On the surface, it’s boisterous, peppered with high-voltage election rallies, thundering speeches by political bigwigs and blaring loudspeaker announcements. But deep into the heart of West Bengal, the sound of silence rings loud and clear.
The hesitancy of the common man, not affiliated to any party, to share his political preference ahead of the eight-phase assembly election is unmistakable. There are odd voices few and far between, punctuated by an army of silent voters.
It’s a bit unusual. For Bengalis love to talk and argue. From bus stops to the neighbourhood tea stall, from glittery shopping malls to the local park, and from packed trains to eateries, every place is a potential stage for heated political debates. From relatives to friends to strangers, everyone is a potential rival in such arguments.
But, at the same time, this silence does not seem out of place, especially in the charged atmosphere of a state where concerns over political violence loom large and voters fear retribution from local strongmen for not toeing the desired line.
“People are not sure of the final outcome. So they prefer to be silent, keen not to be caught on the wrong side when results are finally out because the tradition of political vendetta in Bengal worries many. The silence also could be prelude to a subdued public anger that precedes change,” says veteran journalist Subir Bhaumik.
Even in 2011, when cadres of the incumbent Left were marching menacingly to keep their stranglehold intact in the face of winds of change, the silence was not as loud as it is now. Back then, there were voices that let out their preference for Mamata Banerjee, who would end the Left Front’s 34-year rule.
That year, in fact, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s catch phrase was: “Chup chap, phule chap (Vote for the flower, silently)”, a reference to the party’s election symbol of flower and leaves.
This year, an aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has resolved to throw a strong challenge at Banerjee’s TMC. In the political circles, there are debates on whether anti-incumbency will be a factor after a decade of the TMC rule. There are discussions on whether the BJP’s strategy to consolidate Hindu votes will work, or whether Banerjee will retain power for a third straight term.
Amidst all this hustle and bustle, the voter has opted for silence, holding the cards close to his chest and unwilling to show them until the very end.
“We don’t want to speak at all here. We don’t know what will happen on the voting day, but there are supporters of both parties who are hanging around here…we don’t want to get into trouble,” says a voter in Banerjee’s old constituency of Bhabanipur in south Kolkata, requesting anonymity.
Considered a stronghold of the TMC, the area is adjacent to Banerjee’s residence at Harish Mukherjee Lane. Here, tea stalls are teeming with people in the morning. But they either refuse to talk or simply walk away after being approached.
“Without Mamata Banerjee here, it could be tough for the TMC. (But) why would anyone talk? They would come and confront us. We don’t want to face any issues,” a senior voter says in a hushed tone.
The landscape changes from the busy streets and high-rises of Kolkata to the villages and forests of Jangalmahal. The silence doesn’t.
The four districts of Jangalmahal —Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and West Midnapore — contributed to the BJP’s success in the 2019 national polls, in which the party won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. But the work the TMC government has done is visible on the ground. Schools have come up and roads have been made here.
Both the BJP and the TMC are pulling out all the stops to register a victory in this area. Availability of water is the main issue here and both parties have promised to look into the problem. The TMC is confident that the voting pattern in the assembly polls will be different from that in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But the BJP thinks a repeat of its performance from two years ago is not impossible, given the extensive work done by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) here.
Outside Jhargram Raj College, crowds gather at tea stalls near the statues of Santhal rebellion leaders Sidhu and Kanhu. But it’s the same story that repeats itself: people refuse to talk.
“We will decide (who to vote for) on the day of polling. But we don’t want to say anything now…both TMC and BJP workers are watching. After you go, they will come to us and enquire what we were talking about,” a villager says, refusing to be named.
A travel through the state suggests that many of those refusing to talk in public have already chosen a side. In Singur, many throw light on their plight after the famous agitation against land acquisition that, along with violent protests in Nandigram, catapulted Banerjee to the pedestal of power. With the small car factory, which came up on farmland and triggered the agitation, being abandoned, the change many people expected is far from sight. Banerjee’s critics say this could hurt the TMC, though there are counterviews.
“Let them try everything. In the end, we would find it difficult not to vote for Didi (as Banerjee is popularly known as). She has done a lot for us and we know she will win,” says Mohan Pal, a villager.
According to analysts, the women vote is going to be the key this election. Women, who account for 49% of the state’s voters, are even more reticent about talking.
The BJP would hope to get their support, like the BJP-Janata Dal (United) camp got their backing in Bihar in 2020. Facing odds, chief minister Nitish Kumar emerged victorious in a tough election, thanks to women voters. In Bengal this time around, both the BJP and the TMC have tried to woo this crucial section — many of them considered loyal to Banerjee — with lavish manifesto promises.
The BJP says the silence of voters indicates Bengal is poised for a change. “They are scared of TMC goons. Which is why they are not talking…,“ a party leader said.
But TMC supporters are not willing to buy this theory. “There is no way anyone else can come to power in Bengal. Yes, some mistakes have been made, but Didi will handle it,” Partha Mandal, a resident of Bhabanipur, says.
In the story of new allegiances, shifting priorities and changing dynamics this election season, one chapter is constant: that featuring the silent voters.
It is said silence isn’t empty. It’s full of answers. Come May 2 and Bengal as well as India will know that answer.