She’s back in Malda with 16 days to go for the election. It’s 10 am and every candidate worth his salt has already hit the dirt-tracks. But this lady still finds time for a relaxed conversation.
“You’ve come all the way from Calcutta,” she says, impressed.
Meet Ruby Noor, Congress candidate from Sujapur. In 1996, she was the only Congress candidate outside Calcutta to have got two-thirds the valid votes and the only Congress candidate outside Calcutta to win by a margin that was similar to the number of votes her opponent polled.
Her delayed departure for Sujapur can, however, only partly be explained by statistics. Statistics don’t reveal the most important reason for her relaxed state: she is the sister of A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury.
Ruby Noor, therefore, will talk only of the number of votes by which she expects to defeat her CPM rival this time.
“People love me, they consider me their family,” she says. She doesn’t forget to add what she does to get that love: “My house is always open to them whenever they are in trouble.”
Her CPM rival this time, Abdur Rauf, is not any major trouble, Noor says. But Rauf, husband of Malda zilla sabhadhipati Shefali Khatoon, is proving to be an irritant, she admits.
“We constructed a road at Kathalbagan from my elder brother’s MP quota and were waiting for him to come back from Delhi to inaugurate it. But they hastily organised an inaugural ceremony and Shefali and her husband were there to cut the ribbon,” she says. The memory still pricks.
Rauf and his wife are working overtime to achieve what would be, if it happens, Malda’s upset of the millennium, say district CPM functionaries.
“We’re doing our best to defeat Noor,” says CPM district secretary Sailen Sarkar, who is himself fighting against Ghani Khan’s shadow in Ratua.
But Sarkar’s colleagues admit that even their “best” may not be enough to unseat Noor. Problems abound for Sujapur’s voters — arsenic-contamination of drinking water is the main scourge now — but they look set to continue with their “family loyalty” once again.
Noor knows that. Her greatest strength, she says, is her brother’s blessings. “No one can defeat me as long as Dada is by my side.” Amen.
That’s what Dipak Sarkar’s demeanour says. He removes his gold-rimmed glasses, places them on the glass-topped table, wipes his eyes with a towel and settles deeper into the high-backed swivel chair. It threatens to be a long lecture in his office at the three-storeyed district headquarters of the CPM.
“What was Midnapore like before we came? Nothing. Little better than a wasteland. Look what we have done to it. Our biggest achievement on the industrial front — Haldia Petrochemicals — is here; Operation Barga and the redistribution of land to the marginal farmers have almost covered the district. Midnapore is grateful to us. This time we will win and win handsomely. Don’t ask me for figures. Right now I can only say that we will win many more seats than we did the last time.” In a downstairs room, a Sarkar aide predicts the Left will win at least 30 seats.
In other words, Midnapore owes it to us, the CPM, the comrades. The unstated threat: Midnapore dare not do otherwise.
Cut to Khakurda village, where Mamata Banerjee is claiming the Trinamul-Congress alliance will sweep the polls. Ninety per cent of her ministry, she is saying, will comprise her party’s elected representatives from Midnapore.
In more than one way, the battle for Bengal this time is the battle for Midnapore. It is where political rivalry in the state is at its bitterest and most violent.
If Sarkar is to be believed, Midnapore, the largest district in the country, will return excellent figures for the Left. In 1996, the Left — the CPM and the CPI — won 28 of the district’s 37 seats. The Congress got eight and the Jharkhand Party one. The results were more or less reflected in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Trinamul, which had taken away the Congress vote, in alliance with the BJP, led in 10 Assembly segments.
This means that Midnapore has given to the party in full measure. The district shed its traditional politics and donned red colours in 1977. Since then, like much of Bengal, it has sent up contingent after large contingent of Marxist MLAs. The Marxists can’t have enough of Midnapore. Only, Midnapore is beginning to tire.
A little farther north of the CPM office, in a ground-floor tenement, Trinamul has a largish room for itself. Activists, mostly youths, are sprawled on the rough floor covered by torn mats. Many claim they are refugees — unable to return to their villages in Keshpur and Garbeta and Pingla where CPM cadre have effectively banned their entry. “If there is a real election in which people really cast their votes then we will be the real winners,” says Mohsin Khan. “We showed it in the Panskura Lok Sabha bypoll last year.”
Trinamul had held up the bypoll as a watershed. It rammed its way through Keshpur, the Assembly segment that had since 1982 always stood by the Left, and ensured a lead of more than 6,000 votes for its candidate Bikram Sarkar. The bloodletting that followed is among the most sordid chapters in Bengal’s recent political history.
