In Bengal's Congress heartland, TMC is losing favour

'Ai baare poribortoner poriborton hobay (people will change the government brought on the promise of change),' says a voter.

 |  IST  |  7-minute read |   17-04-2016
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As the campaign for 56 constituencies in north and central Bengal came to an end on Friday (April 15) – the vote for this second phase, in which 1.3 crore people are expected to participate, takes place on Sunday (April 17) – the stories of two possible reversals may well encapsulate the shifting of political tides taking place during this entire election.

On Friday evening, Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate Soumitra Ray wound up his exhausting six-week-long campaign with a brief speech on the main street of his Chanchal constituency, stopped by Bishtupur village to commiserate with those whose thatched houses had been burnt down by a stray fire, and then returned to his ancestral home in nearby Harishchandrapur to discuss the campaign with his closest aides and friends.

Someone brought a guitar. Ray, an internationally renowned Bengali pop-folk singer, likes to encourage local talent, and soon the strains of "Aguner Porosh Moni..." the haunting Rabindranath Tagore song filled the air.

Ray is also one of a handful of artistes whom TMC leader and outgoing chief minister Mamata Banerjee has given tickets to fight this election. This is his second attempt in politics, having lost a bid at the Maldaha Uttar parliamentary seat in 2014.

Barely a 100km away, in the heart of Malda district, TMC candidate from English Bazar, Krishnendu Narayan Choudhury, was also winding up his election campaign, but in a very different style. He had organised a rally in the heart of the town, which he described to this reporter as “being so big, that it created a traffic jam for two hours”.

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This is Choudhury’s fourth attempt at becoming an MLA – he has switched sides between the Congress and the TMC a couple of times – and in his yellow-and-black Adidas track suit, rings on at least four fingers of each hand and dyed-black hair, he looks quite the man of power he is reputed to be.

“I am less interested in going to the Lok Sabha because it is as an MLA or minister that you have the most influence. I have brought Rs 600 crore worth of projects to my district,” he says.

tmc_041716022954.jpg "The mood has changed in favour of the ‘jot’ (Congress-Left alliance)," says a voter. 

But step out of Choudhury’s very impressive election office (“it has an IT room and a gym on top,” he tells me), and the first sign of a change of mood is apparent around the corner, at the stunningly beautiful Kali temple.

The priest, between invocations to the goddess on behalf of us mortals gathered in front of her and dispensing "prasad", informed me that West Bengal – or at least Malda district – was getting ready for another “poriborton”, or change.

Ai baare poribortoner poriborton hobay (this time people will change the government that was brought on the promise of change),” he says, referring to Mamata’s slogan five years ago that captured the people’s anger against the Left Front’s 34-year-old rule which led to its ouster.

One worshipper cannot help pipping in. “That is because the mood has changed in favour of the ‘jot’, the alliance between the Left Front and the Congress.”

The priest lowers his voice, and adds conspiratorially, “I used to be a member of the Left, but now in this position, as a priest, it is not good for me to do both.”

No doubt the goddess is listening to this conversation. Considering the priest goes back to ministering to his other faithfuls with perfect equanimity, the thought crosses my mind, no doubt, she approves.

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Around the corner of the Kali temple is the office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), complete with pictures of Lenin with outstretched hand and even one of Cuban leader Fidel Castro on the first floor. The office will soon fill up with booth workers, in charge of each of the 251 booths in the English Bazar constituency, who will listen carefully to the strategy that district CPI(M) secretary Ambar Mitra has prepared for them.

So here’s an interesting twist to the English Bazar election: The Left-Congress combine has refused to put up a candidate against Choudhury, but is supporting Independent candidate Nihar Ranjan Ghosh.

The first element in Mitra’s plan on how to get out and get the vote is fairly simple: "Shaukal, shaukal vote dao" (Vote as early as you can. Booths are open from 7am-6pm). "Nijer vote nije dao" (Cast your own vote, yourself. This one a warning that there may be an attempt to rig ballot boxes.) And, "Vote loot rukay dao" (Stop the looting of votes.)

Mitra says he won't be surprised if some poll violence takes place. Hours before the voting started on April 17, four crude bombs were found in Malda.

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The fact is, undivided Malda district (convering two parliamentary constituencies, 12 Assembly constituencies plus another two, now in Murshidabad district) remains the "karmabhoomi" of the former Indira Gandhi confidante Ghani Khan Choudhury, or Barkatda as he was fondly known. And although he died several years ago, his name invokes both passion and power from across the grave.

"Yeh Congress ki mitti hai,” is a well-worn cliché about Malda, the implication being that it is impossible to storm this bastion. But Choudhury had, the last time for the TMC, and Mitra realises he will have to mobilise all the party cadres on the ground to help turn the wind in Nihar Ghosh’s sails.

English Bazar has clearly become a cynosure of several eyes. The strength of the Congress’ continuing influence is enough to irritate Choudhury (“why don’t these Congressmen do something on their own? Both MPs from this district, Mausam Noor and Abu Hasem Choudhury are part of Barkatda’s family,” he says), but surely it is the fact of the unusual alliance between the Left and the Congress that arouses the greatest interest.

Nurul Islam, suspended by the TMC from heading the employees union of North Bengal State Transport Union, points out that the partnership was inevitable. “When the snake is coming to bite you, you don’t check if the snake is black or white,” he says.

As for why the Left and Congress have picked Nihar Ghosh, the middle-aged Bengali businessman himself concedes it may have something to do with the fact that he reduced water and municipality taxes when he was chairman of the municipality, that his “door is always open”, and because he has twice defeated the “arrogant” Choudhury in municipality elections.

“This ‘jot’ is not simply between the parties, but between the people. Yes, we are bringing the Left back, the same Left Front that we threw out five years ago, but this time it is different. This time the Left will be in alliance with the Congress, who will temper them,” Ghosh says.

Back in the Chanchal constituency, the mild-mannered Ray believes he is getting a real boost. He says he has visited each of the 228 booths in his constituency. He refuses to criticise the Left-Congress partnership as being hypocritical and opportunistic – both parties have been at loggerheads in the past – because he doesn’t believe in “negative politics”. He is very careful about the money the TMC has given him to spend.

Ray’s chief rival, Asif Mehboob from the Congress, is widely disliked. His father was an MLA before him, but the younger Mehboob hardly came to his constituency after he was elected. Questions about him in town and village are usually met with disparaging as well as severely uncomplimentary answers, including by Muslims.

It is a constituency with an approximately two lakh electorate, of which 62 per cent is Muslim. Is this enough to turn the tide against the pony-tailed and silver-haired Ray?

That depends on who you ask, of course. It seems that Ray was being edged out by a nexus of corrupt ex-officials, ruling politicians, reigning officials and a mafia that insists on a cut from the lucrative trucking industry, smuggling of cough syrup to Bangladesh as well as construction contracts. Ray is a wonderful man, it was being put out, but does he make the cut?

But now it seems, on the eve of this crucial, second phase in West Bengal’s election, a possible reversal in this Congress heartland in north-central Bengal is not beyond the realm of possibility. Just like English Bazar next door, it is said that Chanchal’s constituents, fed up with paying small and big bribes to those in power, also believe it is time for a change.

(Full disclosure : Soumitra Ray is a personal friend of this writer.)


Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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