Purulia: A friendly banter between a group of friends, all in their early twenties, in Baghmundi, summed up the political mood in Purulia, the western-most district of West Bengal.
“Tora jaake dibi de, ami toh TMC keyee vote debo (All of you can vote for whoever you want, I will vote for only the TMC),” said Rupam Mahato, currently unemployed since the lockdown. He had been a factory worker in New Delhi.
The four others in the group laughed it off, while one of them, Shishir Mahato, interjected, “Ebare kintu poriborton aatkatey paarbe na keu, tui ja korar kore ney (You do whatever, but no one can stop the change this time).”
“Kawla chaap jodi na hoto, kono confusion e thaakto na. Kintu last ei jeetbey oyi (Had this seat not gone to the banana symbol, there would have been no confusion. But at the end, he will win),” interrupted one Rajesh Mahato, in the group.
The ‘banana symbol’ that Rajesh referred to is the election symbol of Sudesh Mahato-led All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), a Jharkhand-based party which is contesting this lone constituency in the state as an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Except for Ranabir, members of this group all intensely spoke for a change in the state. Most said that only the BJP could successfully overthrow the “despotic” TMC regime.
A casual survey of Baghmundi, otherwise known for its famed Ajodhya Hill, overwhelmingly favoured the BJP, despite the fact that the current Congress legislator Nepal Mahato barely faces any anti-incumbency.
Mahato has won twice from Bahgmundi ever since it became an assembly constituency in 2011 and twice from its earlier avatar, Jhalda. One of the senior-most Congress leaders of the state, Mahato is known as a “people’s person” who “doesn’t carry a security cover while moving around in his constituency”. But, ahead of the 2021 assembly polls, his candidature has hardly evoked any excitement among people.
On the other hand, a majority of people with whom The Wire spoke could barely contain their preference for the BJP, although most of them appeared quite disappointed with it for leaving the seat to its ally AJSU, which hardly has any presence in the state.
All the nine constituencies of Purulia – Balarampur, Baghmundi, Purulia, Joypur, Manbazar (Scheduled Tribes reserved), Kashipur, Para (Scheduled Caste reserved), Bandwan and Raghunathpur – vote on March 27, in the first of the eight phases of the assembly elections. In most of these constituencies, BJP came across as the preferred choice for a majority of people. While some made it evident, others were cryptic.
Dada, Didi and BJP
“Will vote for Dada, he will bring development,” said Rama Majhi, a beedi worker in Bhajhuri village in Joypur.
“BJP has the edge, I think,” said Phatik Hembrom in Balarampur.
“Didi made a mistake by handing over the controls to her nephew,” said Prakash Pramanik, a tea-shop owner in Sirkabad in Baghmundi seat.
“Didi is fine but her men are the real problem,” said Swapan Jhaldar, a businessman in Purulia town.
Several such opinions aired by ordinary people painted the TMC government in poor light. BJP’s campaign has naturally centred around these issues in Purulia. Despite its signifier, the “Jai Shri Ram” slogan, the saffron party has hardly dwelt on its Hindutva agenda here. Given the sparse presence of Muslims in the district, it may not be essential to polarise the electorate on religious lines here. Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Tribes, and Scheduled Castes together form the biggest chunk of Purulia voters.
In most constituencies, the most-populous OBC community, Kurmi, largely comprising small farmers, backed the BJP. The Dalits, who are either small farmers or migrant workers, also feel that the BJP may be a better option than the ruling TMC. The Santhals, the largest community among Adivasis, also showed an inclination for poriborton or change, although a substantial chunk among them also back party leaders who are not in the BJP. Notably, their support is towards leaders than the party.
For instance, Santhal villagers in Baant Tudu of Baghmundi said Congress leader Nepal Mahato has always helped them, so they will support his candidature. But they were also forthcoming in stating that they still preferred BJP over other parties.
“There is a change in the air but our leader is Nepal Mahato,” said Ramesh, who spoke on behalf of a rather large group playing cards in Baant Tudu.
In fact, the BJP’s campaign appeared to be mostly effective among the poor and the powerless – those without any political affiliation – all of whom showed a great degree of bitterness against the local leadership and representatives of the TMC.
TMC’s welfare schemes
The TMC, on the other hand, focused on its government’s achievements with Mamata Banerjee’s face as the main driver of the campaign. TMC activists can be seen talking about multiple welfare schemes initiated by the state government like Rupashree, Kanyashree, Sabujh Saathi, and so on and so forth.
At the same time, the party’s campaign is built around the failures and “false promises” of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The high unemployment rate during the BJP rule, and Modi government’s plans to privatise public sector enterprises figure at the top of the TMC’s campaign.
It is relying heavily on its local leadership’s network of political patronage in various constituencies, constituency-level equations, and its organisational strength, to win. The TMC activists with whom The Wire spoke are also hoping that the Left Front-Congress-Indian Secular Front coalition corners a substantial chunk of anti-TMC votes away from the BJP.
All of this, however, fades in front of the overwhelming anti-incumbency sentiment against the TMC regime, and resultant political preference for the BJP. Purulia was one of the 18 Lok Sabha constituencies which the BJP won in the 2019 parliamentary polls. In eight of the nine assembly segments, the saffron party had taken a strong lead over TMC. Two years later, the sentiment in favour of BJP appears to have cemented further.
Multiple references to bhaipo (nephew), santraash (repression), churi (corruption), ‘cut money’ (commission to disburse funds of welfare schemes) dominates the political discourse in villages and towns.
“We sell our paddy for Rs 1200 because we need immediate cash but TMC men who buy from us sell the same at the APMC for Rs 1,900,” said 25-year-old Rupesh Das, a Dalit belonging to the Bauri community, in Balarampur.
Similarly, Sudeep Mondol, a private school teacher in Purulia, said, “Goshti uddhar korche TMC er neta ra. Kono scheme bhalo bhabey paayi ni amra (‘TMC leaders are giving benefits to only their family and supporters. Most people haven’t got the full benefits of the schemes’).”
This has led to a peculiar situation where most people do not fault Didi at all – she still remains immensely popular – but think that the only way they can get out of the vicious cycle of corruption and repression by the TMC’s local leadership is to oust her government. This has also reduced the polls in Purulia into a bi-polar contest between TMC and BJP, with the Left Front-led alliance nowhere close to being in real contention.
The TMC had won seven of the nine constituencies in the 2016 polls. BJP was not a political player then. This time around, the result may entirely reverse, as the saffron party looks set to sweep Purulia.