Once a Congress stronghold, the Raiganj Lok Sabha seat is set to witness a four-cornered contest this time, with the candidates of major political parties in the state pitted against each other in a neck-and-neck battle. Since 1952, Congress candidates have won the seat 13 times including the two terms for party stalwart Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi in 1999 and 2004. His wife Deepa Dasmunsi also represented the constituency in Parliament for a term. The former Congress bastion in Uttar Dinajpur district has also sent CPI(M) candidates to Parliament four times including the outgoing one.
CPI(M)'s Mohammed Salim, who had won the seat in Uttar Dinajpur district in 2014 by a razor-thin margin of 1,634 votes, seems to have an uphill task this time to retain the seat. In the 2014 general election, the CPI(M) candidate got 3,17,515 votes and the Congress secured 3,15,881 votes.
The BJP and the TMC came third and fourth bagging 2,03,131 and 1,92,698 votes respectively. Congress leaders later said the fight between the party and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) had helped the CPI(M) candidate win the seat in the last Lok Sabha election.
Besides the Murshidabad seat, Raiganj had been the bone of contention between the Congress and the CPI(M) in the seat-sharing talks in the state that did not materialise. The CPI(M) had won only Raiganj and Murshidabad in 2014. Between 2014 and 2019, the BJP has gained strength in the state eating into the vote share of the Left Front and the Congress, as evident from the 2018 rural election results.
In the three-tier panchayat polls, the TMC had won hands down. The BJP had come a distant second relegating the Congress to the third spot. The LF nominees won only a few seats. The TMC has also poached many opposition leaders into its fold over the years. The Congress MLA from Islampur, 64-year-old Kanaialal Agarwal, is one such.
The TMC has fielded Agarwal, who was once a follower of Dasmunsi, in the Lok Sabha seat. Raiganj Lok Sabha seat is one of the few seats in the state from where the party has never won. Agarwal said he is confident of winning the seat for two reasons- opposition parties do not have a support base in the constituency and the development work done by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
However, shifting of the proposed AIIMS from Raiganj to Kalyani in south Bengal at the insistence of Banerjee is an issue, Congress candidate Deepa Dasmunsi is banking on. It was Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi's dream to set up the AIIMS to ensure better healthcare for local people, she said.
Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi had suffered a stroke in 2008 when he was a Union minister and gone into a vegetative state. He died in 2017. Deepa had won from the seat in 2009. At a recent rally, AICC president Rahul Gandhi had promised to set up one AIIMS at Raiganj if voted to power.
Agarwal, however, claimed that the AIIMS is no longer an issue here after the chief minister set up the Raiganj Medical College and Hospital. CPI(M) nominee Mohammed Salim has quite an outstanding performance in the 16th Lok Sabha with 85 per cent attendance.
He has also spent Rs 20.50 crore out of the Rs 21.51 crore sanctioned in MPLAD fund for Raiganj during his tenure. But, he has been accused of being absent in his constituency for long periods of time.
"We have not seen much of our MP in the last five years," says Tapan Das, a resident of Raiganj. The senior CPI(M) leader, however, denied the charge.
"Probably I am one of the most accessible MPs in the country. People have always got me during their need," he said. He said he is hopeful of retaining the seat as he has worked hard for the constituency during the past five years.
BJP candidate Debasree Chaudhuri, a familiar face at the BJP state headquarters in Kolkata, asserted that it is imperative that central forces are deployed in each of the 1,623 booths in the seat to ensure a peaceful election. Coochbehar, where polling was held in the first phase on April 11, witnessed widespread manipulations and strong-arm tactics by the ruling TMC, she told PTI.
"People have seen the Congress and the Left becoming irrelevant. They have also suffered TMC atrocities. So the natural choice for them will be the BJP," Chaudhuri claimed. The death of two youths at Daribhit School in Islampur in September 2018 in alleged police firing while protesting the appointment of an Urdu teacher has found a prominent place in the saffron party's campaign in the constituency, which has a sizeable minority population. BJP president Amit Shah at a rally had raked up the issue to allege minority appeasement by the TMC government.
There are 14 candidates including five Independents in the fray in the constituency, which will go to vote on April 18 in the second phase. There are a total of 15.99 lakh voters in the constituency.
(With inputs from agencies.)