Bengal polls: Focus on Kolkata zone before Amit Shah’s visit

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The BJP is banking on the expertise of its leader and backroom strategist Sunil Bansal for bettering its prospects in Kolkata and its neighbouring areas—51 seats in all—in which voters have not given the party much of a chance until now.

Bansal is known to have worked closely with home minister Amit Shah, who was the BJP president when the party won the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in 2017.

The party is targeting at least 30 of these seats where the BJP has been the weakest. In 2019, when the BJP won handsomely in North Bengal and even in Nabadwip, it could not make much inroads into the Kolkata zone, which comprises 11 seats in Kolkata, 31 in South 24 Parganas and nine in North 24 Parganas.

The campaign for seats in this zone is set to intensify with Shah’s visit to Kolkata to roll out the last ‘poribortan yatra’ from Kakadwip in South 24 Parganas on Thursday.

Bansal, at present the party’s general secretary in UP, was among the leaders handling over 150,000 booths in the UP assembly polls of 2017 in which the party swept to power.

He has been allotted a centre and a war room in the party’s headquarters to manage the BJP’s organisational activities in this zone.

According to BJP leaders, he had camped in Kolkata for a month in December, and then has been spending at least 15 days every month in the State.

He has already visited each of the 51 assembly constituencies and is currently working on a plan to strengthen the 13,800 booths in this zone. In the last three days, to prepare to submit feedback to Shah, he has also toured 150 of the 199 mandals in this zone. His focus, according to BJP leaders, is on data collection and strengthening the booths to have at least five active members in each.

“There are around 2,000 ‘type D’ booths in this zone where due to many reasons the party has very limited or no presence, mainly due to Muslim dominated booths. Excluding them, at least in 11,000 booths we want to ensure active party activity,” a party leader said. “After Shah’s visit, we will begin door-to-door campaigns here.”

The BJP classifies booths where it wins most times as type A, those with 40-50% vote-share as type B, and ones closely fought as type C.

According to a senior party leader, the Kolkata zone has always been difficult for the BJP for a variety of reasons, with the main being the TMC’s strong organisational strength here. Apart from chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who fights from Kolkata’s Bhabanipur, at least nine of TMC’s ministers contested and won from this zone, and the party also has strong faces, such as MPs Abhishek Banerjee, Sudip Bandopadhyay and MLA Soakat Mollah, all from here.

According to the BJP’s internal assessment, the party is looking at SC-dominated Vidhan Sabha seats of Jaynagar and Mathurapur in South 24 Paraganas and some seats in Jadavpur where it expects Furfura Sharif Abbas Siddiqui to put up a fight against TMC for Muslim votes. In Kolkata district, it is focussing on areas such as Jorasanko, Shyampukur, Maniktala and Rashbehari, where it garnered a significant number of votes in 2019.

“Even in Bhabanipur there is a substantial Gujarati population which is consolidating for us. It will work better if Mamata asks someone else to contest from here. The two-time MLA from Diamond Harbour also joined us recently,” a BJP functionary said.

Political thinker Bishwanath Chakraborty, who teaches at Rabindra Bharati University, told ET that the BJP, in order to appeal to the Bhadralok community and to find its feet in Kolkata and neighbouring areas, should raise issues such as the state of civic bodies, lack of jobs and investment and industrialisation in the state, rising instances of political violence and the condition of universities where elections have been stalled.

“There is a long Left-liberal tradition the city has. The party has to be mindful of that ethos and should not harp too much on polarisation. This zone is a lot different from other parts of the state,” he said.

The TMC, meanwhile, has instructed its leaders to reach out to all households in this zone “without any ego” and ensure that the CM’s budget announcement of providing free ration to the poor till the polls get over is implemented without any hurdle.

West Bengal education minister and TMC secretary-general Partha Chatterjee, armed with the new TMC slogan “Khela Hobe (let’s play)” has also been campaigning in the same area, and so has the Kolkata mayor, Firhad Hakim–both MLAs from this zone.

For political strengthening of the party organisation, the BJP has made former Kolkata mayor Sovon Chatterjee–once a close confidante of CM Banerjee–and his partner Baisakhi Banerjee the observers of this zone. Both had to be convinced a great deal by party leaders to remain within the party fold, even as it is believed they sulked asking to be treated respectfully by all in the party. Both of them in the past one month have undertaken over 25 road shows and public meetings, including ones in TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee’s constituency of Diamond Harbour.

Chatterjee, known for his political network in the city, is seen as an asset by the party, although some of them are also way off his political strength, given that he was not politically active for two years. “Sovon Chatterjee’s followers will help us in booth management and in keeping a check on Abhishek’s supporters who can go any extent to harm us. He is a man who knows the intricate details of the city and has people everywhere. He certainly has the ability to get people on our side. But sometimes, some people tend to undermine them, not call them for meetings which is not fair,” a BJP leader said.

When asked about her role in the campaign, Baisakhi Banerjee, who used to teach political science in a private college until some years ago, told ET that there has been “no dearth of honour” in the BJP, which is why she was working hard along with Chatterjee to deliver the most challenging seats for the party.

“It is a pledge that we have taken that we will make the BJP the party of every Bengali, including the Bhadralok, particularly in south Kolkata. I also see a large number of women coming out in support of the BJP because they want dignity and respect,” she said.

Apart from the Muslim population, the BJP’s other worry is the over a million voters spread across Kolkata’s 2,500 registered slums, where the CM has reached out and promised proper houses. TMC leaders said in the last one month, district units have been revamped, and relief compensation for Amphan victims has also been given in districts of South 24 Parganas. “Many corrective measures have been taken to address complaints in people,” a TMC district functionary in S24 Parganas said.

On Monday, the party also launched a ‘Ma’ scheme in Kolkata, specifically aimed at poor urban voters, promising to provide a meal of rice, dal, a vegetable and egg curry for Rs 5, and also inaugurated a hospital for women and children.

TMC MP Santunu Sen told ET that this is the zone the party is the most confident about. “Here the people know and understand the failings of the BJP and are strongly with the CM. They know how the BJP is dealing with the farmers’ protest or managing affairs centrally. People are most aware here. There will be no problem in any seat here.”





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