KOLKATA: The residents of the former 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in Cooch Behar district, who formally became Indian citizens on August 1, 2015, and later cast their votes twice in 2016 -- first in the Assembly polls, and then in the Lok Sabha bypoll will for the first time, be voting to play a role in government formation at the Centre.
Despite visible signs of development, the dwellers have been complaining of a dearth of jobs, while many of those who chose to migrate to Cooch Behar from the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh territory are yet to get their promised land and are forced to stay in detention camps.
On April 11, when the two northern Bengal seats Cooch Behar and Alipurduar go to the hustings, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal would be banking on its organisational strength and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's popularity to checkmate a resurgent BJP and traditional powerhouse Left Front.
From lush green tea gardens to former Bangladesh enclaves, Cooch Behar stands out for its topographical diversity. Erstwhile ruling Left Front partner All India Forward Bloc had a stranglehold over the seat from 1977 to 2009, winning it ten times at a stretch.
The AIFB's undefeated run came to an end in 2014, when the Trinamool snatched the seat, and repeated its success in a by-poll two years later after the death of the sitting MP, Renuka Sinha.
Though the AIFB finished second in 2014, the BJP emerged as a surprise runner up in 2016 by bagging over 28 per cent of the votes. The once formidable AIFB came up a poor third managing a pathetic 6.49 per cent votes, with its candidate forfeiting the security deposit.
This time, the Trinamool has nominated a former All India Forward Bloc leader and ex minister in the Left Front government Paresh Adhikari, hoping to grab a slice of the Left's captive votes.
The BJP nominee, Nisith Pramanik, is also a turncoat, having been a youth Trinamool leader till the party expelled him last year.
The AIFB has nominated Gobinda Roy, while Piya Roy Chowdhury is fighting on a Congress ticket.
Organised tea garden workers and their dependents form a sizeable chunk of voters in Cooch Behar and about 50 per cent of the electorate in Alipurduar.
Just as Cooch Behar was once an impregnable AIFB fort, similarly the Revolutionary Socialist Party held sway in Alipurduar, winning all ten elections between 1977 and 2009.
The Trinamool's Dasrath Tirkey captured the seat in 2014, gaining 29.46 per cent of the valid votes, while the RSP's Manohar Tirkey got 27.72 per cent, the BJP's Birendra Orao finished a close third securing 27.30 per cent of the votes.
This time, Dasrath Tirkey is again contesting as a Trinamool candidate, RSP has nominated Mili Orao, and John Barla is the BJP nominee. The Congress, which got about 9.5 per cent of the votes five years back, has fielded Mohanlal Basumata. Trinamool holds six of the seven assembly segments under Alipurduar, with Madarihat electing a BJP nominee in 2016.
Observers feel resentment over wages and a lack of land rights for tea garden workers, could be crucial factors in the coming elections in both constituencies, particularly Alipurduar.
The BJP, which has put in place a high-pitch campaign in the two seats by roping in its heavyweight leaders, is hoping to combat Trinamool's organisational might by consolidating the disgruntled tea garden workers, besides playing on the resentment among the former enclave dwellers.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah have led the BJP campaign, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held multiple rallies for Trinamool contestants, while CPI-M state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra has been the star speaker for the Left Front candidates.
Statistically speaking, a total of 18,10,660 electors (941,479 male, 869,175 female and 6 others) are eligible to choose their representative for Cooch Behar in 2010 polling stations from among 11 candidates.
In Alipurduar, 16,43,616 voters (831,717 male, 811,876 female and 23 others) have the mandate to elect their MP in 1,834 polling stations. The votes would be counted on May 23 -- like in the rest of the country.