New Delhi: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is facing a stiff electoral challenge in two prestige battles — in Nandigram, where she is facing her own protégé Suvendu Adhikari, and in her former constituency Bhabanipur, where she has her home.
To oversee the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s campaign in these key constituencies, Home Minister Amit Shah has deputed two senior central ministers, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Dharmendra Pradhan.
According to Shekhawat, while Banerjee is having a tough time in Nandigram, she has “fled” the Bhabanipur constituency. He is stationed in the area to ensure the defeat of Banerjee’s candidate, Bengal Power Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay.
“First we ensured Mamata fled Bhabanipur. Now, the time is to defeat her candidate from her home constituency,” Shekhawat told ThePrint in an interview.
As a “personal commitment”, the Union water resources minister also promised piped water under the Nal Se Jal scheme to the entire state in two years as soon as the BJP forms the state government.
He also justified BJP’s choice to not project a CM face in the state, saying the party makes this call in states where it hasn’t been in power.
Furthermore, he said restoration of law and order in Bengal will be among the party’s priorities if it comes to power.
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The Bhabanipur battle
Shekhawat has around 35 constituencies to monitor, but he is devoting most of his time to Bhabanipur.
He said the party has deputed several central ministers in Bengal to maximise electoral victory. Each of them has been given 5-6 parliamentary constituencies where they are supervising roughly 30-35 assembly segments.
“As soon as I was given charge of Bhabanipur in December, I challenged Didi in December… if you have done such good work in the state, fight from Bhabanipur and win to send a message to people,” he said.
“But she left Bhabanipur amid fears of defeat. If she has done the work, then why does she fear defeat? People of Bhabanipur have rejected Didi, so she left. Now people will ensure her government’s defeat in the election to send a clear message,” he added.
Bhabanipur has become a prestige battle for both Mamata Banerjee and the BJP. Mamata fought two elections from here. The first was in the landmark 2011 election, when she won 77.46 per cent vote share. In the next 2016 polls, her vote share fell to 48 per cent.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections also came as warning for the CM, when her lead in the Bhabanipur assembly segment was only 3,000 votes and her Trinamool Congress trailed in adjoining Rashbehari constituency by 5,000 votes.
In Bhabanipur, 70 per cent of the electorate is non-Bengali and Mamata was sceptical of her victory in this constituency this time.
Her candidate Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay — who won the 1991 and 1996 elections from Baruipur as a Congress candidate, and then the 2001, 2006 and the 2016 polls from TMC on Rashbehari seat in South Kolkata — is facing BJP’s candidate, film star Rudranil Ghosh, who is considered the ‘Nawazuddin Siddiqui’ of Bengal.
Ghosh was earlier associated with the Trinamool Congress but is now fighting on a BJP ticket to defeat Chattopadhyay.
Bhabanipur will vote on 26 April.
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Nal Se Jal in Bengal two years before national target
Speaking to ThePrint, Shekhawat, who is campaigning aggressively with party candidate Ghosh, also talked about his plans for piped water in the state.
“As soon as I became minister of water resources, we started the Nal Se Jal programme. In 15 months, we have reached (over) 34 per cent connectivity, a jump of over 17 per cent. In 70 years, India laid connection to 3.23 crore households. But in our tenure, we have connected 4 crore more households,” he said.
However, he noted that the penetration is dismal in West Bengal. “Its record is poorest among all states and despite resources provided by the Union government, work has not progressed in Bengal,” he said.
“But I want to say when we form the government, I will ensure connectivity to the entire state is completed in 2022, two years before the national deadline of 2024,” he added.
While the national average for tap water connections in rural households is 37.28 per cent, the same for Bengal is only 8.63 per cent, according to the central drinking department data. The districts of Purulia, Murshidabad and Jhargram have only five per cent connectivity, data shows.
On CM face
Asked why the BJP has not projected a chief ministerial face against Mamata Banerjee and if this is damaging the party’s prospects, the Union minister highlighted that the BJP doesn’t put up a CM face in states where it never had power, or where it was out of office for long.
“In many states, where BJP tried to come to power for the first time or after many years, we never projected a chief ministerial candidate. In Uttar Pradesh, we didn’t project anyone and no one imagined that Yogi Adityanath will become chief minister,” he said.
“We didn’t project a face in Uttarakhand, we didn’t project a face in Maharashtra, where Devendra Fadnavis became chief minister. States where our government is running like Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj ji is CM from three-four terms,” he said.
In Bengal, the CM will be a bhoomi putra (son of the soil).
“People thought we are projecting a chief minister but as Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda have said, the chief minister will be a bhoomi putra of Bengal… There is no doubt about that,” he said.
Asked about the three priorities of BJP if it came to power, Shekhawat said it will be “good governance, restoration of law and order and creation of atmosphere where people can work according to their capabilities”.
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