BASIRHAT, West Bengal — The crowd of men and women strained against the waist-high bamboo barricade, phone-cameras at the ready.
“I told you, I was not lying. She will be here with us any moment now,” a local Trinamool Congress (TMC) party worker shouted to the surging crowd. “She will speak to you, wave at you, listen to you.”
From the convoy of SUVs and police vehicles, emerged Nusrat Jahan looking every inch the Tollywood star that she is.
When 29-year-old Jahan was named the ruling TMC’s Lok Sabha candidate from Basirhat, a communal sensitive town along the Bangladesh border, her nomination was met with a fair amount of mockery and surprise.
In 2017, Basirhat, a Muslim majority constituency, was rocked by violent clashes when a teenage Hindu boy posted a Facebook status that allegedly mocking the prophet. Shops run by Hindus were set on fire, the local police station in Baduria vandalised even as the local Muslim religious heads called for peace and restrain.
Jahan, a familiar name in commercial Bengali film circles with hits like Khoka 420 and Haripada Bandwala to her credit, a convent school education from Our Lady Queen of the Missions School in South Kolkata, and a fixture in the city’s affluent social circles, seemed an unlikely replacement for Idris Ali, TMC strongman and a long-time MP from this volatile constituency.
Over the past few weeks however, Jahan appears to have vindicated the TMC’s faith in her. Her rallies have drawn crowds eager to see her, listen to her speeches, and even hear her sing.
Jahan is playing the role of the reconciliation candidate to perfection. On campaign stops she visits local temples, and her Facebook photographs are a strategic mix of candid photos of her eating puchkas and rolls, tastefully staged photographs of her in idyllic rural settings, and shots of her addressing large public gatherings. On April 14, her page shared a photograph of her wishing her followers Ram Navami, attracting likes and comments from both Hindus and Muslims.
“Every one, Hindus and Muslims know her through her films. They all want to see her in person, hear her speak,” said Rini Bibi, a TMC panchayat member who said Jahan was perhaps the TMC’s best shot at bypassing the communal fault lines running through Basirhat.
“The minority and Hindus both like me for my work,” Jahan said, in an interview with HuffPost India. “I am kind of the common factor between two and would not let communal forces spoil that and create a stir.”
Her principal opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, alienated some of its own supporters when the party leadership nominated the BJP’s state general secretary, Sayantan Basu to stand against Jahan. Thus far, Basu has distinguished himself by calling on central paramilitary forces to shoot those who seek to disrupt the election in the chest.
Jahan meanwhile, has provided deftness needed to paper over the TMC’s own spotty record of police abuses and human rights violations.
“You can’t beat people to death and then ask people to vote for you,” Jahan said, except that political fronts in Bengal — be it the left forces or the TMC — have a hoary history of expecting precisely that.
FROM TOLLYWOOD TO POLITICS
Nusrat Jahan got her first major break in 2011 in Shotru, a Bengali remake of the Tamil film Singham, in which she plays Puja — a village girl who falls in love with a dashing police inspector whilst on a trip to the city to visit her grandfather.
After Shotru, she acted in a series of comedies and potboiler crime dramas that met with significant commercial success, particularly in rural and smaller towns and settlements like Basirhat. She had her first brush with politics in 2016 when she was a star campaigner for the TMC in the state elections, and is at pains to point out that she has developed a relationship with the constituency she hopes to win.
“We have seasons of ‘macha shows’ here. I performed five times in one season in Basirhat because the people wanted me. So the people are familiar with me and wouldn’t think of me as someone who’ll win a vote and never be seen here again,” she said, referring to song and dance events organised across Bengal’s villages through the winter months.
“I do not dance in public. So I entertain them, speak with them and I even started singing for them though I am not a trained singer,” she said. In fact, she pointed out, it was the audience at her shows who would push her to sing, something she has been now doing regularly at her political rallies.
