By Sirshendu Panth
Siliguri: In the backdrop of the controversy over the ruling Trinamool Congress roping in Bangladeshi actors for campaigning, three northern West Bengal constituencies, including the keenly-watched Raiganj and Darjeeling, go to the hustings in round two of the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections on Thursday.
Jalpaiguri, known for its lush green forests and tea gardens, completes the list of constituencies ready for elections on the morrow, as the Lok Sabha poll caravan climbs up the picturesque eastern Himalayas and then descends to the foothills christened dooars before going further down to the plains, exactly a week after the opening round saw stray violence and allegations of electoral malpractices in Cooch Behar and Alipurduar in the region.
A total of 49,32,346 voters are eligible to express their democratic choice across 5,390 polling stations to decide the fate of 42 candidates in multi-cornered fights mainly involving the Trinamool, BJP, CPI-M and Congress.
The star constituency is the Muslim dominated Raiganj in North Dinajpur district, where sitting MP Mohammad Salim of the CPI-M is taking on former Union Minister and Congress nominee Deepa Dasmunsi, BJP state General Secretary Debasree Chaudhuri and Trinamool candidate Kanaia Lal Agarwal. Ten other candidates, including five Independents, are also in the fray.
Dasmunsi had narrowly lost to Salim five years back, and the tug-of-war between the CPI-M led Left Front and the Congress during their failed seat adjustment talks last month saw much bad blood over the constituency.
Salim, who tops the list among state MPs in terms of MPLAD funds utilisation, said he was striving to keep the focus on development.
“In the last four years, a number of divisive issues were deliberately brought up by the BJP and the Trinamool to disturb peace in the district. Therefore, the question of people’s unity and ensuring communal harmony is of utmost importance,” Salim said.
For Dasmunsi, it is a fight to retain the country’s secular character and pluralism by installing a Congress government. “The Trinamool Congress did not allow setting up of the AIIMS hospital here. We will fulfil the long-cherished dream of the people this time around,” she said.
Chaudhuri is banking on the ‘large-scale development’ initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi across the country.
“People will vote for us on the development mantra. The health infrastructure and rail and road connectivity in the region is languishing. I will work on all these issues if I win,” she said.
Trinamool’s Agarwal, in the eye of storm after Bangladeshi actor Ferdous Ahmed was seen campaigning for him, has denied any knowledge about the celebrity from the neighbouring nation having been invited to woo voters on his behalf.
The issue got escalated further after a second video surfaced, in which Bangladeshi actor Gazi Abdun Noor was seen campaigning for Trinamool’s Lok Sabha candidate for Dum Dum constituency, Sougata Roy, in the company of another party leader Madan Mitra.
The Central government has cancelled Ferdous’s visa and blacklisted him, while the BJP has demanded cancellation of Agarwal’s candidature and an NIA probe to find out the sponsors who let a foreign national interfere in India’s democratic elections to elect the Central government.
In Darjeeling — famed for its tea, timber and tourism — BJP’s Raju Singh Bisht is taking on Trinamool’s Amar Singh Rai, Saman Pathak of the CPI-M and Congress’ Sankar Malakar. There are also seven candidates from other registered parties and five Independents in the fray.
The Darjeeling seat was won by the BJP in 2009 and 2014. Union Minister and sitting MP S.S. Ahluwalia has been fielded by the party from South Bengal’s Burdwan-Durgapur seat this time.
Having witnessed the often violent agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state since the mid 1980s, this may be the first time in decades that none of the principal contestants are harping on the issue.
The principal hill party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which spearheaded the agitation for years, is a divided house now. While one faction is backing the BJP, the other section is supporting the Trinamool.
In Jalpaiguri, sitting MP Bijoy Chandra Barman is again contesting as a Trinamool candidate. Jayanta Kumar Ray, a medico, is the BJP candidate while the Congress has fielded tea workers’ leader Mani Kumar Darnal with the CPI(M) fielding Bhagirath Chandra Roy.
Five candidates from other registered parties and three Independents too are in the fray.
Organised tea garden workers and their dependents form about 40 per cent of the electorate in Jalpaiguri, and enjoy a share of around 50 per cent in the whole Darjeeling constituency, including the hills and plains.
As per the electoral roll, there are 25,22,887 men, 24,09,372 women and 87 registered in the ‘other’ category for the three constituencies that go to the polls on Thursday.
Jalpaiguri (SC) has 1,868 polling stations, Darjeeling 1,899 and Raiganj 1,623.
According to an analysis done by the West Bengal Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms, of the 42 candidates, 13 have declared criminal cases against themselves and 14 are crorepatis.
To ensure foolproof security, the Election Commission has decided to deploy 194 companies of central paramilitary forces in the three constituencies.
The subsequent phases of polls in West Bengal will be held on April 23, April 29, May 6, May 12 and May 19.
The votes will be counted on May 23.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])