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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Nandigram: On poll eve, both sides await Thursday thriller

In Nandigram, Section 144 is in force and 22 companies of central forces are posted for the 255 polling booths.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya , Amitava Chakraborty | Nandigram |
Updated: April 1, 2021 2:37:07 am
west bengal assembly elections, bengal elections voting, nandigram, nandigram elections, mamata banerjee, amit shah, suvendu adhikari, bengal elections newsTMC office in Nandigram. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

At 6.15 pm on Wednesday, Mamata Banerjee’s election agent in Nandigram, Sheikh Supian, 61, took final stock of the party’s preparations for Thursday’s polls along with TMC workers at his home near Nandigram bypass. Suddenly, his cellphone screen lit up: “Mamata Didi”.

After answering the call, Supian returned to his seat and said with a grin, “I am her election agent here. She will obviously call me.”

Hours before Nandigram, the most talked-about constituency in West Bengal, goes to the polls, the tension in both camps was palpable, coupled with hectic last-minute preparations and phone calls at party offices of both the ruling TMC and main challenger BJP. Both sides accused the other of planning to engage in violence on Thursday.

In Nandigram, Section 144 is in force and 22 companies of central forces are deployed for the constituency’s 255 polling booths.

On Wednesday, The Indian Express visited several BJP and TMC offices in the constituency.

Returning to Nandigram around 4 pm after addressing several rallies in other parts of the state, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressed the media and alleged that “outsiders and goons” have already entered the constituency. She also accused the Election Commission (EC) of supporting the BJP, and said she will stay in Nandigram until Thursday night – long after the last vote is cast.

Her BJP opponent – one-time confidant Suvendu Adhikari – plans to cast his vote early.

But with campaigning having ended Tuesday evening, the action on Wednesday had moved away from the leaders and their rallies to the workers of both parties on the ground as they planned and reworked strategies for D-day.

Wearing a green lungi and a sky-blue T-shirt, Supian said, “I will be in the area from early Thursday. She (Banerjee) was concerned about my security. I have Y-category security – let’s see who attacks me. There is a conspiracy against Mamata Banerjee, but the people are with her.”

About 16 km from Supian’s home is Birulia Bazar, where Banerjee received an injury to her leg on March 10. Located at Nandigram-2 block, Birulia Bazar is a BJP stronghold and also has the party’s oldest office in the area, set up in 2011. At noon, BJP district leader Pralay Pal reviewed the final poll preparations with other party leaders and workers.

Pal, 42, a former TMC worker who had received a phone call from the CM on March 26 seeking his support in her campaign, told local BJP leader Arup Jana and a group of workers: “No need to sleep tonight. Call the boys at 4 am (Thursday). Tell them to reach their respective booths early; to stay alert and watch out for miscreants. Tonight in very important.”

He said, “Since our CM called me and sought my help, and my party highlighted the audio clip, I have got three security guards. (Home Minister) Amit Shah came to Reyapara yesterday and met me – he gave me his blessings. For the last few days I leave home at 6 am and return around 2.30 am – tonight I will not sleep.”

Alleging that the TMC is trying to spread terror in the villages, Pal added, “However, there is no question that Suvendu-da will win with a huge margin.”

Dipak Das, 31, in-charge of four booths in Uttar Golpukhuria village and a BJP member since 2019, said: “Our job is cut out for tomorrow. We have to ensure that agents sit in booths. No matter what happens, they will not leave their seats. We will also have to ensure that villagers can come and vote peacefully. If there is trouble from the TMC, we will inform the authorities. If that fails, the people will resist.”

About 15 km away, a group of BJP workers sat with banners and flags at a makeshift ‘election office’ in Takapura village. The office was put up just 15 days ago and has pictures of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Bharat Mata, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, along with Jan Sangh and BJP leaders such as Deendayal Upadhyay, Syamaprasad Mookerjee and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Debkumar Das, 25, who sells bread in Kolkata’s Manicktolla, said he came home three months ago on leave to work for the elections. A BJP member since 2019, he is in charge of five booths in Kamalpur, abutting Takapura. Sitting beside him was Santanu Sen, 36, who also works in Kolkata and joined the saffron party three months ago.

“My job is to ensure people vote for the right candidate – (Suvendu) Dada,” said Sen, who was earlier with TMC and is a self-proclaimed “follower of Dada”.

Das threw a challenge: “I have the numbers of all policemen and others. If anything happens, I will call them immediately. Let TMC people try and disturb our booths.”

About 30 km away in Reyapara is the block TMC office. Inside, a group of party workers were watching Mamata’s press conference – her rented accommodation in Nandigran is merely half a kilometre away. “One of our workers have been beaten up and is now fighting for life at SSKM Hospital in Kolkata,” Mahadeb Bag, TMC block president, said and moved to an adjacent room, where he was seen making hectic phone calls.

Party workers claimed that “Didi will win by a huge margin”.

“We are proud that she chose to contest from Nandigram and decided to rent a house here. She will win by more than 50,000 votes and we expect she will have the swearing-in ceremony in Nandigram,” said party worker Dipankar Bag.

Referring to Suvendu Adhikari, Narayan Das, 40, TMC worker and a carpenter by profession, said: “The one we respected has now become a ‘gaddar’ (traitor). He will lose. He is trying to bring miscreants from outside and loot votes here. But he will not succeed – the people will resist. Now we have to ensure voters, especially women, reach polling stations and vote freely,”

Both Dipankar and Narayan are with the TMC since 2007.

Back at his party office, Supian targetted the Election Commission and the central forces as well: “They are not neutral. In various areas, ‘bike bahini’ (goons on motorobikes) from outside are going from village to village, threatening voters. What is the meaning of so much central force, Section 144 imposed here? This is unprecedented. The SDPO and IC were transferred just 24 hours before the elections…”

But the BJP, he claimed, has “no organisation” and will thus fail to provide agents at more than 70 booths. “Didi will win by 70,000 votes,” Supian maintained.

A five-minute drive from his home, at the corner of Nandigram bypass, stands a makeshift election day camp office of the TMC, where 40 or so people sat on plastic chairs. Lights were yet to be put up.

“My job is to wake up early and reach the booth by 6 am tomorrow,” said Mafijul Khan, TMC agent of booth number 70 in Dakshin Nandigram. “I do not think I will see an agent from the BJP in my booth. We worked hard during campaign; Didi has worked harder. She is in our hearts…”

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