BJP looking for ‘strong’ candidate to take on Mamata in Bhabanipur by-poll

Congress high command vetoes Bengal unit proposal to field contestant; bows out of competition in the larger interest of national opposition unity

Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been pushing for a united opposition to take on the BJP in the 2024 Parliament eleciton.

The BJP is scouting for a “strong” candidate to take on Mamata Banerjee in her home turf of Bhabanipur for the September 30 assembly by-poll while the Congress high command has shot down the party state unit’s proposal to contest the election.

“As per the instruction of the party’s central leadership, the Congress is not fielding any candidate for the Bhabanipur by-poll. We will also not take part in any campaigning against Mamata Banerjee in the constituency,” state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said on Tuesday evening.

The All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) decision is in sync with the ongoing efforts by some opposition parties to cobble together a united front against the BJP ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections. To push for such unity, Banerjee had called on Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi in July. It was their first meeting since the Bengal election in April-May, in which their respective parties had fought against each other.

Also read: MLAs turn weathercocks as politics of opportunism plays in Bengal, Assam

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Later, in mid-August, Banerjee attended a virtual meeting of various party leaders convened by the Congress president to consolidate opposition unity.

Bengal Congress makes a pitch

Causing a setback to the unity effort, the Bengal Congress, after a meeting on Monday (September 6), wrote to AICC general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal, seeking to field a candidate against Banerjee. The Monday decision of the Bengal Congress contradicted Chowdhury’s earlier stand.

The Pradesh Congress chief had publicly stated a couple of months ago that as a goodwill gesture the Congress should not field a candidate against Banerjee, who had returned to power for a third term with a landslide victory. His position was then seen as a positive move towards a broad opposition unity against the BJP.

But a majority of the senior Bengal Congress leaders overruled him at the Monday meeting, suggesting that the party must contest the Bhabanipur seat.

To support their stand of not giving any concession to the TMC, most senior office bearers of the Pradesh Congress who attended Monday’s meeting cited the heckling of Chowdhury at Murshidabad’s Raninagar earlier this week by alleged TMC activists. They also pointed out how Congress supporters were being targeted in various parts of the state by activists of the ruling party.

Poaching of leaders

Further, they took serious exception to the recent ‘poaching’ of Congress leaders in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura by the TMC.

Sikha Mitra, widow of former state Congress chief Somen Mitra, joined the TMC last month.  All India Mahila Congress chief and former MP from Assam Sushmita Deb and several senior leaders and former Congress MLAs of Tripura too have joined the TMC in the past few months, deepening the animosity between the two parties.

The Congress high command junked the state unit’s proposal, deciding to ignore the TMC “transgressions” for the larger interest of nationwide opposition unity.

The TMC has welcomed the Congress’s decision. “We appreciate the decision. Our leader Mamata Banerjee has been insisting that all the opposition parties must join forces against the BJP,” said TMC Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Sekhar Roy.

CPI(M) in the fray

The AICC’s decision, however, will not necessarily lead to a straight fight between the TMC and the BJP in the constituency.

The CPI(M) has made it clear that it would put up a candidate in the constituency if the Congress, to which the seat was allotted by the Joint Front in the last Assembly election, decides not to contest the by-poll. The Joint Front is an alliance of the Left Front, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front stitched ahead of the Assembly election.

CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty reiterated the party’s position on Tuesday, saying: “We (the CPI-M) will field a candidate against her (Banerjee).”

The BJP, meanwhile, is busy short-listing a suitable candidate, hoping to repeat its Nandigram performance, where its candidate Suvendu Adhikari beat Banerjee in the Assembly election, putting a damper on the TMC’s landslide victory.

Adhikari said he’s willing to contest again against Banerjee in Bhabanipur. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh is, however, against the idea, ostensibly not willing to give more limelight to the Nandigram MLA. “He has already defeated her once. Let someone else do it this time,” Ghosh said.

BJP’s candidate possibilities

Among the names the BJP is toying with are former Rajya Sabha MP and railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, former Tripura and Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy, director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation Anirban Ganguly, and actor-turned politician Rudranil Ghosh. Ghosh lost to TMC’s Sovandeb Chattopadhyay from the constituency last time.

A group within the BJP, including Ghosh, are of the view that the BJP should challenge in the court the Election Commission’s (EC) decision to hold by-poll in select Assembly constituencies in the state amid the COVID pandemic.

Of the seven vacant Assembly seats in West Bengal, the EC has announced the poll schedules for only three seats. Apart from Bhabanipur, elections will be held on September 30 in Jangipur and Samerganj.

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