On May 19, India finally finished voting to elect its 543-seat lower house of parliament - a mammoth exercise spread out over 7 phases in 6 weeks. Most political commentators agree that this has been an election quite unlike any other in the country’s recent history, with the incumbent BJP going for the jugular on the back of a campaign built on divisiveness, even hate, knowing full well that victory would leave them in prime position over the next 5 years and beyond, to fundamentally recast the idea of India.
Nowhere was the abrasive nature of the campaign, the scars and the bruises more evident than the state of West Bengal, where the dominant party was forced to defend its turf against an audaciously aggressive assault by the BJP, in a state where previously it had no presence to speak of. Here we follow the journalist Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay of The Hindu and Frontline as he covers the last 2 phases, when things came to a head. And it was not pretty:
In many of the 17 constituencies in the Trinamool Congress’ bastion that vote in the last two phases, development work may not fetch the party votes as blatant corruption and silent terror are forcing its committed supporters to look elsewhere. In many of these constituencies, development, terror and corruption at the local level are inseparably intertwined. People are faced with the dilemma of whether to vote for the development work done by the Mamata Banerjee government or to vote against the terror tactics adopted by her party machinery at the grass-roots level.
Like in the earlier five phases, the fight between the Trinamool and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming phases is not just for the seat of power at the Centre but also as a show of strength in the State. The Lok Sabha election is seen as a precursor to the 2021 Assembly elections, and so local issues are as crucial a deciding factor as national ones. While there is strong ground-level support for the BJP, in many places the support is more on account of an anti-Trinamool sentiment prevailing at the grass-roots level than because of an out-of-the-ordinary pro-Narendra Modi wave. In seats where the Muslim population is relatively high as in the districts bordering Bangladesh, a marked polarisation along communal lines has undoubtedly taken place. But the only way the BJP hopes to make gains in such places is through a split in the Muslim vote among the Trinamool, the Left and the Congress.
It is perhaps this thinking that prompted Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee to make an unlikely appeal to Left supporters: “My Left brothers and sisters, please do not waste your vote by casting it for the Left.”
Phase 6 (May 12)
Tamluk, Kanthi (Purbo Medinipur)
One of the most glaring examples of development and terror coexisting is in the region in and around Nandigram in the Tamluk Lok Sabha constituency in Purbo Medinipur district. The shadow of the violent and prolonged anti-land acquisition agitation spearheaded by Mamata Banerjee in 2007 still looms large over the region. There is no scope for opposition parties to assert their presence, and the majority of the Left workers and supporters who were forced to flee their homes have still not been able to return to their damaged houses. On the other hand, there has been remarkable development in the region after the Trinamool wrested power from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2011. There are hospitals, schools, better roads and other amenities, but there is also a perceptible fear among the local people, which refuses to go away.
In Bhangabaera village, a new bridge is under construction, but a few hundred metres away stand destroyed houses belonging to Left supporters, which they were forced to flee 12 years ago. In Nandigram town, the CPI(M) office, which was set on fire in 2007, was opened amid much publicity and joy on April 7, but a few days later it was closed again. All that remained there were a few red flags fluttering helplessly in a gutted building. In fact, there is a palpable sense of unease among the people even when they talk about the CPI(M).
This silent terror found violent expression in the 2018 panchayat elections when opposition candidates were not allowed to file their nomination papers. Krishna Pramani, 89, of Kashipur village said the local body election was a “day of sorrow” in his life. “I have not missed a single election in my life since Independence. But this time they [Trinamool goons] did not allow me to vote,” said Pramani, a steadfast Left supporter.
The resentment against the ruling dispensation is strong among sections of the people, but there is not enough opposition movement at the ground level to dislodge the powerful Adhikari family, who reigns supreme in Purbo Medinipur. Suvendu Adhikari was a two-time Trinamool MP from Tamluk before he stepped down to become the State Transport Minister. His cousin Dibyendu Adhikari, the sitting MP from Tamluk, succeeded him. Suvendu’s father, Sisir Adhikari, will be looking to defend his Kanthi Lok Sabha seat to win a third consecutive term. Although the Left won three of the seven Assembly segments in Tamluk in the 2016 Assembly elections, its presence has been on the decline. The BJP is not strong enough to take on the Trinamool in Tamluk and Kanthi.
Medinipur, Jhargram, Ghatal (Paschim Medinipur)
In Paschim Medinipur district, the story is a little different. If in Purbo Medinipur development and terror exist side by side, in Pashchim Medinipur it is development that freed the people from the terror of Maoists. But the Trinamool failed to hold on to the support of a large section of the people mainly because of the corruption at the grass-roots level of the party and the arrogance of its local leaders. A resident of Lalgarh, a place once synonymous with the Maoist movement, tried to explain what was alienating the people from the ruling party and making them lean towards the BJP in spite of evident development. “Suppose someone feeds you a sumptuous meal and then does something that makes you want to throw it all up. That is the problem with the Trinamool here. There is development but no love,” he said. Lalgarh falls in the Jhargram seat.
