Former spouses turn foes in a bitter political battle for Bengal’s Bishnupur

It is not a custody battle between TMC’s Sujata Mondal and BJP’s Saumitra Khan, but it could well be, as personal attacks and high drama take over.

Published : Mar 22, 2024 20:53 IST - 5 MINS READ

TMC’s Sujata Mondal and BJP’s Saumitra Khan are contesting against each other for the Bishnupur Lok Sabha seat.

TMC’s Sujata Mondal and BJP’s Saumitra Khan are contesting against each other for the Bishnupur Lok Sabha seat. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Saumitra Khan, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the Bishnupur parliamentary seat in West Bengal’s Bankura district, could not even enter his constituency due to a High Court order in connection with a criminal case pending against him. In his absence, it was his wife Sujata, armed with a photograph of him, who spearheaded the campaign and ensured that her husband, who had won the seat in 2014 on a Trinamool ticket, won again in 2019, this time with the saffron party. Then, in a dramatic turn of events, the two parted after a much-publicised divorce. Now, Sujata Mondal and Saumitra Khan are contesting against each other for the Lok Sabha seat. In the already high-voltage election in West Bengal, Bishnupur promises to be a sizzler.

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A Scheduled Caste reserved constituency, Bishnupur, once a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), saw three different parties winning in the last three elections—in 2009, it was Susmita Bauri from the CPI(M), in 2014, it was Saumitra from Trinamool, and then in 2019, Saumitra again from the BJP.

After winning the Lok Sabha seat in Bishnupur and the adjoining constituency of Bankura, the BJP has managed to retain its strength in the two constituencies, even as many of its recently acquired areas of dominance fell into the hands of the Trinamool in the 2021 Assembly election. In that election, Trinamool won only two of the seven Assembly seats that fall under the Bishnupur Lok Sabha constituency—Barjora and Khandaghosh—while the BJP won the remaining five. Among the Assembly constituencies under the Bankura Lok Sabha seat, the BJP won four and Trinamool three. In 2019, the BJP secured 46.7 per cent of the votes, while the Trinamool got 41.2 per cent.

TMC’s Sujata Mondal. Mondal and former-husband Saumitra Khan are contesting against each other for the Lok Sabha seat. 

TMC’s Sujata Mondal. Mondal and former-husband Saumitra Khan are contesting against each other for the Lok Sabha seat.  | Photo Credit: KSL

Trinamool’s decision to field Sujata against her ex-husband is being seen as a clever move by the ruling party. Sujata knows the constituency well (having campaigned extensively in the region for her former husband) and is a face that Bishnupur’s voters are familiar with. On December 21, 2020, when Sujata defected to the Trinamool, she said, “People who have shed blood for the party are being ignored, and undeserving people coming from Trinamool are being given prominence.” She also said that in time it was possible that her husband too would return to Trinamool. Claiming to be shocked by her decision, a seemingly emotional Saumitra announced in a press conference that he would divorce Sujata, saying, “Today, I completely release you from being adjoined to the name of Saumitra Khan”, and accused Trinamool of “stealing” his wife. Before long, the accusations and recriminations turned intensely personal, and the bitter separation drama played out under the glare of media attention.

Personal battle, beyond

This election, it has been clear from the start that the battle for Bishnupur would not be just a political fight, but a deeply personal and acrimonious showdown. Describing her former husband as a “demon”, from whose clutches the people of Bishnupur should be delivered, Sujata said. “A person who does not show respect to his wife; a person who denied the people of Bishnupur from their due; a person who compelled his wife to leave the house at 3 am out of fear for her life; such a person does not fall into any category of human being. I think he is some kind of a poisonous insect.”

Saumitra Khan at one of the public events.

Saumitra Khan at one of the public events. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Saumitra countered by saying he did not wish to comment on a “mad person”. “It is better not to speak much on one who is not right in the head. Her reaction to the allegations made by the women of Sandeshkhali shows her disregard for mothers and sisters,” he said. As the election campaign heats up, the two candidates of Bishnupur have launched an all-out attack, each making personal allegations and insinuations about the other’s private life.

Sujata recently attracted controversy by issuing a thinly-veiled threat to the electorate, saying she would find out which areas had given a lead to the BJP and deny the voters help from the ruling party. “You cannot vote for the BJP and take all the advantages from us... If you vote for the BJP, then the party will not listen to any problems you have. Any place where Trinamool does not have a lead, their problems will not be looked into either by me or the Trinamool people,” Sujata was heard telling voters while campaigning.

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However, it may not be a cakewalk for the BJP either. Last October, the saffron party suffered a setback in the region when its influential MLA Harakali Protiher from Katulpur—which falls under the Bishnupur Parliament seat—joined Trinamool. Protiher, who was the Bankura district president of the BJP from 2018-2021, told Frontline that although it may be a close contest, Trinamool would edge past the BJP this time. “I was the District President of the party, so I know that a large section of the BJP workers are very unhappy with Saumitra Khan. He was never there for them when they were under attack, and, as MP, has practically done nothing for the development of the region. Sujata-di is known to be a fighter and is well-liked by the people of Bishnupur. She is the best choice against Saumitra-da,” Protiher said.

Whether the BJP holds on to Bankura and Bishnupur or whether it is ousted, one thing is certain, people will be hooked to Bishnupur for the thrilling soap opera it promises.

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