Bengal civic polls a crucial test for all political parties
The ruling Trinamool Congress' capability to continue its electoral successes and the BJP's bid to become the main opposition force would be tested amid a revival of the Gorkhaland demand in the hills as seven West Bengal civic bodies go to the hustings on Sunday.
The elections to the municipalities spread across five districts in northern, central and the southern tip of the state would provide a peek into the mind of the voters in the small towns and pose a challenge for the Left Front and the Congress to revive their fortunes in the backdrop of recent electoral results where they lost ground to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The polls would be held for four municipalities in the northern Bengal hills - Darjeeling, Kurseong and Mirik Notified Area Authority in Darjeeling district and Kalimpong in Kalimpong district. Besides, Raiganj municipality in North Dinajpur district, Domkal in Murshidabad district and Pujali in South 24 Parganas district are also up for grabs.
The Trinamool is a principal force in all the areas, and is hoping to break the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's stranglehold in the hills by tying up with the Gorkha National Liberation Front.
State Tourism Minister and Trinamool Congress leader from north Bengal Gautam Deb was confident of an impressive show in the hills.
"We will win in Kurseong. We will also perform fairly well in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. People want to know why the GJM could not carry out necessary development in the hills despite being in power for so long.
"There was a fear psychosis among the people. Most of the local body elections were uncontested for many years. People could not come out to vote independently. The situation has changed under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee," Deb said, alluding to the Chief Minister's repeated trips to the hills and the development projects and sops she has announced for the region.
The hills have not witnessed a local election in the past five years.
GJM chief Bimal Gurung, however, accused the state government of not providing the necessary funds for development.
"The state government is talking about development here. I ask where is the development and where is the money sanctioned for the hills," he questioned.
To strike an emotive cord among the people, the GJM has revived the call for a separate Gorkhaland state and tried to turn the polls into a Gorkhaland-vs-Bengal issue.
In Domkal, the Trinamool is up against an undeclared seat adjustment between the Congress and Left Front major Communist Party of India-Marxist.
Murshidabad is one of the very few strongholds of the Congress, and the party is going all out to woo the electorate. However, state Congress chief and Murshidabad strongman Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury accused the Trinamool of using the administration to slap false cases and arrest his party leaders.
"In Domkal, without any investigation whatsoever, Congress leaders are named in false cases and arrested and under such provisions that they don't get bail," he said.
But at the other end, the Trinamool is banking on the large number of former Congress leaders, who have crossed over to its fold in recent times.
The LF-Congress, who have cobbled up unofficial seat understandings in Raiganj and Pujali too, is hoping to do well in Raiganj.
Days after BJP chief Amit Shah said West Bengal was the "next target" on his radar, the party is campaigning hard to retain the momentum it received by finishing runners up in the recent Kanthi Dakhin assembly by-poll.
Giving an indication of its intent, the BJP has fielded several Muslim candidates in Domkal and Pujali that has a majority of Muslim population.
"In Domkal, seven of our 20 candidates are Muslim and in Pujali, we have fielded three Muslims among our 16 candidates," said BJP minority cell president Ali Hossain