Assembly elections: West Bengal

Nervous phase

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during the last lap of the Trinamool Congress' campaign before the fifth phase of Assembly elections in the State on April 30. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Susoma Bhoumick, who returned to what remains of her house at Garanberia village in Nandigram, with a picture of her late husband. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadyay

Rafiqul Islam Mondal, former Trinamool Congress leader who is the CPI(M)'s candidate in Basirhat Uttar. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadyay

Unkept promises and the terror unleashed by the Trinamool Congress come back to haunt Mamata Banerjee in the last phases of the Assembly elections in West Bengal.

ON April 24, Susoma Bhoumick, 76, along with her son Somnath, daughters Priti and Swati, and granddaughter Sohini, returned to their home at Garanberia village in Nandigram, escorted by the police following the orders of the Election Commission of India. She looked bewildered as she gazed at what remained of the house where she and her family had once lived. It used to be a relatively prosperous establishment, but today it has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Susoma Bhoumick held a picture of her late husband, Nishikanta, in her frail hands. Nishikanta died in misery last year, in exile from his own village. The family had fled for safety six years ago following a brutal attack by alleged supporters of the Trinamool Congress.

Nandigram in West Bengal’s Purbo Medinipur district turned into a battleground for more than two years in the wake of the death of 14 villagers in police firing on March 14, 2007. The village residents were staging a protest against reported plans to acquire land in the region to set up an industrial chemical hub. The movement snowballed into a political battle, which saw the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front lose control of the region and the revival of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress from political obscurity. The Trinamool Congress-backed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC), an informal alliance forged between naxalites, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, practically established a muktanchal (liberated zone in which the State administration and the police were not allowed to function) and drove out supporters of the CPI(M).

Susoma Bhoumick’s family recalled the horror of that afternoon when suspected Trinamool Congress activists from the village attacked their house for refusing to be part of the party’s movement.

Priti said: “They tied up my aged parents and beat them. They dashed my head against the ground until I fell unconscious; they did not even spare my one-year old daughter whom they hurled on to a pile of stone chips.” The family fled with the clothes on their backs and just Rs.30. The miscreants looted or destroyed everything they had.

Susoma Bhoumick said: “The home that I lovingly built since entering the house as a 14-year-old bride is completely gone.”

Oblivious to the tragedy that had befallen the family, seven-year-old Sohini was plucking flowers in front of the ruined house. The girl said: “Is it possible to stay in this place? My grandfather always said he wanted to come back here.” Although she is too young to remember what happened on that afternoon, she bears the scars. “Her legs hurt even now because of the force with which they threw her on the ground,” Priti said. The family knows that it is not safe to live in the village.

Somnath, who works in a private bank, said: “We will wait and see what happens in the elections, and then decide whether to stay or leave.”

Today peace may have returned to Nandigram, and development may have changed the face of the once sleepy, green fishing villages, but fear continues to stalk the region. Nobody in Garanberia was even willing to point out where Susoma Bhoumick’s house stood. In the time of elections, there was no sign of the existence of an opposition in the region. Trinamool Congress flags fluttered in the villages and Trinamool graffiti adorned the walls of the houses.

“There are people who support the opposition here, but they do not come out in the open to canvass for their parties,” Sheik Supian, an influential Trinamool Congress leader of Nandigram, told Frontline. According to him, it is not fear that kept them from openly supporting the opposition. “Let them show us one complaint lodged by the CPI(M) or the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] against us,” he said, denying the accusation that most people are too afraid to even go to the police station. “They are lying. The fact is that people do not support the CPI(M), nor does the CPI(M) have any workers or leaders here. Is the Trinamool Congress expected to provide them with workers for electioneering?” he said.

Since the 2008 panchayat elections, the Trinamool Congress has been the single most powerful political force in Purbo Medinipur. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the party, in alliance with the Congress, won all the 16 seats, and in 2014, it won both the Lok Sabha seats in the district. Moreover, in the 2014 elections, it had an insurmountable lead in all the Assembly segments, even after adding up the votes polled by the CPI(M) and the Congress individually. The electoral tie-up between the Left parties and the Congress in this election may not have an impact here, as the Congress’ vote share is negligible in most of the constituencies.

In the sixth and final phase of Assembly elections on May 5, when Purbo Medinipur went to the polls, the Trinamool Congress’ main concern was not the opposition parties, but itself. A senior leader of the party admitted that faction fights were rife in practically all the constituencies of the district. Matters were resolved when the Adhikari family (the unchallenged political powerhouse of the region) intervened days before the elections began in the State. Sisir Adhikari and Suvendu Adhikari represent Kanthi and Tamluk Lok Sabha constituencies respectively. Suvendu Adhikari, who is contesting from the Nandigram Assembly constituency, is one of the top Trinamool Congress leaders who were caught accepting cash on camera in the sting operations carried out by the news portal Narada News.

