Purulia is a dusty little district on the west of a state that already has ‘West’ in its name. This is where Bengal’s map juts out to meet central India, forming part of the old Chhota Nagpur plateau. That would also perfectly describe its socio-geography and economy. Now, Bengal is in the throes of what anyone would grant is the mother of elections, or at least the feisty elder sister among five. There’s interest in it just about everywhere, literally—the other day, a long-time devoted reader of TNIE from Kerala cut me short on enquiries on UDF and LDF fortunes to tell me he’s more interested in what’s happening to Mamata Banerjee than to Pinarayi Vijayan!
And on Thursday, Purulia, of arid land, of 18% tribal population, of our oldest indigenes—the Santhal, Munda, Bhumij and Bihor, of the beauteous Ayodhya and Baghmundi pahar, of the red Palash and poverty, became the epicentre. A dramatic face-off, it was. There was the prime minister of India at hand, talking to it directly. The chief minister had also come calling. Both promising water—or, like magicians battling a quantum of inner doubt, to produce at least some water. Mamata reminding them of the water she’s already reached them; the rest would flow ‘once May 2 is out the way’. Narendra Modi not quite promising nal ka jal (tap water) like his party is doing in Haryana, apparently to counter the farmer agitation, but water nonetheless.
Not just for the tribals in Purulia, water is an issue for everyone here—civic, municipal, existential. What better can a backward Purulia aspire for than a PM and a CM competing to bring water to its thirsty soil and parched throats! As the poet said, so what if you do not see dawn, you have at least dreamt of dawn. And thus, with a sudden infusion of a sense of its own importance, Purulia weighs its options.Neighbouring Midnapore, meanwhile, is bracing for a battle royale—between the chief minister and her one-time party deputy, Suvendu Adhikari. He was the local pointsman when Mamata had posted her historic rebellion against the old Left regime from Nandigram. Now he’s at the head of another army, clad in saffron, marching towards that castle.
Don’t blame Bengal for having confused loyalties this time—about who is battling who. The ‘voter khela’ is indeed fuzzy. At the top, Mamata, one foot in plaster, is fighting off a furious BJP advance on all flanks—led by Modi, with a regiment full of renegades. A bunch of TMC old-timers have joined the BJP to fight their old boss. To save themselves from CBI, ED, IT? To checkmate the rising graph of Mamata’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee? Or is it resentment against new-age election scriptwriter Prashant Kishor? Any which way, the result is the BJP too is boiling internally—old-timers are fighting these TMC-turned-BJP newbies. Outside, CPM wholetimers, in alliance with their old-time rival Congress, are fighting everyone else. That’s not counting the Furfura Sharif cleric who, on not finding enough Muslim candidates to contest the seats the Left-Congress alliance allotted him, is taking on his own community! Whoever said India was only partly free? In Bengal at least, it’s a free for all.
But hang on, it’s all a calculated madness, the heat produced in the quest to create newer civilisational mores. The PM has not only reached Purulia to woo voters, he’ll even reach Dhaka! Full symbolic use will be made of his trip to Bangladesh later this month for the birth centenary celebration of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibar Rehman. There’s method there. He will go with MP Shantanu Thakur in tow. Now, Thakur is a Matua, a Namasudra, and so together, naturally, they will visit Orakhandi, the community’s most revered shrine, which is in Bangladesh.
Why are Matuas suddenly being given so much importance? Well, the BJP has assiduously mobilised the community, which has a presence in 70 constituencies across the state, with a strong base in North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia and other pockets.Matuas, as ‘persecuted Hindus’ from Bangladesh, fit the BJP’s ideological bill perfectly. The Dalit deficit in Bengal’s mainstream politics gives that an added meaning. Now, the CAA had to be put back in the fridge to placate election-bound Assam and secure a second term for the BJP there. So if the Matuas can’t be given a citizenship card, their MP can certainly be taken for a pilgrimage.
Makes sense. Along with the Rajbansis of the north, another disaffected segment seeking to secure their unique identity, the Matuas have moved away from Didi. But will some dedicated Dalit and Adivasi votes, added to those of mainland settlers and some savarna Hindu bhadralok with their own old Partition hurt and repressed communal anger, suffice to create history? (Did someone say communal? This is pure governance-related. They are all presumably disgusted with Didi’s welfare politics and its leakages—and desire nothing short of ‘Sonar Bangla’.) Or is Didi too far ahead in the khela to be under any threat from those she calls ‘outsiders’—Shyama Prasad Mookerjee notwithstanding?
But then, BJP loves punching above its weight. In Kerala, it may not have enough candidates to contest all seats, but it has a CM face. In Tamil Nadu, it’s piggybacking on a Dravidian party; why, in Puducherry, it’s contesting more seats than ally AIADMK! Rahul Gandhi, our first and only six-pack-abs politician, meanwhile, is swimming with the fishermen to topple Pinarayi. All at sea, did you say?
Resident Editor, Karnataka,The New Indian Express