The 2021 Union Budget had more than its fair share of goodies for all the poll-bound states, including West Bengal. However, for Bengal, the budget chose to direct its focus primarily on North Bengal, which already happens to be a BJP bastion.
One might ask why is the BJP targeting an area where it has already solidified its presence instead of an area where it is yet to make inroads? To which, one of the probable answers is that the BJP is playing a classic ‘Sicilian Defence’ opening.
Those familiar which chess would know that the ‘Sicilian Defence’ is one the most aggressive forms of defensive openings in the game whereby the player not only protects the centre of the board but also leaves the sides to attack.
...and this is exactly how the BJP is trying to tackle North Bengal, especially the tea workers, who have an influence over at least 15 assembly seats. The BJP aims to win at least 50 out of the 54 seats in North Bengal.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced Rs 25,000-crore worth of road projects and the creation of 675 kms of National Highway. She further allotted Rs.1000 crore for the development and betterment of tea workers, especially women and their children in Assam and West Bengal.
BJP Going on The Defensive
The reason behind BJP’s defensive play can be attributed to two major factors. The first big factor here is Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung withdrawing support from the BJP. The saffron party’s sweep in North Bengal during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is widely attributed to Gurung’s support and in turn, the Gorkhas, who have an influence over most of the seats in the area.
With Gurung now pledging allegiance to the Trinamool Congress, the BJP is left without a formidable ally in the region who is as influential as Gurung. Although it is being said that BJP’s alliance with the Gorkha National Liberation Front can prove to be a powerful combination.
The other reason here is the case of tea workers in the region. Both the TMC and the BJP have been fighting to win over the Tea workers because of their influence in 15 assembly constituencies. Tea workers have been constantly demanding a hike in their wages, as well as land rights. Darjeeling’s BJP MP Raju Bista has been attacking the Mamata Banerjee government over the issue regularly.
"If the Mamata Banerjee administration was sincere about the tea garden workers she should have met their demand for giving land rights. The workers never demanded houses because they would have got houses anyway under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna. The old discriminatory Plantation Labour Act has been scrapped after we pushed it. New labour laws have been passed by the Centre and this would ensure minimum wages for the workers which were their primary demand." - Raju Bista, BJP MP, Darjeeling
The Terai Indian Planters’ Association (TIPA), accused the Tea Board of India under the Union Commerce Ministry of delaying the release of subsidies to tea-estates in Bengal. They have also questioned the role of Bista, who is also a member of the Tea Board. Reportedly, this is the first time that a North Bengal tea association has questioned the performance of the board and the MP.
Taking a page from political observers who claim that a wage hike can be advantageous to any party, the Mamata Banerjee government not only gave a 15 percent interim hike to the daily wages of the tea workers from Rs. 176 to Rs. 202, but also handed over allotment letters for houses to around 4,600 tea garden workers under the Cha Sundari Housing Scheme, shortly before the union budget.
Staff and sub-staff who work in the tea estates would also receive a hike in their gross salaries.
This decision was taken after a tripartite meeting between the state’s labour department, tea associations and tea trade unions.
The Might of the Woman Voter
Women voters have always played a very crucial role in Bengal politics. They were an important factor behind Mamata Banerjee ousting the Left government in 2011 and have been by her side in the 2016 elections too.
However, that wasn’t the case in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections where a large chunk of women voters had sided with the BJP, and the results spoke for themselves. The BJP would be looking to capitalise on this swing.
It is also interesting to note that according to 2016 Election Commission statistics, women voter turnout had exceeded their male counterparts in Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala (the same states going to polls this year). However, this is often attributed to a lower enrolment of women in the voters’ list compared to men.
The BJP through the union budget is trying to hit more than one target (state) with a single arrow. In Bengal, women voter’s turnout has been higher than men’s turnout for two consecutive years.
According to the Election Commission’s final voters list for Bengal, women voters now stand at 49 per cent of the total electorate. For the BJP, it would be easier to try to woo Mamata’s female vote bank than her minority vote bank, and hence they set aside Rs 24,435 crore the Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry, a 16.31 per cent increase from the previous year.
Political experts have argued that this renewed focus on women comes in the backdrop of statistics that it was in fact women voters that helped swing the vote in NDA’s favour in Bihar.
If politics is anything like chess, then the BJP have certainly established their ‘Sicilian Defense’, using every opportunity they can to try and checkmate Mamata Banerjee.
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