What Suvendu Adhikari is to the BJP in East Medinipur, Rajib Banerjee is to the party in Howrah.
Like Adhikari, Banerjee, too, was a powerful minister in the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government, before he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a little over two months ago.
The St. Xavier’s College graduate is fighting again from Howrah’s Domjur, the seat he has retained since 2011 as a TMC heavyweight; 40% of the voters in this constituency are Muslims.
Hence, his campaign strategy is different from that of Adhikari in Nandigram, where the BJP has primarily focused on the Hindu vote; Adhikari, who won the high-profile seat in 2016 on TMC ticket, is up against the chief minister herself.
Banerjee exudes confidence of retaining Domjur as a BJP candidate. “Mine is a minority-dominated seat, and I have accepted the challenge to win this seat again. Muslims, too, are with me,” he tells News18 in an exclusive interview, campaigning in the Muslim-dominated Danshpara village of Domjur.
“Bharosa rakhiye, sab theek hai (have faith in me, all is well),” he tells Muslim elders as he walks the muddy lanes in the village; his team is accompanied by an influential Muslim resident of the area.
Touching the feet of elders and speaking to Muslim youngsters, Banerjee says changing sides would make no difference. “I am a family member of each and every person of the constituency. They know me very well. They know I have been with them for the last 10 years, and have never believed in caste, creed or religion. For me, this is not political campaigning, but revisiting my family,” he adds.
During his march through the village, a few Muslim men wave black flags at him, with his supporters chanting Vande Mataram and the BJP’s political slogans. Banerjee maintains calm, and asks his supporters not to get into any confrontation and move on. There are no Jai Sri Ram slogans shouted by BJP supporters here.
Kalyan Ghosh, the TMC candidate from Domjur, has been telling voters that Banerjee is “the other Suvendu” who backstabbed and betrayed CM Mamata Banerjee by joining hands with the BJP. The Muslim-dominated villages of Domjur are plastered with TMC posters.
“They have nothing else to say…,” Banerjee remarks, when asked about the TMC’s charge of him being “the other Suvendu”. “I was there (in the TMC). But look at the way they behaved with me, the way they stopped all my work; they stopped my development work for the people of Bengal and Domjur. Naturally, I had to take a decision. There was some vision I had, (and) I told them about it several times. I was not satisfied. Now, they are campaigning against me…and launching personal attacks. Even Mamata left the INC (Congress) and formed a new party…and then, sometimes she was with the NDA (BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre) and sometimes with the UPA (Congress-led United Progressive Alliance)…everyone wants a comfort zone,” he says.
Banerjee, clearly the tallest leader from Howrah district, has his task cut out. Alongside Domjur, the BJP hopes his influence will swing votes in its favour in the district’s 15 other seats that the party has never won.
In fact, even in the 2019 national elections (when the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats), the party was ahead in just one out of the 16 assembly segments in Howrah, which has a high Muslim population. But BJP leaders say they can win at least seven-eight seats this time. The 16 seats of Howrah vote in third and fourth rounds of the eight-phase elections.
Banerjee, too, believes the BJP has a good chance in Howrah. “You will see the results of Howrah district and other places of Bengal. I will go to other places of the state after the fourth phase. I am sure the BJP will come to power. You have seen what has happened in Nandigram, where the CM herself would lose…So, naturally, we have said we will secure 200 seats (of the state’s 294 assembly constituencies). In Howrah, too, you will see the magic,” Banerjee tells News18.
He turns to Muslim villagers to remind them of the work he has done for them —roads, drains and water pipelines. “They have faith in me,” Banerjee reiterates.
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