Jahan’s rallies often carry a cinematic aura. She often lets the speakers before her attack the opposition. She doesn’t foreground her identity as a Muslim woman, but rather speaks of love, amity, and the schemes launched by the TMC government. At a recent rally she hollered at the crowd and asked them to ‘raise their hands to bless her’. As most of the crowd kept fanning their paper fans vigorously, Jahan egged them on till a ripple of raised arms ran through the gathering. Then, she ended her brief speech with a song, stopping occasionally to urge the crowd to sing with her.
A few minutes into her 10-minute long speech in Baduria, when the crowd fell quiet, Jahan brought up Mamata Banerjee. “I am not asking you to vote for me, vote for Didi, I will simply work for her,” she said, as the crowd came alive, hooting in intervals.
The only thing she said of her BJP opponent was that he had “no love in his heart.” “How can people who talk about shooting human beings ever be able to foster love and humanity,” she said.
As a film actress entering politics, the announcement of Jahan’s candidature was met with predictable misogyny. Two men, including a member of the BJP’s IT cell in West Bengal, was arrested for making vulgar memes about her, while garden-variety trolls reveled in abusing her on Twitter and Facebook. Mimi Chakraborty, another popular Bengali film actor campaigning for the TMC this year, has been viciously trolled as well.
“The thing about being an actor is these things don’t bother you. Trolling has become vicious and terrible, and the best thing to do is ignore,” Jahan said. “I was trolled when I simply wished people Happy Durga Puja. Now what can we do?” she said.
The trolls, Jahan said, are like ’disgruntled lovers”. “They just want some attention, and sorry, I can’t give them that.”
Jahan’s constituency is also one which was the subject of a concerted fake news campaign spearheaded by BJP workers from across the country. Clips of Bhojpuri movies were circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook as scenes from the Hindu-Muslim riots, where a woman is shown being disrobed. FIRs were lodged against several BJP leaders and some BJP workers were arrested in Bengal as well.
Jahan, however, believes that fake news can’t eclipse a personal interaction with a candidate. “They have a lot of money to put into things like this. So they are doing it. We believe that people are intelligent and can see through it,” she said.
She also said she’d talk about it and would ‘leave no stone unturned to counter the BJP’.
Growing up and working in Kolkata, Jahan said she had not quite looked assessed her identity as a Muslim till the past few years. Now Jahan said, BJP had brought the xenophobia right to her doorstep, or to be more accurate, her phone screen.
“Who beats people like that,” Jahan said, pointing to videos of lynchings and gau rakshaks doing the rounds of social media. She grimaced as she described the shock of watching the video of a Muslim man being force fed pork in Assam. “He is covered in mud, there’s mud all over his face, his mouth… I don’t remember seeing something this horrible in the past,” she said.
She said, over the nine years she has worked in films and travelled across Bengal for shows, she had never heard any dispute over who can eat what. “You are denying people their food, what kind of people are you? This doesn’t work in Bengal,” Jahan said referring to the BJP’s ban on sale of beef in many states.
On accusations of Trinamool going out of their way to ‘appease’ minorities, Jahan said, “Didi can do these things because nobody thought about the development of minorities before them. Now that she is doing for them, BJP is getting bugged.”
“Just because she wants to give them a better life and equal opportunities, she has become a Muslim? It’s such a shitty thing to say,” Jahan said referring to BJP’s popular rhetoric of calling Mamata ‘Mumtaz’.
On the other hand, Jahan said, Modi is an ‘amazing’ orator but is mostly guilty of indulging in ‘batela’ — a Bengali slang for making empty claims.
Prabir, a Baduria resident who wanted to be identified just by his first name, said that Nusrat’s popularity is indeed a great ploy to engage the ‘simple people’.
“Not everybody thinks about politics, communal issues right? Sometimes, simple people just want to vote for someone they like,” he said, adding Jahan will comfortably win from the constituency. “There is probably a rise in the number of people who associate Hindus with BJP, but that’s a minority really. Also BJP, CPM. Congress have all put up candidates here, so they will simply eat each others’ votes.”
Back on the campaign trail, Jahan rolled down the car’s windows and waved at a teenager taking her photo.
“How old are you? Are you 18?” she said. “I would have asked her to vote for me if she is of age.”
The teenager smiled nervously, Jahan laughed, and the restless crowd pulled out their camera phones and took her picture.