The panchayat (rural) poll in West Bengal is scheduled in 2018, and political parties are out to prove their strength at the grassroots level. The rural polls are also significant in that its result will also hint at the possible outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
So what are people in rural Bengal talking about? Who will they vote for? Is the widespread BJP "wave" in Bengal for real? Or, is the Trinamool Congress support base intact?
I visited Makhra village under Ilambajar block of Birbhum district to find out what is happening at the grassroots level.
Why Makhra? Because this village – and in fact, the entire block of Ilambajar under which it falls – represents a particular trend that is prevailing in several parts of the state. Villages adjoining Makhra – such as Chaumandalpur, Hansra, also have the same story to tell. It is the story of how, many villagers who had earlier shifted their allegiances from Trinamool Congress to the BJP are now back with the Trinamool Congress again.
I had visited Makhra in 2014, and was able to see this transition quite clearly.
Makhra is a relatively backward village in Bengal, with a population of 1,480, and a literacy rate of 67.59% (which is lower than the state literacy rate of 76.26%). There are 199 Scheduled Caste persons in the village (none from Scheduled Tribe) and farming is the main occupation here. There are 131 main workers and 421 marginal workers (all figures from Census of India, 2011) – another indication that the area is relatively backward. More than half of the villagers here are Muslims.
"We are Muslims. It is not right for us to support the BJP. We have made mistakes in the past, but in the long run, we must be with the Trinamool Congress."
Prior to 2011, political clashes in Bengal took place mostly between the ruling Left parties and the Opposition Trinamool. But after the Trinamool Congress came to power in West Bengal in 2011, and the BJP won considerable support in the Narendra Modi wave of 2014 Lok Sabha polls, things began to change in certain pockets of Bengal. This part of Birbhum reflected that change.
In 2014, there were violent clashes between Trinamool Congress and BJP in North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly and Birbhum districts of Bengal. The most severe bloodshed took place in Birbhum district's Panrui area – at Sattore, Kasba, Makhra and Chaumandalpur villages – all of these with majority Muslim population. Several were injured and dead.
It is all the more interesting that scores of Muslims had begun to support the BJP in these Birbhum villages in 2014, including Makhra. But the way the support for BJP has reversed completely in favour of the Trinamool Congress between 2014 and 2017 – more so in the past few months – is perhaps even more interesting.
How did this happen?
Take the case of Shahjahan Mondol, a resident of Makhra village. A farmer, Mondol lives with his parents, wife and two children – an eight-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter. Their concrete pucca house reflects that they are relatively well off from many neighbours.
Those who have visited rural homes and spoken with villagers will know that they are not secretive about the political party they support, unlike people in urban areas. In Bengal, almost every rural home is easily identified by their political allegiances. "We have always supported the Left", "We vote for the Trinamool Congress", "right now, we are supporting BJP" – these are some of the common responses from village homes.
This frankness comes not only due to their simplicity, but because political parties demand such forms of open support. This also makes it easy for an outsider to understand the situation on the ground.
Mondol's family has traditionally supported the Congress, he tells me. Later, he switched over to the Trinamool Congress, which formed the government in Bengal in 2011.
But things changed drastically from here on. Not just for Mondol, but many others like him in this part of the state.
"The TMC is using pressure tactics to win the support of villagers. Earlier, these very people were fed up with the CPM and the TMC and they had joined us. Now, many have left home out of fear."
After the TMC formed the government in Bengal, several local leaders began to assert themselves on poor villagers. According to allegations, these leaders' high-handedness had led some supporters desert the party. "Some TMC leaders demanded share of crop yield or cash. There was such a lot of torture that the BJP was quick to use the situation in their favour," said a villager who did not want to be named.
Different factions within the TMC were fighting against each other to claim their share from villagers. This infighting within the TMC had enabled BJP leaders to easily woo villagers, promising them peace if they helped them keep away the ruling party from their villages.
This area also became the BJP's model to showcase how Muslims were not against their party.
"At that time, we had joined the BJP because we wanted to see if the party leaders could save us from the torture of local TMC leaders," the villager added.
Shahjahan Mondol was among the many Muslims who joined the BJP between 2014 and 2015.
But the Trinamool Congress leadership soon began to realise how a large number of their voters – the Muslims – were leaving them for the BJP. And thus began the strategising.
Sitting at his home, Shahjahan Mondol told me, "We are Muslims. It is not right for us to support the BJP. We have made mistakes in the past, but in the long run, we must be with the Trinamool Congress. Look at the situation in Uttar Pradesh. Look at how Muslims are facing the heat all over the country under the BJP rule."
A few days before I had met him, Mondol had officially joined the TMC all over again. He said that he had met the local MLA, Chandranath Sinha, a number of times to discuss the situation. "He never forced me to re-join TMC, he explained the whole situation in the right perspective," Mondol said.
The TMC may have used a bit of patience, a bit of temperance this time to woo back the Muslim villagers into the party, but there has been a bit of pressure too.
In early May, a TMC supporter from Makhra village had been beaten up allegedly by some BJP men. Cases were slapped against several BJP men, who had initially fled home. Eventually, in the past one month, they have all returned home, one by one, only to join the TMC.
Like Mondol, in the past few months, 250-300 BJP workers from the grassroots in the Ilambajar block alone have joined the TMC. Trinamool Congress district secretary, Anubrata Mondol, said, "Only some people who were traditionally CPM supporters had joined the BJP. Our party supporters continue to be loyal to us."
However, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said, "The TMC is using pressure tactics to win the support of villagers. Earlier, these very people were fed up with the CPM and the TMC and they had joined us. Now, many have left home out of fear, and TMC leaders won't let them return home if they continue to support us. That's how they have joined the TMC again."
Whether it is with patience or with pressure, the TMC has in fact, been able to win back a large number of their supporters who had temporarily supported the BJP. And this, for sure, will be reflected in the coming panchayat polls in many parts of the state – particularly in Birbhum district.
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