What it showed up most, however, is that vast parts of Midnapore are caught in a political swing. Booth-capturing is passe in Midnapore. It is how many villages are captured that will determine the result. In Keshpur, where the CPM has won back almost the entire territory, villagers have learnt to camouflage their sympathies. The CPM is still nervy about what many of them will do once inside the polling booth.
Trinamul’s hopes lie in the main in Tamluk and Contai subdivisions. All contenders agree that the alliance has two candidates who are sure winners: Gyan Singh Sohanpal in Kharagpur town and Sisir Adhikari in Contai South. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the party led in nine segments, seven of them in the Tamluk belt.
The other two segments were Garbeta East — represented by minister of state for transport Sushanta Ghosh — and Keshpur itself. Given the scale of the CPM’s organisation here, Trinamul cannot hope to win these seats unless, as local leader Mohsin Khan puts it, “our people are allowed to return home”. The other constituency where the CPM does not fancy its chances is Binpur — where Jharkhand Party (Hansda) candidate Chunibala Hansda is in a straight fight with Shambhu Mandi.
But these trends are superficial. They reflect the last Lok Sabha polls. Where Midnapore surprises is in its ability to conceal its real intentions. In the 1996 Assembly polls, this was the district with the singular distinction of being home to constituencies that saw the highest and the lowest margins in the state. In Jhargram, CPM candidate Buddhadeb Bhakat won by 67,911 votes. In Ramnagar, the CPM won by 50 votes.
In past elections, the BJP, too, has shown its ability to win votes that can turn it into a spoiler. However, this time, Midnapore is so polarised and so high is the anti-incumbency factor that the possibility of the Opposition vote splitting wide open is getting less remote as the campaign progresses.
In Midnapore, the party is over. The orgy is only just beginning.
Habibpur, like the other constituencies in Malda which share an international border with Bangladesh, has always been a fertile breeding ground for the sangh parivar’s version of nationalism.
It was in Old Malda, another border constituency, that the BJP chose to make its most significant political statement in West Bengal when it arranged the mass-reconversion drive for “wayward” Muslims and Christians last year.
It has been Malda, more than any other district, which has always provided a stream of believers for the various arms of the Great Hindu Family. And a stream of zealots who rushed to Ayodhya to make a temple out of a mosque on December 6, 1992.
Last year’s reconversion exercise of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has been matched by a similar political reconversion drive by the political wing of the parivar: the BJP has succeeded in bringing thousands of traditional Left and Congress voters to its fold in Malda.
Not surprisingly, one of the constituencies in Bengal where the party netted the maximum percentage of votes in 1999 was Malda; party candidate Muzaffar Khan, a resident of Calcutta, got about a fifth of the valid votes polled.
District BJP leaders admit that the windfall has been the result of a long grudge borne by people living on India’s porous border with Bangladesh.
“Cattle-lifting and infiltration” — pat comes BJP district president Adhir Karmakar’s reply when asked what were the two most important factors that contributed to the party’s growth in Malda.
BJP leaders admit — discreetly — that the windfall has also been the result of some assiduous and long-term nurturing of anti-minority sentiments. That the district has one minority voter for every majority voter has made the party’s task easier, they explain.
Predictably, this is one district where the BJP hasn’t had too much difficulty in finding a candidate for all 11 seats. And, even more predictably, the prospects of the BJP are directly proportional to the length of the border a constituency shares with Bangladesh. Habibpur, for instance, is the constituency with the longest border with India’s eastern neighbour; pundits predict that this constituency will see a Left Front-BJP fight rather than a CPM versus Trinamul-Congress contest.
But, ultimately, the rise of the BJP has been a boon for the party it loves to hate, the CPM. The prospect of triangular fights in almost every seat will make — rather than mar — the CPM’s chances just as the BJP helped the Left reduce Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s margin to 24,000 in 1999.
The enemy’s enemy is not always a friend. Not in electoral politics.
If at all, it is cause for more paperwork — deputations, memoranda, letters — to the chief electoral officer, the Chief Election Commissioner, the chief secretary, the home secretary, the press...
For Manas Bhuinya, contesting on a Congress ticket from Sabang — his constituency in Midnapore district — for the fifth time, elections mean more paperwork. The fact that Sabang is a seat where every election is won and lost on the slenderest of margins, means Bhuinya has more paperwork to do. None of it is yielding the doctor a prescription for victory, though.
In Midnapore’s often-violent politics, where contending parties are out to “capture” territories, organisational might will shape the result. Right now, Bhuinya is at his wit’s end because he has little or no access, he alleges, to villages in five of the 13 panchayats in his constituency. “I am aware that this election might be determined by the smallest of margins. I cannot let go of even an inch,” he says.
