Does Ballygunge Bypoll Signal the Return of the Left in Bengal’s Electoral Map?

When 61% of nearly 2.5 lakh eligible voters turned up to cast their votes in Kolkata’s Ballygunge less than a year ago in the high-stakes Bengal state elections, veteran Trinamool Congress leader and candidate from the seat, Subrata Mukherjee, sported a smile on his face.

Mukherjee knew that the figure in this prime urban South Kolkata landmass, home to both the urban elite in some of the city’s costliest properties alongside slum-dwellers living in the shadows of the high-rises, would comfortably see him through even though the number looked less than the average turnout of voters across the state.

Sure enough, Mukherjee won the seat with a margin of whopping 75,000-plus votes against his nearest BJP rival advocate Loknath Chatterjee. While the latter sunk into political oblivion since the results came out, Mukherjee, an erstwhile Congress leader, retained position in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet after registering his highest ever victory margin since he began fighting elections on Trinamool Congress tickets in 2011.

Mukherjee’s sudden demise in November last year necessitated a bypoll in Ballygunge, and Mamata Banerjee’s choice of BJP-turncoat Babul Supriyo as replacement candidate did not surprise many. What came as a surprise, though, was the low voter turnout of 41%, even by bypoll standards in the state.

Evidently, a large section of voters stayed away from the polling stations this time around and there are reasons to believe it wasn’t just because of the prevailing hot and sultry weather.

Despite the low turnout, Babul Supriyo’s eventual romp home with a winning margin of over 20,000 votes must have left the candidate as well as the Trinamool Congress top brass heaving a sigh of relief.

Both Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s tweets during the day suggested the wins in both Ballygunge and Asansol were a big shot in the arm for the party, which seems to be presently struggling to fend off criticism over alleged failure of law and order in the state.

Turning focus back to Ballygunge, the run-up to the bypolls surely gave Supriyo some jittery moments. His challenge was to convince his voters, 42% of who are Muslims, that someone who had fiercely pushed the CAA agenda during his earlier avatar as a BJP leader has undergone an image makeover.

The #NoVoteToBabul campaign, which drew on Supriyo’s previous stand and was led by some pressure groups in the city, evidently gathered steam to the extent that protestors were arrested from the streets by Kolkata Police.

A cursory glance at the break-up of poll figures from the seven municipal wards of the constituency reveals that Supriyo never succeeded in gaining the voters’ trust in full. In two of those seven wards, ward numbers 64 and 65, the CPI-M’s Saira Shah Halim garnered more votes than the Trinamool. That, coupled with the dip in voter turnout by a staggering 20%, is proof that a large number of voters stayed away from making a choice.

And among those who did vote, a significant portion evidently turned to the Left as a choice over both the Trinamool and the BJP. It deserves mention here that the state’s prime opposition party, the BJP, ended up in a distant third position in Ballygunge and party candidate Keya Ghosh forfeited her deposit with the Election Commission.

No wonder Babul Supriyo called his victory a “rap in the knuckle for those who spread false and malicious campaigns against him” and promised that “the Babul 2.0 version would be better than his previous avatar”.

The Left, on the other hand, stuck to its political line and called the Trinamool-BJP political stand-off in the state “a show of fake opposition which Ballygunge voters have seen through”. Speaking to reporters after the poll results were declared, CPI-M Politburo member Md Salim said: “The low turnout is a sign of voters’ frustration with political parties and that’s dangerous for democracy. We have much work to do to get that trust back.”

The Ballygunge bypoll experience could be a fallout of any of the possibilities stated above or a mix and match of all. But for the ruling Trinamool Congress dispensation in Bengal, it’s certainly a warning bell that merits introspection into steps it needs to take to shake off the so-called “voters’ dilemma” before it makes its big push for 2024 general elections.

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