Singur

In West Bengal politics, Nandigram in Purbo Medinipur and Singur in Hooghly district are more than just names of Assembly constituencies. They are symbols of resistance to the previous Left Front government, which ruled the State continuously for 34 years, and are inextricably linked with Mamata Banerjee’s ascent to power. It was in Singur that Mamata Banerjee led a prolonged and violent agitation on behalf of a small group of unwilling land losers, whose land was acquired for the setting up of the prestigious Tata Motors’ small car project. The agitation forced Tata Motors to shift the project to Gujarat in 2008, and investment-starved West Bengal’s hope for industrial revival was once again shattered. Five years down the line, the hopes of the farmers to get back their land, as promised by Mamata Banerjee, too have been dashed.

Although the first piece of legislation passed by Mamata Banerjee after assuming power in 2011 was the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, which provided for the return of land to the farmers who had refused to accept the compensation package, her promise has remained unfulfilled owing to legal hurdles. The matter is pending in the Supreme Court.

For 10 years, the farmers waited with their faith in Mamata Banerjee intact. But with every passing year, a bit of that faith is getting chipped away. Sullen stares and acerbic replies are the usual responses of the local people to queries from the media. Today, many of them regret not having accepted the compensation package, for they are left with neither land nor an alternative scope for employment, which the establishment of the factory and its ancillaries would have ensured.

The agitation in Singur may have been a catalyst for paribartan (change) in West Bengal politics, but it also gave Mamata Banerjee a reputation for being “anti-industry”, an image she is finding increasingly hard to shrug off. Though Singur was instrumental for her political success, it has also become a symbol of one of her biggest failures. One of the main thrusts of the CPI(M)-Congress combine’s campaign has been reviving industry in the State and Singur has been held up as one of the most glaring examples of the Trinamool Congress government’s perceived anti-industry image. “If the Tata Motors factory was allowed to come up, the scenario in Singur would have been totally different. We tried to do that and will do it again,” former Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said at a pre-election rally in Singur.

Singur was a stronghold of Mamata Banerjee even when her political career was at its nadir. In 2006, when the Trinamool Congress had just 30 MLAs in the 294-seat Assembly and she was the party’s lone MP, Rabindranath Bhattacharya, or “Mastermoshai” (schoolmaster) as he was affectionately called, won in Singur with a margin of 1,700 votes. In 2011, the party’s victory margin increased to 34,000, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, even with the BJP registering an unprecedented surge in its votes, Singur still gave the Trinamool Congress a lead of over 30,000. Mamata Banerjee has not campaigned in Singur for this election. Her reluctance to visit the electorate that has remained most loyal to her is clearly a sign of her unease at the prospect of facing them, particularly after not being able to fulfil her end of the bargain.

However, Rabindranath Bhattacharya is one of the few Trinamool Congress leaders who is not dependent on the “Mamata factor” for winning the election. The respect he commands in the region cuts across party lines. “We want industry in Singur, and at the same time we will protect the interest of the farmers,” he told Frontline. His opponent, the CPI(M) heavyweight candidate Rabin Deb, believes that the people of Singur are today overwhelmingly in favour of industry. “All the voters I met while campaigning urged us to ensure industrialisation in the region if we won,” he told Frontline.

In 2011, the Trinamool-Congress alliance won 16 of the 18 Assembly seats in Hooghly, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it had a lead in 16 Assembly segments. Serampore and Champdani were the only seats in which combined Left and Congress votes surpassed the Trinamool Congress vote. In Pandua and Goghat, the seats the Left had won in 2011, the Trinamool Congress led.

The last three phases of the elections were in Mamata Banerjee’s main strongholds: North 24 Paraganas (April 25, fourth phase), South 24 Paraganas and Hooghly (April 30, fifth phase), and Purbo Medinipur and Cooch Behar (May 5, sixth phase).

North and South 24 Paraganas

In the 2011 Assembly elections, in the 33 seats in North 24 Paraganas and 31 seats in South 24 Paraganas, the Trinamool Congress-led alliance won 28 and 27 seats respectively. However, in this election, the ruling party may find the going tough in these strongholds, particularly in the light of the Left-Congress tie-up and the bitter infighting within the party. Moreover, as in Hooghly, the BJP’s performance will also be a key factor in certain constituencies.

