Ethnic groups such as the Gorkhas and Adivasis and scheduled caste communities of Rajbanshis and Matuas will be the deciding factors in most of the 45 seats going to polls on Saturday.
Apart from three hill seats of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, Nepali-speaking voters have sizeable presence in Matigara-Naxalbari, Phansidewa, Mal, Maynaguri, Dhupguri, Dabgram-Phulbari and some other constituencies where polling will be held in the fifth phase.
When fugitive leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) Bimal Gurung made a surprised appearance in Kolkata in December last year to extend his support to the Trinamool Congress, it was hailed as a masterstroke of Mamata Banerjee.
The chief minister already had the support of another faction of the GJM led by Binoy Tamang. Gurung’s support should consolidate Nepali-speaking votes in its favour, the TMC had expected, as the party is desperately trying to regain its lost base in North Bengal.
Out of 54 seats in the northern part of Bengal, in three hill constituencies over 65 per cent voters are Nepali speaking. In another 14 seats in Dooars-Terai region, the community comprise over 20 per cent of the population, making it a formidable voting bloc.
Polling will be held on Friday in most of these constituencies.
With the backing of Gurung, the BJP managed to maintain leads in most of these assembly segments in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
Since then several cusecs of water have flowed down the River Teesta. Gurung is now with the TMC, severing his ties with the BJP.
Gurung’s homecoming, however, has triggered protests from the Tamang camp, putting cold water on the TMC’s plan of consolidating Nepali-speaking votes.
Both the factions of the GJM are locking horns in the hill seats. Out of its two allies, the TMC at the last moment decided to back the Gurung faction, deviating from its neutrality.
The BJP’s alliance partner is the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
Due to the face-off between Gurung and Tamang, the two most powerful leaders of the community, for the first time in several decades, Nepali-speaking votes are unlikely to consolidate in favour of any one party.
The split in GJM votes may give the BJP a slight advantage in the hills.
In the foothills, the TMC hopes that its alliance with Gurung will help it corner a large chunk of Nepali speaking vote. Tamang does not have much influence in the Terai-Dooars region.
In the foothill constituencies, Rajbanshis are another influential voting block along with the Adivasis.
With about 40 lakh people, Rajbanshis form over 18 per cent of the state’s total SC population. The community can influence the results in almost 50 of North Bengal’s 54 seats.
Rajbanshis, along with Adivasis and Matuas, formed the fulcrum of the BJP’s astounding performance in the last parliamentary elections in the state.
This time, however, the BJP may not have the full backing of the community as there is some resentment against the party for non-fulfilment of its Lok Sabha elections promises.
The BJP had promised to raise a Narayani Regiment in the Indian Army, a long-pending demand of the community. The Narayani Sena was the army of the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar.
Sensing the community’s annoyance over non-fulfilment of the promise by the BJP, Banerjee in November last year announced her government’s decision to form a ‘Narayani’ battalion in the state police.
Her government also announced that it would set up 200 schools to promote the Rajbanshi language. A Rajbanshi development board was also formed.
BJP leader and Union minister Amit Shah at an election rally in Cooch Behar in February said a battalion of the Indian paramilitary forces would be named after the Narayani Sena and a training centre of the paramilitary forces would be named after Chila Rai, a 16th century general of the Narayani Sena of the erstwhile princely state.
The contest for Rajbanshi votes assumed a new dimension after the death of five persons in a poll-related violence at Sitalkuchi on April 10. All the five who died on that ill-fated day were Rajbanshi —four Muslims and one Hindu.
After the killings Shah alleged that Banerjee was only empathising with the four deceased and ignoring the death of Anand Burman as he did not fit into her vote-bank.
“There is some undercurrent of communal tension in many Rajbanshi pockets in rural North Bengal after the firing incident,” said Siliguri-based senior journalist Probir Pramanik.
The polarisation is the last thing that the non-BJP party would like to have.
Another SC community, the Matuas, would play the deciding roles in majority of the 24 seats in North 24 Parganas and Nadia as well as in a few North Bengal seats where polling will be held tomorrow.
Since the last Lok Sabha elections the community has been largely supporting the BJP.
The TMC hopes that the delay in framing rules for the implementation of the CAA will shift the loyalties of at least a section of the community away from the BJP.
On the ground, there is no indication of any major shift in the community’s voting pattern.
In a leaked private conversation, the TMC poll strategist Prashant Kihsor was heard admitting that Matuas would be largely voting in favour of the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to a Matua temple in Bangladesh’s Orakandi last month was aimed at sending a positive message to the community.