THE COLOUR is changing in Dhenua, a village in Bardhaman district, West Bengal’s ‘rice bowl’. As acres of green paddy slowly ripens to gold with the onset of winter, the political mood, having changed from red to green in May this year, is slowly tilting towards saffron, it appears. Dhenua, along with more than 150 villages, will go to the polls on Saturday in Monteswar assembly constituency, necessitated by the death of the local MLA, Trinamool Congress’s Sajal Panja.
Dhenua, now with 4,600 voters, has been unwaveringly loyal to the CPI(M) for over 40 years. Even when the Red Bastion that was Bardhaman started turning green with rapid inroads by the TMC, and Mamata Banerjee swept the district in 2011, Dhenua stood ground. When Monteswar finally fell in May 2016, after a fierce battle, Dhenua remained unbending, having thrown its weight behind three-time CPI(M) MLA Chaudhry Mohammad Hidaitullah, who lost to Panja by 706 votes.
But that’s changing.
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“We have been hearing about the Prime Minister’s plans to curtail black money, and to bring it back. We are happy. We don’t care whether we directly benefit from this — we are just happy that moneylenders who have been oppressing us for years, and have been stashing cash, may finally be served justice,’’ said Shanti Majhi, 50. “This is our revenge — we are very happy that they (moneylenders) will now be very unhappy.”
Monteswor has a Muslim population of 43 per cent — there are 900 Muslim votes in Dhenua alone — but that is hardly bothering Biswajeet Poddar, 42, the BJP candidate. This vote will be split between CPI(M) and TMC. “We don’t expect to change the government with just one or two elections. But people are increasingly turning towards us. With the scrapping of notes, the votes are now ours,’’ he said. “Voters have been coming up to me and saying that I don’t need to campaign; that they will vote for the BJP because of Narendra Modi, because of what he has done.”
About the issue of demonetisation, Poddar said, “No one is against the decision in this constituency. Many shopkeepers are still accepting Rs 500 notes. There is no problem.” Local TMC supporters said that the by-election is of huge significance to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee: it is the first election since the Supreme Court’s Singur verdict went in her favour, the first since TMC was registered as a national party, and the first since the demonetisation decision that Mamata has hit out against, seeking its revocation.
The by-election is seen by many as a precursor to the state panchayat polls in 2018, and the 2019 General Election.
“We are facing off with the Trinamool but in my mind the greater rival for us in both the state and the country is the BJP. They have polarised the country in way that we thought was not possible,’’ said former CPI(M) MLA Chaudhry Mohammad Hidaitullah, managing the party’s campaign for the bypolls.
On the eve of the bypolls, the lines outside banks remained long almost through the day, and ATMs had signs of “No Cash’’, but workers of all three main parties maintained that the inconveniences have “not reached alarming proportions’’. “Demonitisation has not affected anyone in this village. How can it? We never used Rs 500 or Rs 1000 notes anyway. That’s for the big people,’’ Shanyi Majhi said.