There are many ways to describe the 2016 West Bengal Assembly Elections. Not one of them involve easy conjectures. Has the ruling party, the Trinamool Congress, done good work? Has it failed? Is the CPM-Congress “jot” (understanding) the answer or is it, as Mamata Banerjee claims, an “unholy union”? As you travel across the state, from Naxalbari in North Bengal, to Haridevpur in south Bengal, you realise that political parties are like Shah Rukh Khan in the latest Yash Raj blockbuster Fan, they like to play the good guy and the bad guy in the same movie.
As the last phase of the prolonged six-phase election ended Thursday, with polling in Medinipur East and Cooch Behar, we try and put forth some of the many realities of the state through three conversations with every man and every woman from different parts of West Bengal.
Amulya Bor, 61, retired employee of Kolkata Port Trust
Kobordanga, Haridevpur, Kolkata
In Haridevpur, Kobordanga, all roads lead to the Bor residence. Less than a week ago, a group of alleged Trinamool Congress supporters of the village had assaulted 9-year-old, Priti Bor, because her grandfather, Amulya Bor, had voted despite the ruling party cadres warning him not to.
Kobordanga is one of those parts of the city which seamlessly merges into the throbbing greenery of Bengal’s countryside. Women wash utensils in algae-ridden ponds, ducks waddle past clucking at their young ones. It’s like the soot, grime and high-rises of the city stand by the doorstep of this village, waiting for permission to barge in.
For the past few days, television crews and journalists have thronged the area to speak to Priti and and her disgruntled mother. As you walk along the long winding lane that leads to Priti’s house, you realise that villages are divided according to the allegiances their inhabitants keep. A gaggle of women, gathered around one corner of the lane, eye you suspiciously as you ask them the way to Amulya Bor’s residence. “We don’t know who he is,” is the curt reply. “That section of the village is full of Trinamool sympathisers,” says Amulya, dressed in spotless white shirt.
Bor, who has been a CPM supporter all his life, breeds hybrid fish in a pond in his property. “They sell quite well these days. I earn about Rs 250 a day,” he says. If he is shocked and angry about the way his granddaughter was attacked, he is not showing it. “Sovan Chatterjee, who is the local candidate, claims that it was an accident. But how can he deny that we receive threats from local Trinamool boys every year before elections?” asks Bor. For the past four years, none of the four adult voters of the Bor family have voted. “We didn’t want an trouble,” says Amulya. When he was younger, he was a staunch CPM supporter. “Though I was not actively into politics, I subscribed to the ideals of the party,” says Bor.
When he talks about the rampant bullying of the Trinamool party workers, he sounds cynical. “They have power now, they will flex muscles,” he says. Is it not true that in most Bengal villages it is CPM cadres who have joined Trinamool? “Yes, it is true that many CPM part workers in our village have changed colours, but we were not like this when we were in power,” says Bor.
Chandra Chetri, 35, school teacher, Tindharey, Darjeeling district
The 75-kilometre distance between Darjeeling and Siliguri snakes through verdant green tea gardens, pine-covered hills and quaint villages. It takes about 2.5 hours to traverse, with the newly-constructed Rohini road between Siliguri and Kurseong reducing the commute time by almost half. A turn, almost thirty kilometres before Siliguri takes you to a narrow, mettled road called the Private road.
A good 5 km downhill is Tindharey village, a village that made headlines in North Bengal as the “No Road, no vote village”. The villagers’ ire is rooted in being isolated from the rest of the district for seven years. A landslide had hit the fringes of the village, bringing down a portion of the road and affecting Tindharay and adjoining villages. The road still ends abruptly where the hill had washed down to the depths of the valley. Several days before Darjeeling went to polls, the frustrated village had announced “No road, no vote”.
Chandra Chetri,35, an English teacher of the Tindharey Higher Secondary school was one of the many who registered a NOTA vote. “I have lived here most of my life and the best thing about Tindharey is its proximity to both Siliguri and Darjeeling. We are smack in the middle. But ever since the landslide, we have ended up being a ghost town. Even the road that you took here is actually a private road for the tea garden workers,” says Chetri.
Her job as a teacher in a government school takes her to Siliguri a few times a month. “Earlier, we used to pay Rs 10 for a shared cab to Siliguri. Now I have to shell out almost Rs 50,” says Chetri. With a salary of Rs 15,000, she finds it difficult to run a household of 4 members.
“The prices of essentials have gone up. If you get chicken in Siliguri at Rs 50 a kg, it will be sold here at Rs 200 because of the reluctance of traders to bring any goods here,”she says. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, which is in alliance with the BJP, won the seat here in the last Assembly elections. “Whether it’s Trinamoll or GJM, it’s the same story. We will suffer because we are on the fringes,” says Chetri.
Krishnapada Mandi, 45, farmer, Herodih, Purulia
Herodih village, about 20 kms away from Purulia town, has the deceptive allure of being in the middle of nowhere. The district headquarters is just about a forty minute drive away, Manbazar town, with its hospital and shiny new polytechnic college is just about an hour away.
Yet, the unyieldingly flat landscape of the village inspires awe. For Krishnapada Mandi, who has never been to Purulia town in the 45 years of his existence, Herodih is the centre of the universe. “My father had a heat stroke when I was young. He died before we could take him to a hospital in the town. After that, I never felt like visiting the town,” says Krishnapada, who grows paddy in his small plot of land.
“I don’t know how much I earn every month. There is no fixed income. We eat some of the rice we produce, the rest we sell,” says Mandi. In the courtyard of his mud hut, paddy has been laid out to be dried. “We will have to boil it and dry again, that’s how you get sheddho rice (boiled rice),” he informs.
This is not harvesting season now, so times are lean. The only thing we are excited about is the elections, says Mandi. He doesn’t identify with any particular party, but is sure that in his village, Trinamool will garner the maximum number of votes. “I don’t think there is any CPM presence in our village, the last of the cadres changed their colours during the last assembly elections,” says Kalipada.
While campaigning at a rally at Manbazar, less than 15 km from Herodih village, Mamata had spoken about Sabooj Sathi, a West Bengal government scheme under which free cycles to students studying in Class IX to Class XII. “I have distributed cycles to girls in classes X and XII. We will distribute cycles to girls in classes IX and X after the elections — they are being built.” This financial year, the government plans to distribute 40 lakh cycles. It is buying directly from three manufacturers while bicycle parts are also being sent to various blocks for assembling.
Mandi, whose 13-year-old daughter got a cycle under this very scheme, seems really impressed with “Didi”. “It would take her two hours to walk to school which is ten kilometres away, now she reaches school in half the time. If not for anything, I will vote for Didi because of this scheme,” he says.