In fact, surprisingly, many parts of Jangalmahal (the contiguous forest area of Purulia, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram districts), which once gave unwavering support to the Trinamool and where the development work is most visible, are now seen to be shifting away from the ruling party. The disenchantment is particularly evident among the younger generation, whose aspirations have grown with the development of the region. “There are no jobs,” said Biltu Dutta, 21, who is studying in a government college in Goaltore.
In the Jhargram seat, the resentment against the local Trinamool leadership found expression in the 2018 panchayat elections, where the BJP pulled off a surprise by winning around 41 per cent of the votes. The interesting thing is that the BJP hardly had any presence here before that. In Naedabohra village, which was once a Maoist stronghold, the BJP swept the local elections. “We were all Trinamool supporters until recently but grew tired of its terror and corruption; now we are all in the BJP camp,” said, a local resident, Ashok Pandey. The villagers agree that there has been a lot of development, but that has been offset by corruption. The BJP really had little to do with its rise here.
The Trinamool’s attitude turned out to be its undoing. Although the contest in Jhargram is expected to be between the BJP’s Kunar Hembram and the Trinamool’s Beerbaha Soren, the presence of the CPI(M)’s firebrand tribal leader Debalina Hembram in the fray cannot be ignored.
Another important development that can go against the Trinamool in Jhargram is that a section of the Kurmi vote has shifted away from the ruling party. Kurmis, who account for more than 30 percent of the electorate, have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status. This is opposed by the powerful tribal body the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana (BJMP). Trinamool candidate Birbaha Soren’s husband, Rabin Tudu, is an influential BJMP leader.
In the Medinipur seat, the Trinamool’s heavyweight candidate and former Cabinet Minister Manash Bhunia has to contend with not only the anti-incumbency factor but also vicious faction feuds in his party that are strengthening the BJP. Bhunia’s appeal to voters at an election rally in Keshiary is an indication of the tough situation he finds himself in: “If we have done something wrong, then be angry with me and Paresh [Keshiary MLA Paresh Murmu]. But please do not move away from Mamata Banerjee.” His main rival is State BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
Ghatal is considered one of the safe seats for the Trinamool. The party’s sitting MP, the film star Deepak Adhikari (Dev), does not have to bank on his star power to win this time. The residents have expressed satisfaction with the development work done in the region, although Dev’s attendance record in Parliament is among the poorest.
In Purulia, too, it is a story of development and violence existing together. The BJP, which has been organising itself in the district since around 2016, is today in a position to pose a strong challenge to the Trinamool. In the 2018 panchayat elections, even in the face of widespread rigging allegedly by the ruling party, the BJP managed to win around 36 per cent of the seats in the district. For the past one year, Purulia has been witnessing intense political violence and killings, triggered by the Trinamool’s call for an “opposition-free Purulia”. According to the BJP, six of its workers have been killed in the violence.
The BJP candidate, Jyotirmoy Mahato, feels the violence perpetrated by the Trinamool is an act of desperation in the face of defeat. “After losing here, Abhishek Banerjee [Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and the second most powerful leader in the party], who is in charge of the district, could not accept defeat and so he tried to establish a reign of terror here, which has further alienated the people,” said Mahato. The sitting MP, Mriganka Mahato, is the Trinamool’s candidate.
Bankura and Bishnupur
Bankura and Bishnupur constituencies in Bankura district are poised for a close contest, mainly between the Trinamool and the BJP. Perhaps sensing trouble in the Bankura seat, Mamata Banerjee shifted the sitting MP, Moon Moon Sen, to fight from Asansol constituency and replaced her with Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee, the wily veteran of Bengal politics. Although Mukherjee’s main contender is the BJP’s Subhash Sarkar, the CPI(M)’s veteran and popular leader Amiya Patra cannot be underestimated. Even though the CPI(M) is still weak in this erstwhile red bastion, Patra enjoys huge respect and popularity in Bankura.
In the Bishnupur seat, however, the Trinamool is fighting not only an upbeat BJP led by the sitting MP Saumitra Khan, who recently defected to the BJP, but also fierce infighting within the party.
“A large number of workers have either joined the BJP after Saumitra da left or stopped working for the Trinamool. All the old-timers are being snubbed to keep the new members happy,” said Tanmay Patra, a former Trinamool activist from Bishnupur.
Phase 7 (May 19)
Basirhat and Barasat (North 24 Paraganas)
The Basirhat Lok Sabha seat along the India-Bangladesh border witnesses an interesting contest. While polarisation of votes on communal lines following the outbreak of communal violence in July 2017 makes it look like a direct fight between the BJP and the Trinamool, the Communist Party of India (CPI) cannot be ignored as a factor here. While Mamata Banerjee replaced former MP Idris Ali with the popular Bengali film actress Nusrat Jahan in an effort to stem the discontent among the electorate, the BJP has its own share of problems.
