parties since this year's Lok Sabha polls, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the main opposition in the state, with 18 of the 42 seats in its kitty, just four less than that of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Two of the three Assembly constituencies – Kharagpur Sadar and Karimpur - fell vacant post general election as the sitting MLAs contested and won Lok Sabha seats. By-polls were necessitated in Kaliaganj following the death of Congress MLA Parmathanath Roy.
Congress nominee Dhitashree Roy, also supported by the CPI(M), will take on TMC's Tapan Deb Sinha and BJP's Kamal Chandra Sarkar in Kaliaganj.
In Karimpur, vacated by MLA Mahua Moitra after emerging victorious from Krishnnanagar Lok Sabha seat, the CPI(M)-Congress candidate Gholam Rabbi is contesting against BJP's Jay Prakash Majumdar and TMC's Bimalendu Singha Roy.
Prem Chandra Jha of the BJP will take on Chittaranjan Mandal of the Congress-CPI(M) alliance and Pradip Sarkar of the TMC in Kharagpur Sadar Assembly seat - vacated by MLA Dilip Ghosh after winning Medinipur Lok Sabha seat
The results will be declared on November 28. Chances are likely that the saffron party's masterstroke in Maharashtra and Haryana, along with the NRC proposal and the tabling of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament, would cast a shadow on the November 25 bypolls.
The Ayodhya verdict, which cleared the way for construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site, might also have political ramifications, ahead of the 2021 polls. On the back foot since the NRC in Assam left out over 19 lakh people, most of them reportedly Hindus, the Ayodhya verdict has provided the BJP in West Bengal fresh ammunition to polarise the electorate.
For the BJP, the challenge is to live up to its performance in the parliamentary polls, whereas the TMC will try hard to regain its lost political ground.
The by-polls will also decide if the Congress and the CPI(M), which have come together after three years, will remain relevant in state politics.
The Congress had bagged two seats while the CPI(M) drew a blank in the Lok Sabha polls this year.
As the BJP increased its tally from two seats in 2014 to 18 seats in 2019 by bagging 40.5 per cent votes, the TMC witnessed a slump in its number of seats - down from 34 in 2014 to 22 this time.
"We are confident of winning all three seats in the by-polls. The people of West Bengal have made up their mind to defeat the TMC in 2021 Assembly polls in the state," BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said. According to a section of state BJP leaders, the party's failure to win majority in Maharashtra and Haryana Assemblies, with a resurgent Congress putting up a good show in the northern state, might have not gone down well with its ranks in West Bengal. "In the Lok Sabha polls, we had swept Haryana and Maharashtra. But in less than six months, the Assembly poll results showed that Narendra Modi as the prime minister remains unchallenged at the national level, but the same cannot be said for the state leaders.
"We are a bit apprehensive that something similar may happen in West Bengal," a senior state BJP leader said on the condition of anonymity.
Karimpur and Kaliaganj seats have a sizeable Muslim and Dalit population. Most of the Dalits in the two seats are descendants of refugees, who fled to India during Partition and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
The exclusion of a large number of Hindus from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in neighbouring Assam is also a point of concern for the saffron party, which has promised to carry out the exercise in Bengal, if voted to power in 2021.
"The panic that followed the NRC exercise in Assam has taken the winds out of the BJP's sails to an extent. So to counter the narrative of the TMC on the issue, we have come up with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, by which all Hindu refugees will be accorded citizenship.
"It remains to be seen which narrative gets accepted in Karimpur and Kaliaganj," the BJP leader said. The Lok Sabha election results, earlier this year, showed that the BJP was ahead in Kaliaganj and Kharagpur Sadar, while the TMC in Karimpur. In Kharagpur Sadar, which has a very high non-Bengali population, the Ram Mandir issue is expected to help the saffron party consolidate Hindu votes.
However, rebel BJP leader Pradip Kumar Patnaik, who has formed the BJP Bachao Committee and is fighting as an Independent, could also play a spoiler for the saffron camp. The TMC, through its mass outreach campaign 'Didi ke Bolo' (Tell Didi) over the last three months, hopes to revive much of its ground lost to the BJP.
"The people of West Bengal, in the last five-six months, have understood that the BJP is a communal and divisive force. In the by-polls, we will win all three seats. "Apart from local issues and rural distress caused due to the Centre's economic policies, we have highlighted the BJP's malicious plans to impose NRC in the state, which will turn legal citizens into refugees," TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee said.
The CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress, both fighting for their political existence in Bengal, have sealed a seat adjustment for Monday's by-polls.
The Congress will contest Kaliaganj and Kharagpur Sadar seats, while the Left Front will fight from Karimpur. It will be a challenge for the two parties to cut into minority votes of the TMC and anti-establishment votes of the BJP.
"We are hopeful that people will realize that the Congress-CPI(M) alliance can be the only alternative to the TMC, as a communal force like the BJP will never be accepted in the state," Congress state president Somen Mitra said.