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BJP bickerings in Alipurduars raise TMC hopes, CAA to remain saffron trump card

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Alipurduars (WB), Mar 29 (PTI) With internal strifes threatening to unsettle the BJP in the Alipurduars Lok Sabha seat, so far considered a saffron citadel, the TMC seems to be banking on the saffron disarray to secure its second victory in the constituency after a decade.

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Riding on the promise of CAA implementation and RSS groundwork among local tribals, the BJP swept the region by winning this ST-reserved seat in 2019 and bagged all seven assembly constituencies under its fold in 2021, including two MLA seats from adjacent districts.

Much seems to have changed in the meanwhile, with internal bickerings gaining momentum within the BJP's local unit after the party decided to replace its sitting MP and Union minister John Barla, with its local MLA and chief whip in the West Bengal assembly, Manoj Tigga, as candidate for the seat.

An aggrieved Barla, a minority community leader holding sway with the local tribes, has so far stayed away from campaigns alleging conspiracy to keep him out.

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Back in 2014, the TMC poached Forward Bloc leader Dasrath Tirkey to establish its political foothold in the constituency. The party hopes to repeat its solitary performance this time around by encashing on BJP's internal tussles and alleged non-performance of the sitting MP.

The BJP won the seat by a record margin of 2.5 lakh votes in 2019 securing 54 per cent of the total votes polled in its favour.

The party had swept seven out of the eight north Bengal Lok Sabha seats that year.

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Alipurduar district, carved out of Jalpaiguri in 2014, is dominated by tribals who work in more than 100 tea estates bordering Bhutan to the west.

"This time too, we will win the seat with a record margin. People here vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his development work. The implementation of CAA too will have a positive impact in the area," Tigga told PTI.

The district, which also shares a border with Bangladesh, has a considerable refugee population, who reportedly erupted with celebrations on March 13 when the CAA rules were notified.

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Asked to comment on Barla's controversial demand for a Union Territory in 2021, Tigga said, "It was the opinion of an individual and not the view of the party." Minorities have been known to play a significant role in the outcome of the elections in Alipurduars where Hindus comprise 65 per cent of the local population, while Christians make up 19 per cent, followed by 11 per cent Muslims and three per cent Buddhists.

The constituency has around 17 lakh voters, with around 30 and 25 per cent of the electorate being SC and ST populations respectively. The rural-urban vote share in the segment is around 82.5-17.5 per cent.

Pollsters attributed BJP's victory in 2019 to Barla's reach among both Hindus and Christians. With him out of the fray this time, observers opine that the services of Barla's followers could cost the party dearly.

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"Discontentment among Birla’s supporters may have an adverse impact. But CAA would obfuscate all negatives stacked against the BJP across North Bengal," a senior BJP leader argued.

The TMC, on its part, seems to be relying on the popularity of its district president and Rajya Sabha MP Prakash Chik Baraik to turn the tide in its favour.

"We are confident of winning the seat since people here have tasted the fruits of development which the state government has ushered in," Baraik told PTI.

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TMC leader Sourav Chakraborty claimed that the party would also reap benefits from the "failed" promise of land rights by the BJP in 2019.

"The BJP earned people's trust last time riding on the promise of NRC and CAA. The Assam NRC experience has now left them disillusioned. They also realised that the CAA rules are nothing more than a farce," he said.

Alipurduar continues to simmer with agitations of closed tea garden workers, many of whom are dependent on the welfare schemes of the state. Both TMC and BJP actively woo this voters' bloc.

Local economy is also dependent on wildlife tourism, with the district being home to the Buxa Tiger Reserve and the Dooars region in the Himalayan foothills.

Once a fortress of the Left Front ally RSP, the Jalpaiguri-Alipurduar region continues to offer considerable support to the Left despite its exit from state power in 2011. Tigga's victory in 2016 marked the switching of people's loyalty from red to saffron. Congress-backed RSP candidate Mili Oraon said, "I am confident of regaining our party’s stronghold. The people have seen the difference between the Left and others." PTI PNT SMY NN

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