Kolkata/New Delhi: Something is going on in Bengal. In silence, in hushed tones, in drawing room discussions, face to face chats, through WhatsApp forwards—far from the ears and eyes of the “brothers” who have Bengal under their thumb.
Around 90 km from Kolkata, at Petrapole crossing on the India-Bangladesh border last week, a street hawker takes a lot of cajoling before he mutters, almost inaudibly, “Ei bar, Jyatha Moshai (this time, the eldest uncle, father’s eldest brother—tauji in Hindi).”
“Jyatha Moshai? Who is Jyatha Moshai?”
“Jyatha Moshai! Dilli-te Jyatha Moshai (the uncle in Delhi).”
In Didi country, the “uncle in Delhi” has got the status of the head of the family, at least for some people.
There are eyes and ears everywhere, so when in public, people are not going beyond talking about a possible “change in the weather” or “a tough fight in certain seats”. This “tough fight” could be true for a Lok Sabha seat like Bongaon, where the Petrapole border crossing is located. This writer went from tea-stall to tea-stall, from sweetshop to bhaater hotel (roadside lunch shacks), talking to a mass of people, trying to break through their reticence and realising that something was stirring. “It’s a tough fight this time, and this seat may even go to BJP. Shantanu Thakur (the BJP candidate) may not have graffiti on the wall, but he has a good chance of winning,” whispered a shopkeeper in a “Trinamool village” near the border.
There is a story behind the “no BJP graffiti” on Bongaon’s walls. The buzz is that a few BJP workers had put up some graffiti, but “some people” went around whitewashing them overnight. Apparently, the BJP workers who had painted the graffiti were threatened by “some people” that they should not dare to work for the BJP, as else their future could be in jeopardy. But then others said that the BJP declared its candidate late, the reason why the graffiti was being painted late.
Muscle-flexing is the way of life in these parts—the norm, rather than the exception. Worse, the threat of “chemical case”, the local name for Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), is real. It should suffice to say that rebels or rivals, depending on the situation, may suddenly find themselves in possession of certain illegal substances and the rest, as they say, is darkness!
However, fear is not the key in Bongaon’s Thakurnagar area, the seat of the Matua community in Bengal. There, a section of the Matua community is vocal about why they are going the BJP’s way this time—for the promise of citizenship papers, specifically, because of the controversial Citizenship Bill.
The Matua community, Scheduled Caste Hindus who came from across the border during the time of Partition, comprises 60% of the population of the Bongaon seat, according to Shantanu Thakur, the BJP candidate. Matuas are being assiduously wooed by both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress. Shantanu Thakur is a Matua. His opponent, Mamata Bala Thakur, the Trinamool MP, is not only a Matua, but also his aunt, the wife of his father’s elder brother. The Matuas are spread across certain neighbouring constituencies, but more importantly, they vote en bloc. Matuas are refugees and their citizenship documents are not in order, the reason why the Citizenship Bill giving citizenship to Hindu refugees, among other communities, from neighbouring countries can make a huge difference to their lives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rally in Thakurnagar in February and touched the feet of Binapani Debi, popularly known as BoroMa, who was the spiritual head of the Matua Mahasangha comprising the Matua community. She passed away recently, and both the Prime Minister and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sent their condolences on her death.
However, a letter, apparently written by BoroMa, has surfaced, in which she is said to have urged Mamata Banerjee to support the BJP in passing the Citizenship Bill in Parliament. But Banerjee refused. Everyone in Thakurnagar knows about the purported letter and they are seething in rage. The Hindu-Muslim divide too is crystal clear in these parts. “She said Muslims migrants too should be brought to its ambit. Muslims got their own homeland with Partition. This bill is for us. We are not going to vote for her,” angry Matuas tell this writer.
Then there is the bit about the enmity between two factions of the Thakur family, which heads the Matua community, about who should get the mantle of leadership, post BoroMa’s death—the faction headed by BoroMa’s daughter-in-law Mamata Bala or the one comprising BoroMa’s youngest son Manjul Krishna and his two sons, Subrata and Shantanu. Mamata Bala, the MP, has political clout and is laying claim to the right to be called the “Ma” of the Matua community. But strong patriarchal sentiments are at work here, with the Matuas this writer met asserting that the leadership should go to the branch that has male offspring and not to the branch that has female progenies, the reference being to Mamata Bala’s daughters.
The consensus outside Thakurnagar is that the Matua vote will get divided between two factions of the Thakur family. But Shantanu Thakur pooh-poohed such claims, saying that Matuas would come with him because he had the support of Narendra Modi who has promised citizenship papers for the Matuas.
Mamata Bala Thakur, however, is confident of a victory. She became MP from Trinamool Congress in a byelection in 2015, after the death of her husband, the sitting MP, Kapil Krishna Thakur, the eldest son of BoroMa. “In the byelection, I won with a margin of 2 lakh 11 thousand votes. CPM came second, and the BJP, which was represented by Santanu’s elder brother, Subrata, came third,” she told this writer over phone. She said that she knew that there would be a fight, but she was not worried. She was also clear that the Citizenship Bill would be harmful for the Matua community and asserted that they understood that.
A couple of Mamata Bala supporters however told this writer that the final decision would be taken by the Gosains, the religious seniors of the Matua community. “We will do what they say.”
But then Mamata Bala has her “strong-armed” party and the state administration working for her. And when it comes to Bengal, these two things can make a difference between losing and winning. This is also the reason why elections in Bengal are spread over seven phases, the same as in Uttar Pradesh, although it has 42 seats compared to UP’s 80.
There is no doubt that there is immense anger on the ground in many areas of Bengal. As money and muscle power rule the roost, tales abound about an escalator installed in the palatial residence of a particular politician and a chandelier bought apparently for Rs 65 lakh, among other things. Jobs are missing. Add to that infiltration from Bangladesh and the realisation that demography is changing. In any other state the situation would have been ripe for the picking by a strong Opposition, especially when that Opposition is the ruling party in the Centre.
But this is Bengal.
People murmur that until and unless the “brothers” and a partisan administration are neutralised, voters in sensitive areas are encouraged to come out and are assured of post poll security, no Opposition can have a free run of the electoral field of Bengal. And BJP is anyway organisationally weak in the state and has a huge distance to cover before it can come anywhere near the Trinamool Congress, which has a solid base of committed voters. There are complaints galore that the BJP candidates are weak, who will not be able to put up a fight.
However, as a young man in Bongaon said, “Nobody is looking at the candidate this time. The symbol (the party) will get the vote.” If this is the case—and the symbol is unlikely to be CPM’s—it will be known only on 23 May if the BJP stops at increasing its vote share or actually wins a number of seats.