Trinamool, CPM use poll arithmetic to sway rural voters

Kolkata, June 8 (IANS) With the results of the Howrah Lok Sabha bypoll coming out ahead of next month's crucial rural body (panchayat) elections in West Bengal, the major contestants - the ruling Trinamool Congress and opposition CPI-M led left Front - are busy tweaking the poll arithmetic in their own way to sway the village voters.

While Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool retained the Howrah Lok Sabha seat, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) claimed that it has gained in vote share and the poll result should come as a lesson for the ruling party.

Trinamool candidate Prasun Banerjee, a former international footballer, defeated CPI-M's Sridip Bhattacharya by over 27,000 votes. Bhattacharya, a mechanical engineer-turned party wholetimer, got 3,99,258 votes.

Chief Minister Banerjee, describing the Howrah fight as "very tough", claimed that the result had strengthened her party and would help it to sail through the panchayat polls.

Although the firebrand leader expressed satisfaction with the outcome as the Trinamool had fought the election alone, after severing ties with the Congress last year, a close look showed that her party had lost two of the seven assembly segments constituting the parliamentary seat.

In the 2011 assembly elections, when the Trinamool and the Congress fought jointly, the former had won all the seven segments, maintaining a whopping lead of around 1.85 lakh votes.

"Earlier, we fought in alliance with the Congress. But this time we have gone it alone... The people of Howrah have said a resounding yes to us. They have told us 'ekla cholo re' (walk alone)," a visibly happy Banerjee told the media.

In spite of all her rhetoric, one cannot wish away the fact that for the first time since its debacle in the assembly elections two years back, the Left has improved on its vote share.

In all previous democratic exercises - be it assembly by-polls or municipal elections - the Left Front's vote percentage had slid even below its 2011 figures.

As recently as February, the Left's vote share in the by-polls to three assembly seats - Rejinagar, Nalahati and Englishbazar - had dipped from six to 12 percent, compared to the 2011 figures.

But the Left Front can take heart from the results in Howrah, where it not only arrested the erosion in its base, but also succeeded in marginally raising its poll percentage. Whereas it secured only around 37 percent of the popular mandate in the assembly polls from the area, the figure improved to 41.7 percent in the by-elections.

But on the flip side, despite the 4.7 percent upward swing in its vote share this time, the Left Front fell short of the 44.25 percent it had bagged in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, an indication it still has to cover quite a distance.

Trinamool's victorious candidate, Prasun Banerjee, got 44.68 percent of the vote share, about 2.5 percent more than CPI-M's Bhattacharya.

CPI-M leader Surjya Kanta Mishra saw encouraging signs in the result.

"I don't think it will bolster Trinamool's confidence, rather it is a positive sign for us," said Mishra.

He said the by-poll result should come as a lesson for the ruling Trinamool Congress.

"Despite their terror tactics, we have increased our vote share. It is high time they realised they cannot continue walking the terror path," said Mishra, also leader of the opposition in the state assembly.

Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had bagged about 37,000 votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and over 55,000 in the assembly polls two years later, opted out of the race after announcing a candidate.

The Congress and the CPI-M have been claiming that the BJP withdrew from the contest to help out the Trinamool, which has vehemently denied the accusation.

(Mithun Dasgupta can be contacted at mithun.d@ians.in)

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