In the Barasat seat, the Trinamool’s biggest challenge appears to be its own reputation. The region is notorious for faction feuds within the party, corruption, extortion and the sway of the “syndicate raj” (a euphemism for extortionists and other criminal elements operating in the private housing and infrastructure industries in the State).
In fact, one of the biggest advocates of the syndicate system is Sabyasachi Dutta, the Mayor of Bidhannagar (an area that falls in the Basirhat constituency). Of late, with Dutta falling out of favour with the party leadership and not being given any responsibility in the election, the Trinamool may not fare too well in the urban pockets of Bidhannagar. However, its position in the rural belt is still strong in spite of the BJP’s growth. The seat seems safe for the two-time sitting Trinamool MP, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar.
Kolkata Dakshin, Kolkata Uttar, Dum Dum (Kolkata)
In the Lok Sabha seats in Kolkata, the ruling party may face a few problems, although its position is still more favourable than its opponents’. The Kolkata Dakshin seat is one of the strongest seats of the Trinamool. It was from here that Mamata Banerjee was elected to Parliament from 1991 (when she was still with the Congress) until 2011, when she stepped down to assume the post of Chief Minister. Her successor to the seat, Subrata Bakshi, was elected from the constituency twice convincingly. Bakshi declined to contest the election this time and was replaced by Mala Roy. Although the BJP came a distant second in this seat in 2014 and has made inroads in several places, it is unlikely that its candidate, Chandra Kumar Bose, will be able to pull off an upset, though he is the grand-nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose.
The Kolkata Uttar seat appears to be heading for a photo finish, with the BJP covering substantial ground here. In 2014, the BJP secured around 26 per cent of the votes and came second. This time, its position has grown stronger with its brand of aggressive Hindutva gaining popularity, particularly among non-Bengali voters who account for a sizeable section of the electorate. Moreover, the popularity of the Trinamool’s heavyweight candidate, former Union Minister and three-time MP Sudip Bandopadhyay, has declined following his arrest in 2017 for alleged involvement in the multi-crore Rose Valley Group chit fund scam. The BJP has fielded its own party heavyweight, national secretary Rahul Sinha.
The Dum Dum seat is expected to witness an interesting triangular contest between three prominent leaders: sitting MP Saugata Roy of the Trinamool, Shamik Bhattacharya of the BJP and Nepaldeb Bhattacharya of the CPI(M). Even though Saugata Roy has an edge in view of the Trinamool’s organisational strength, the CPI(M) and the BJP are not expected to be pushovers. The BJP won the seat in 1998 and 1999.
Diamond Harbour, Joynagar, Mathurapur, Jadavpur (South 24 Paraganas)
In Joynagar and Mathurapur the Trinamool appears to be in a stronger position although the BJP has managed to gain some ground in Joynagar mainly because of polarisation on religious lines. A convincing win in Diamond Harbour is essential for the Trinamool. Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and apparent heir to the party leadership, Abhishek Banerjee, will be trying to retain this seat, which he won in 2014 by a margin of 71,298 votes against his nearest rival, the CPI(M) candidate. This time also the ruling party is looking to its party machinery and organisational strength to pull it through.
However, the CPI(M) candidate, Fuad Halim, son of the late Communist leader Hashim Abdul Halim, may not be an easy opponent to deal with. There have already been several attacks on Fuad during his campaign. Fuad, a medical doctor, has huge public support and popularity as he is known to treat the poor free of cost; many feel that he may emerge as a giant-killer in this contest. Moreover, this is a seat that the Left had been winning from 1957 to 2004, and even at its weakest the Left has retained its share of loyal supporters.
In the Jadavpur seat, the Trinamool has fielded a new candidate, the popular Bengali film actress Mimi Chakraborty, after the sitting MP, Sugata Bose, declined to contest for personal reasons. Although Jadavpur is a strong seat for the Trinamool, the party has been bogged down by violent inner-party feuds, particularly in Bhangor. Taking on the ruling party here is its own ex-MP from Bolpur, Anupam Hazra, who joined the BJP earlier this year. The CPI(M) has fielded a heavyweight candidate, the former Mayor of Kolkata, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya. While the Left has a support base in the urban areas of the constituency, the Trinamool’s strength lies in the rural areas.
In many of the seats in the sixth and seventh phases, the ruling party seems to be its own biggest enemy. The arrogance of local party leaders and the blatant corruption at the grass-roots level has alienated a section of what was once the Trinamool’s most committed supporters, many of whom now see the BJP as a viable alternative. However, the BJP itself cannot hope to take much credit for its rise. Apart from the fact that it is in power at the Centre, the catalyst for its growth has been the Trinamool’s hubris.
By arrangement with Frontline, part of The Hindu Group.