Of the 31 seats going to polls in Phase 3 in West Bengal, 16 are in South 24 Parganas, where the ruling Trinamool Congress has maintained a dominant presence for more than a decade.
South 24 Parganas is India’s sixth-heavily populated district (8,161,961 according to the 2011 census). Muslims make 35.57 per cent of the population.
In the 2019 general election, the TMC swept all four parliamentary constituencies in the district, while the BJP’s gains were mostly in other parts of the state.
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This time, however, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party is facing a three-pronged challenge in its bastion.
The constituencies up for grabs in Phase 3 are located in and around the coastal belt, mostly in the Sundarbans, which were badly affected by Cyclone Amphan in May last year. The cyclone causes extensive damage, flattening villages and killing at least 86 people.
Nearly a year after the cyclone, signs of devastation are still visible in many parts of Basanti, Kultali, Kulpi, Raidighi and other constituencies.
To rebuild homes of those affected, the state announced assistance of ₹20,000 per family. Another ₹1,500 per acre was promised to farmers whose crops were damaged.
Kamlesh Mondal, a resident of Kulpi, was among those who lost his home. He told The Federal he is yet to receive any assistance from the government.
“I had applied for the relief, but did not get a single penny because I am not associated with the ruling party,” he said.
Similar complaints can be heard across the coastal areas of the state, though the government claims to have released ₹6,800 crore as compensation for those whose homes were damaged.
“Bhatija and Co swindled Amphan relief funds,” BJP leader and Home Minister Amit Shah said last month at a rally in Gosaba, referring to Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. “If the BJP is voted to power, we will constitute a committee to investigate the irregularities in relief distribution.”
The Minister for Sundarbans Affairs, Manturam Pakhira, admitted flaws in relief distribution, but insisted that the majority of those affected had received compensation.
More than 10 lakh people received compensation to rebuild homes, he claimed.
In private many TMC functionaries admit that the allegations could damage the party’s prospects.
Mamata faces two other challenges: The possibility of a split in minority votes due to infighting in the party and the Indian Secular Front’s tie-up with the Left Front and the Congress.
In constituencies such as Basanti, Kulpi, Mandirbazar, Canning East and Magrahat West, the ISF could play spoilsport.
The BJP’s organisational weakness, however, means the TMC still has a good chance in the region. The Left-ISF-Congress is also expected to put up a strong fight, making the contest in most of these constituencies triangular.
Apart from 16 constituencies in South 24 Parganas, seven seats in Howrah and eight seats in Hooghly are in play in Phase 3.
Barring Amta and Jagatballavpur, the TMC has an edge in all Howrah seats. In Hooghly, the contest is neck and neck between the TMC and the BJP.