At least in 10 seats in South 24 Paraganas, including Basanti, Kultali and Bhangore, which the Left Front had won in 2011, the fight may be a close one. Although the Trinamool Congress registered a huge lead over its rivals in the Bhangore Assembly segment in 2014, Mamata Banerjee’s decision to field former CPI(M) Minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah, who joined the Trinamool Congress just before the election dates were announced, caused consternation among party workers. The long-standing feud between Rezzak Mollah and the controversial Trinamool strongman of the region, Arabul Islam, could not be kept in check even on polling day. Men allegedly belonging to the Arabul Islam camp reportedly attacked Mollah’s supporters. This is expected to hamper the prospects of the Trinamool Congress in Bhangore. It is important to note that the district was among the first to come under Trinamool Congress rule after the 2008 panchayat elections, and there is a possibility of an anti-incumbency factor working against the ruling party here.

North 24 Paraganas has thrown up an interesting parallel in the Basirhat Uttar and Basirhat Dakshin seats. The Trinamool Congress wrested the Basirhat Uttar seat, near the Bangladesh border, from the CPI(M) in a byelection in 2011 following the death of the incumbent MLA. Although the ruling party maintained its lead in this Assembly segment in the 2014 election, the margin was greatly reduced. To add to the Trinamool Congress’ woes, Rafiqul Islam Mondal, one of the most influential leaders of the party in the region, joined the CPI(M) and was propped up against the ruling party MLA, A.T.M. Abdullah. Mondal’s departure left the Trinamool Congress considerably weaker. He told Frontline: “The moment people realised that I am the candidate of the jote [Left-Congress tie-up], their reaction has been one of spontaneous delight and enthusiasm. The ideology with which the Trinamool was set up is no longer present in the party. It has now become a destructive party that hires goons to suppress democracy and establish dictatorship.”

The CPI(M) won the Basirhat Dakshin seat in 2011, but in the by-election that took place following the death of the sitting MLA, the BJP won it, its lone seat in the State, by a narrow margin. Riding on the crest of the pro-Narendra Modi wave, the BJP registered a strong lead in the Assembly segment in the 2014 election. The main contest here this time is between the BJP MLA, Shamik Bhattacharya, and former footballer Dipendu Biswas of the Trinamool Congress. “The jote has not really matured here, and my fight is to increase my margin. The jote and the Trinamool Congress are fighting for the second place,” Shamik Bhattacharya told Frontline.

The fear of defeat

With the ruling party not expected to do well in north Bengal, and uncertainty looming over its prospects in Birbhum and Bardhaman, the party’s performance in North and South 24 Paraganas is crucial for Mamata Banerjee to return to power. Apart from facing a combined opposition, the Trinamool Congress came under further pressure following a series of incidents on the eve of the elections—the Narada sting, the collapse of a flyover in Kolkata in which 27 people lost their lives (which also brought to the fore the nexus between local Trinamool Congress leaders and the subcontractors engaged in the construction), and indiscreet comments and statements made by senior Trinamool Congress leaders which served to damage the image and credibility of the party. These factors compelled Mamata Banerjee to increasingly project herself, rather than the party’s candidates, a move that is interpreted as a desperate effort to cling to her voters.

The Chief Minister’s actions and words started to betray her insecurity, which in turn had an effect on the voters. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation, she even started acknowledging the crimes committed by her party leaders. “If I have done anything wrong, give me two slaps. If you tell me to, I will go and wash your utensils. But if you call me a thief, if you spread lies, if you insult Bengal, it hurts,” she said at a public rally before the fifth phase of elections. On another occasion, she even railed against the State police apparently for doing their work properly in ensuring free and fair elections. The nervousness in the rank and file of the party is also apparent as the whisper that began before the elections—that the invincible Trinamool Congress may lose—got louder with every phase of the elections.

The “dole politics” of Mamata Banerjee, guaranteed to bring electoral success, and the development work that has undoubtedly taken place in large parts of rural Bengal have been offset by the rule of terror perpetrated by members of the ruling party. Even basic democratic rights, such as voting without the fear of violent repercussion, have been denied to citizens in many areas. Even children have not been spared to keep dissent at bay, as was evident in the post-election violence in different parts of the State.

Nandigram is a prime example of the latent violence prevailing in the State, kept hidden under an illusion of peace and stability. Mamata Banerjee not only failed to keep her promise of returning the land to the people of Singur, but also failed to establish peace and ensure security in the State. Polling has largely been free and fair under the surveillance of a huge contingent of Central forces. If the issue of suppression of democracy outweighs the government’s claims of development, then it will be almost impossible for the Trinamool Congress to return to power. But if Mamata Banerjee emerges victorious, she will have to make a serious attempt to solve the issues within her party and government which conjured up the spectre of defeat even before the elections were over. An unsmiling, ashen-faced Mamata Banerjee briefly flashing the customary victory sign after casting her vote and striding off, spoke more than all the rhetoric of the opposition combine.

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