“Arrey dada, Pakistan mane Moselman, bujhlen na. Pakistan bolley lokey khaye,” I get my first tutorial on the lay of the land at the local tea stall in Hazrakata Bazzar. Till then, my urban sensibilities had failed to comprehend Pakistan as a euphemism for Muslims. Apparently, such a moniker wins votes: just say Pakistan and people will buy it. At the same spot in this key intersection, on a similarly muggy March morning in 2007, villagers had forgotten their caste or creed to unitedly fight against the state police and CPM hooligans. They dug roads and blocked the thoroughfare with tree trunks while some went on to even die in firings.
That cradle of subaltern struggle, leading to poriborton (change) in the state after 34 years, is today a deeply fractured cluster of 138 villages. The religious fault lines are too stark to miss across the 355 booths this election season. The VVIP constituency went to polls on Thursday after almost three months of raucous campaigning by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her former acolyte-turnedfoe Suvendu Adhikari, polarising the population.
Much like the high-pitched campaign, even the average voter has become unabashedly loud and vocal. I have grown up in a Bengal where village voters seldom spoke out of turn. Do you remember the Trinamool whisper campaign from 2006 in the run up to their election victory? It was chup chaap phuley chaap — Bangla for silently go and vote for the flower (TMC symbol).
For over three decades, the Left’s strategy of “elaka dokhol” was one of its most potent weapons. CPM would seize control of entire areas — villages, panchayats, sometimes even districts — with its workers. In true Stalinist fashion, such territorial grip also saw cadres recruited to spy on neighbours and report every conversation, opinion or chance remark back to the dreaded local committee. People loyal to the party were encouraged to vote, those with suspect loyalties were simply ordered to stay away. The cadre were given powers and privileges in local administrative bodies, their relatives got sarkari jobs, or bagged state’s largesse through contracts for public works.
The harmad — Bangla for armada — was the CPM’s arm of organised gang violence. The party in power may have changed but the harmad still remains. They have simply changed political colours. Today they are known as Trinamool-er Tolabaaj (Trinamool’s extortionist), a disorganised motley of goons.
But staying silent is no longer an option for the people. “Chup amra aar thakbo naa. Didi amader bhuley gechche (We won’t stay quiet any longer. Didi has forgotten us),” says Nitai, who has followed Adhikari to join the BJP. “Amra college student. Amader chakri koi. Gramey shabbai byakar.” He just paraphrased the frustration of many — no jobs, no development. Their once-beloved Didi has let them down. “Subhendu da is our Ram, Jai Shri Ram,” says Nitai, as he gets ready to join an Amit Shah roadshow on the last day of campaigning. “Pakistan Go Home,” he adds in broken English. The class struggle of the Communists has clearly withered away. To fill the void, a hyper-aggressive caste and communal politics have grown its roots.
Thanda Thanda Cool Cool
It’s 40 degree Celsius and blazing.
With a plastered foot, Didi is being ferried in a wheelchair through villages. She wears a blue party cap, or has the end of her white sari wrapped around the head, to shield her from the summer sun. Finally, at 12:30 pm, Mamata Banerjee loses her cool, the moment she figures there is no shade on the kerb-side mini-dais built for her rally in Sonachura, the epicentre of the farmer’s movement 14 years ago. “Dekhechcho ki kharaap bybostha. Eto roddurer modhey jayga ta dhake-o ni…. Etoh roddurer modhey, lokey ashushtho hoye jaabe (What insufficient arrangement. People will fall ill waiting under the punishing sun),” she says.
Bisleri bottles appear out of nowhere in a desperate attempt at damage control. An umbrella, though, is far tougher to arrange.
Soon, Banerjee is in her elements — cracking sarcastic jokes, lampooning star campaigners Mithun Chakraborty and Amit Shah and breaking into a tirade against her “anti-national, anti-people, anti-poor” opposition. Her 15-minute speech ends with a word of caution: “Shono thanda jol khabey na. Chaya-e boshey, thanda hoye tarpor. Noiley heat stroke hobe.” Banerjee’s prescription, even at the brief Shonachura meeting, is “Thanda thanda cool cool.…” Beyond her political sharpness, Banerjee’s earthy, casual candour makes her relatable, cementing her mass appeal. The urbane bhadralok may sneer but in rural Bengal, her personality largely remains a cult. At times matronly stern, at other times an endearing elder sister, even her rebukes seem well-meaning.
Trinamool’s multiple social schemes and cash grants for “Ma-Bon” (mothers and sisters) — Kanyashree, Sabuj Saathi, Sastha Saathi — have further consolidated her appeal among 49% of the state’s electorate, many of whom would vote for their mercurial matriarch without seeking the opinion of the men in their households.
This demographic — 1.23 lakh women voters in Nandigram out of a total 2.57 lakh — will dare to break free. “Didi is Durga and royal Bengal tigress,” says Sunanda Manna, near Tekhali bridge. For her and her two teenage daughters, both of whom are beneficiaries of TMC schemes, Banerjee embodies empowerment in a man’s milieu. “Women simply adore her.”
The Other Didi
While grabbing a quick bhaat-maach lunch at Hotel Zeeshan, I share a table with a CPM volunteer visiting Nandigram from the nearby Haldia town to canvas for the young Left candidate Minakshi Mukherjee and participate in an auto rickshaw rally that will even see octogenarian Left Front chairperson Biman Bose. “Hope they send us back in an AC car,” she says. “But they have no money to spend on us.”
Money and muscle have bought both TMC and BJP saris, songs, Tshirts and other pre-poll blitz, but what Mukherjee, the 36-year-old firebrand president of the Bengal chapter of the Democratic Youth Federation of India and candidate of the CPM-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance, possesses is grit that no currency can buy. Tirelessly campaigning, from door to door, sometimes barefoot on Nandigram’s scorched earth, she has done the impossible — wean back pockets of the traditional Left vote bank. They call her “Kajla didi” although the rationale is fuzzy. Of late no Left leader has dared to enter these neighbourhoods (CPM drew just 9% of votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls). The multiple attempts to manhandle her has not hemmed her in. In fact, this other Didi has become the most sought-after candidate for all her fellow comrades. A new, new Left is rising.