“We love Didi, but her party has not delivered. It has been 10 years. I can’t say whom I will vote for,” Sudipto Pal says, standing at the rear of a half-empty ground in Haldia town as chief minister Mamata Banerjee speaks from the stage. In a way, Pal sums up what appears to be a dominant sentiment among a large section of undecided, silent voters in this part of West Bengal.
Haldia is in East Midnapore district, which is among the fortresses of Banerjee. In the run-up to the upcoming state elections, the district is under intense media scrutiny owing to the high-profile Nandigram constituency, where she will take on her aide-turned-challenger, Suvendu Adhikari of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) got leads in 15 of the 16 assembly segments spread over three Lok Sabha constituencies here in the 2019 national elections, even as the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. And in the 2016 state polls, the TMC bagged 13 of these 16 assembly seats with the Left winning the rest. But Adhikari, who was Banerjee’s key lieutenant in this region, is now in the BJP camp. For the first time, the party seems to be in the game in East Midnapore.
A modest crowd turns up for chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Haldia on Saturday. Image: Aman Sharma
Nevertheless, a modest crowd for Banerjee’s Saturday rally in Haldia is a surprise. Most of the participants could be seen wearing baseball caps carrying her photograph. The caps distributed by TMC workers are a relief from the blistering sun. Some of the participants grab an extra cap for children back home. “If someone does take a cap home, he could remain loyal and vote for us,” a TMC worker at the rally says.
CM in Attack Mode
With nearly half the ground empty, Banerjee arrives at the venue, wastes no time in starting her speech and addresses the gathering for about 30 minutes. The image of Banerjee in a wheelchair and her left leg in a cast evokes sympathy among a sizeable number of women present at the rally, with some admiring her energy to carry on with campaigning despite the injury she suffered in Nandigram earlier this month. While Banerjee says the incident was a BJP plot to kill her, the opposition party maintains it was an accident.
“I once attended one of her rallies in the past…she paced all over the stage as she spoke…we don’t know how she got this injury,” says one of the attendees, who is a part of a group of women. A man quickly interjects: “Didi (as Banerjee is popularly known as) will be on her feet to take oath as CM again.”
Meanwhile, Banerjee thunders from the stage and launches a scathing criticism of the BJP, getting huge applause when she targets Adhikari without naming him, even as she calls him “gaddar (traitor)” and Mir Jafar (the military commander who betrayed the last independent nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, and sided with the British). The crowd enthusiastically reverberates Banerjee’s call of “khela hobe (game on)”.
The chief minister has been campaigning in East Midnapore for the last two days, saying “no one wants to see (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s face”, and terming BJP leaders “Duryodhan and Dushasan” (a reference to the Kauravas in Mahabharata). Her attacks on Modi continue unabated, despite the popular refrain that such a stand could upset voters loyal to him in his capacity as the PM.
Prod the commoners here a bit and most voice affection for Didi but disappointment with the TMC for allegedly not delivering benefits to the people over 10 years (the TMC came to power in 2011, ending the Left’s 34-year rule). The few-and-far-between hoardings of the PM promise voters “asol paribaratan” (real change), with only Modi with folded hands featuring on them.
The Silent, Undecided Voter
In a village in the Khejuri seat, near the place where Banerjee held her second rally for the day, the BJP’s posters now compete for space with the TMC’s election material, perhaps for the first time. An electric rickshaw driver, Devjit Giri, has placed a BJP poster outside his dilapidated house that was damaged during Cyclone Amphan that hit the state in May 2020. Giri, a young man, says he got no relief. “I have put up a Didi poster but I have a BJP poster as well. Most in our village are tight-lipped about whom they will vote for. We listen to both the TMC and the BJP people when they come here,” Giri says.
There is some enthusiasm over the TMC’s manifesto promise of Rs 500 (for general categories) and Rs 1,000 (for reserved categories) monthly income support as well as the home-delivery of rations. But apprehensions remain over the delivery mechanism, as benefits of monetary promises in the past have not fully reached citizens given the rampant practice of what the BJP calls “cut-money”, or commission taken by TMC leaders.
But the TMC’s organisational strength in the East Midnapore has a clear edge. One can spot small vans ferrying people back to their villages after Banerjee’s rallies on Saturday. Though Adhikari is a popular figure in this area — he won the Nandigram seat in 2016 — the BJP does face the challenge of transforming the disgruntled silent voters into party supporters on the polling day.
A senior BJP leader says PM Modi’s rally in East Midnapore’s Kanthi on March 24 could prove to be crucial in that regard. Adhikari’s father and the local TMC parliamentarian, Sisir Adhikari, is expected to be present on the occasion, making matters more interesting.