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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Singur undecided: ‘We like Didi but maybe it is good to change… it is all very confusing’

A rethink about the Tatas, lack of jobs, candidates, hawa on polling day key factors.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Singur |
Updated: April 2, 2021 4:58:17 pm
Singur, West Bengal assembly elections, Singur seat, mamata Banerjee, TMC, Singur voters, Bengal news, India news, Indian expressWilling Farmers at Singur in Hooghly. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

“Eyi”, Bikash Rai’s loud voice brings the trundling Blue Maruti Omni to a screeching halt. Thus far, sitting cross-legged in the fields, tending to the crops, Rai jogs barefoot across the cracked earth, bounding up a culvert to the dirt path where the car is now stationary. The fields behind him betray no sign of their violent history, except for a blue board which says “Krishi Vibhag”, and some giant cement pipes that have long been forgotten. To the driver, a familiar face, Rai asks, “What is happening in Nandigram? I have been in the fields. You must have watched TV.” The response is with a smile. “Bhishon lodai cholche.”(a big fight is happening) Rai laughed and said, “Good that Didi and Suvendu picked Nandigram over Singur. At least here in Singur, there is no violence so far.”

The land which 60-year-old Rai tills from 8 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon is part of the 997 acres that the Tata factory in Singur was once meant to come up on. Rai does not own the fields, but works on a salary of 350 rupees a day, which a “contractor” pays him. But 15 years after the Singur movement propelled Mamata Banerjee to the post of Chief Minister, Rai echoes what feels like a motif across the constituency. “I understood Didi’s struggle then. Farmers land was being taken away unfairly. I supported her. But now our children ask us where are the jobs, and we have no answers. Maybe if the Tata factory had come up, Singur would have had another identity, and our children may have had work,” Rai said.

Yet, when Rai speaks of jobs, there is more a sense of wistfulness than seething anger, more cautious aspiration than desperation. Both Bikash Rai, and Swapan Rai, who does the same work, do not live in Singur but the nearby Ganeshpur village which falls under the Dhanekhali Vidhan Sabha constituency. While both are in Hooghly district, Singur votes in Phase 4 on April 10, Dhanekhali votes on April 6.

Singur, West Bengal assembly elections, Singur seat, mamata Banerjee, TMC, Singur voters, Bengal news, India news, Indian express Farmers at Tata nano plant land in Singur, Hooghly. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Like Bikash, Swapan Rai too says that he is thinking about the BJP for the first time. There is hesitation in admitting this, not only because of a pervasive culture of political violence, but also because the choice isn’t clear yet. “Nobody can say that Didi has not worked. She thinks about the poor. In the lockdown, she gave us rice that helped us survive. There are so many government schemes. But the truth is, that the people she uses are her hands and legs are corrupt. They take money for everything. We like Didi but maybe it is good to change to the BJP this time. It is all very confusing,” Swapan said. But Bikash adds a speedbreaker quickly, a talking point that has grown over the past month. “But who says the BJP will do better? Do they think about the poor? Look at the rates of petrol, diesel, LPG gas. Keyo theek noi, shaab kharaab (nobody is good, everyone is bad).”

Sitting in a tea stall on the outskirts of Singur, 10 km away, BJP worker and elected panchayat member Samir Haldar nods when asked if rising prices of fuel are an unwelcome entrant in the political narrative. “It is true that when we are going house to house, people are asking me about this. But what I can tell you is that people are angrier at the lack of employment, and corruption, and the tolabaazi. I think 2011 was a big moment in Bengal’s politics. People saw that change can happen if you change the government. That will help us swing this seat, which the TMC has always won,” Haldar.

No sooner have the words left Haldar’s mouth that he is cut off by one of the men sitting around him, pointing out one of the many peculiarities in the Bengal elections. The rise of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where they won 18 seats to the TMC’s 22, winning just over 40 per cent of the vote, have rendered the 2016 results, where the BJP had 3 MLAs, irrelevant. In Singur for instance, the TMC won the 2016 election, but in 2019 while Locket Chatterjee of the BJP won the Hooghly parliamentary seat, she also led from the Singur assembly segment by close to eleven thousand votes. Haldar admits, “Over these past two years, the party has told us that the 2019 elections are our base. Forget about three seats in 2016. We won 120 assembly segments in 2019, and the TMC 164. We only have twenty to make up. In that sense, yes, Singur we must hold and not lose,” Haldar said.

Ironically then, as Haldar talks of “poriborton” and giving the BJP a chance, in the seeming absence of a strong wave of emotion for either party, candidate selection has become central to the conversation in Singur. Angered by Mamata Banerjee’s decision not to give him a ticket, ostensibly because of his old age, 88-year-old four-time TMC MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharya, who had strongly backed the Singur agitation, switched over to the BJP and was given a ticket, prompting protest from local BJP cadres. Facing him is Becharam Manna, the convenor of the Krishi Jami Raksha Samiti and sitting MLA from neighbouring Haripal. Such is Manna’s influence in the region that even Haldar admits that the “internally” the BJP tried to bring him on board. But eventually, Manna stayed in the TMC, with his wife Karabi Manna standing from the Haripal seat. Then there is 27-year-old SFI leader Srijan Bhattacharya who is the CPI(M) candidate from the Sanjukta Morcha, one of the many young faces that the Left has pushed in the election.

A BJP worker who did not want to be named admitted that the candidate selection made the seat “unnecessarily problematic for the BJP”. “Look, people still want change and so we are confident of winning. But it will take work. Mastermoshai (Bhattacharya) is a good, honest man, and people respect him. But he is 88, and in the last term, his age showed. Manna is like what Suvendu is to Nandigram. He is the man who knows every village. He has corruption and violence allegations, but he has a great network on the ground. Then there is this young boy, Srijan, who is very different to the other two. They will not win, but he is educated and well-spoken. Singur only has a eight per cent Muslim population, so any votes he takes back will be from the BJP. But that the conversation is so based around candidates means that in Singur, there is no wave for anyone. It is a dogfight for every vote,” the worker said.

Back at the Tata fields, Bikash Rai too is still debating the factors in his constituency of neighbouring Dhaniakali. But in a close fight, Rai uses that one ubiquitous political term, “hawa”. In Bengal though, “hawa” doesn’t always mean an organic political mood. Much is decided by the strength of the factors that influence the “hawa”, the organisational strength of the parties, the men at the village on the day that will influence the vote this way or the other. Rai said, “On the day of the vote, the hawa will decide for us. In the monsoon, the wind blows one way, in the winter, it blows the other way. We are poor farmers. The clouds that descend on our village will decide for us. Boojhte pacho? (Do you understand?)”

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