Can Shotgun fire make BJP khaamosh in Asansol?

Can Shotgun fire make BJP khaamosh in Asansol?

ASANSOL/ RANIGANJ: In Bengal’s second largest city, the fight is between a charismatic ‘outsider-turned-Bengali’ and a local returning to his roots.
‘Bihari babu’ Shatrughan Sinha is TMC’s sitting MP, well-remembered for films like Kaala Patthar (1979) that’s again playing in the constituency’s colliery belt. His opponent Surendrajeet Singh Ahluwalia is a seasoned politician who won Darjeeling seat for BJP in 2014, and is the party’s sitting MP from Bardhaman-Durgapur.
Both Sinha and Singh are hoping to win over Asansol’s diverse electorate comprising factory workers, coal miners and scrap dealers from Bihar and UP, and an increasingly assertive 48% Bengali-speaking population.
This mix includes adivasis and SCs, who make up about 43% of the population in Barabani assembly segment and 39% in Jamuria. TMC won both assembly seats with handsome margins in 2021. In Asansol Uttar assembly segment, state minister Moloy Ghatak also won by a huge margin. A significant 15% of the Lok Sabha seat’s voters are minorities.

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Plethora Of Problems
The constituency is beset with many problems, including drinking water scarcity, despite the much-touted ‘Ghar Ghar Jal’ project. The shortage gets worse in summer and tribal and rural areas bear the brunt of it. Factories have been closed for years, causing unemployment and forcing workers to seek jobs outside the state.
In a constituency where coal miners play a decisive role, illegal mining in abandoned collieries and illegal sand mining on Damodar’s banks are crucial issues too. Thousands of miners here dig coal out of illegal narrow pits called rat-hole mines. So, just like in 2022, when Sinha gave TMC its first win in Asansol through a by-poll, the party has been screening Kaala Patthar, with a Bengali message tagged on in Shotgun’s (Sinha) own voice.
Star Power Won’t Be Enough
In 2019, BJP won Asansol by a margin of 2 lakh votes over TMC. Sinha turned the tables in 2022 when he won the by-poll for Trinamool by over 3 lakh votes. But he knows he needs more than his film star image to repeat the feat. “Voters here are aware of my work, my culture and importantly, my spotless image,” he says.
Sinha claims he devotes a lot of time to his constituency: “I come here each month, sometimes thrice a month, and stay for 15 days at a stretch…I can proudly say now that I have three homes – in Patna, another in Mumbai and third in Asansol. No one calls me outsider anymore.”
Shotgun remains a crowd-puller, but TMC’s campaign managers know star power won’t suffice “against seasoned Ahluwalia,” as TMC district chief and Pandabeswar MLA, Naren Chakraborty, puts it. So, they are focusing on door-to-door campaign on the state’s social security schemes.
Stats Don’t Worry Ahluwalia
Sitting in his hotel room after a gruelling roadshow with state BJP president Sukanta Majumdar, Ahluwalia scoffs at Sinha’s victory margin. “The 3 lakh vote margin is a misnomer. Remember 2022 was a by-election where the state govt enjoys an advantage. Also, Trinamool resorted to widespread post-poll violence in 2021 and many of our voters were scared. Not this time. Election Commission is keeping a hawk’s eye.”
Ahluwalia last contested from Asansol on a Congress ticket in 1998. “Remember that was the last time Congress garnered a respectable tally in Asansol,” he says with a chuckle.
There’s A Third Contender
Besides Sinha and Singh, there’s a CPI(M) candidate in the fray. The party trade union had a strong base in Asansol until Trinamool began sweeping the polls and BJP emerged as its main adversary. This time, CPI(M) has fielded Jahanara Khan, two-time MLA from Jamuria. “The poorer tribals and minorities in the rural areas are suffering from job loss and drinking water scarcity. But both Trinamool Congress and BJP are concerned with optics,” says Khan.
Some Wrinkles Remain
Meanwhile, BJP and Trinamool have other problems to iron out. Ever since central agencies called up local MLA Moloy Ghatak, he has maintained a low profile in the campaign, although party insiders say he is the man behind the show in the district.
In the saffron house, ‘local boy’ Jitendra Tiwari – TMC’s Asansol mayor who joined BJP – is said to be miffed after being denied the Lok Sabha ticket. But he says he will ensure BJP’s win: “In the by-election, TMC ran a false campaign, saying they would run the state even if BJP won. There was muscle flexing too. Nothing of the kind will happen this time.”

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