“Armed party cadre of the CPM are patrolling these villages. I cannot go in.” Cause for more paperwork. More than half of Sabang’s 1.35 lakh electorate are in these villages, he says. “If this situation continues for much longer, I will just barge into the office of the district magistrate one day with my supporters and stay put till these people are evicted.”
The violent tactics apart, Bhuinya is nervous because there is little evidence that his popularity has dramatically increased in Sabang.
The Congress controls three of the 13 panchayats; the Trinamul and the BJP one. Two panchayats are controlled by dissident CPM activists and the CPM controls seven. The possibility that violence might break out is high. In that event, the power-shifts in the villages will determine the outcome.In 1996, Bhuinya was declared to have lost by 800-odd votes. The poll was rigged, he alleged, and went to the High Court. He was overjoyed when the court gave a sympathetic order. But the Supreme Court asked the High Court to reconsider and the case is still being fought.
Bhuinya goes to campaign with, what he says, is a moral victory behind him. In 1996 — the only time Bhuinya was defeated — he lost to Makhanlal Bangal, the Left Front candidate from the Biplabi Bangla Congress (BBC) that seems to register its presence only in a solitary Assembly seat. This time, the BBC candidate, Tushar Laya, is even contesting on the CPM election symbol.
Between 1982 and 1991, Bhuinya’s margins of victory have varied from 630 to 3,600 votes. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the CPM had a lead of 17,000 votes in the Sabang Assembly segment. If the Trinamul-Congress alliance has to work anywhere in Midnapore district, it must be Sabang. The Congress and the Trinamul polled 6,000 more votes in the last Lok Sabha poll.
The alliance is also making its presence in Bhuinya’s campaign. The local Trinamul leader, Anil Maity, supervises it from the party office; Trinamul and Congress workers accompany Bhuinya in his mostly door-to-door campaign. They also play the local card: Laya does not belong to Sabang as Bhuinya does.
Bhuinya’s house is in Bhikni Nishchintapur village where his wife Geeta calls the shots. Their 22-year-old son is in the third year of a medical college in Karnataka. Bhuinya still practises — “every Saturday, Sunday and Monday” — and hopes the goodwill among his patients will translate into votes.
For the next decade, too, they voted governments to power in Bengal. But in the 1980s, they voted for the first time to determine Bihar’s political future. In 1991, census officials from Bengal visited them. They were listed as Indian citizens residing in Bengal. But in 1999, they again voted for a Bihar constituency, the Sahibganj Lok Sabha seat.
Earlier this year, census officials from Bengal visited them. Three months later, they got to know that they were not on the voters’ list for the Bengal Assembly election.
The one lakh people of the chars formed by the Ganges’ wavering course, know only one thing for certain: they are Indians. They are proud of their nationality, but very confused about their statehood.
Things were not so confusing in the past. But the Ganges’ constant gnawing-away at the Malda coast has pushed the 12 villages of the chars closer to Bihar.
As the Ganges pushed them farther away from Bengal, they found the state government taking less interest in their affairs. The nearest school and hospital in Bengal is a three-hour journey. Malda town — headquarters of “their” district, where they still have to go to pay taxes — is five hours away.
The government of Bihar tried to do something about them. It built a school but forgot to appoint a teacher. Mohammad Tajmul Haque, an unemployed youth, stays in the school building and runs a coaching centre from there. There’s another school close by but children refuse to go there. “They face the language barrier in Bihar’s schools,” explains Haque.
But villagers are now refusing to take things lying down anymore. They gheraoed census officials when they came in February this year. “We demanded that they first give an assurance that they would take care of our necessities,” says Mohammad Jhaksu Sheikh. They still remember how after a visit by the Bengal census directorate people in 1991, Bihar officials started shunning them.
The villagers, dumped by both Bihar and Bengal, now look at the colourful poll campaign across the Ganges in “real” Bengal. Their neighbours across the river are going to vote for or against Abu Hassem Khan Chowdhury, Congress candidate from Kaliachak and brother of A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, “creator” of the district to which they once belonged.
They will hear the crackers burst. On a clear night, they might even see the fireworks in the distance.
Later, they will also hear of the leader who won without their votes.
Second-string leaders and workers of the Congress and its cousin, the Tamil Maanila Congress, are keeping away from electioneering in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts. A few rebels have also entered the fray.
While the Congress has drawn a blank in Kanyakumari under the “Jaya regime”, in adjoining Tirunelveli, the TMC has lost out on three of the constituencies it won last time.
The feeling was summed up by a senior TMC leader in Kanyakumari: “You will be surprised that in this district the Congress has managed to retain its base, though elsewhere it might have become moribund. In fact, the Congress and the TMC could lord it over for decades here. Our main enemy is the CPM, the BJP is slowly growing here and the Dravidian parties have only a token presence. But see, how we have bungled and allowed the arrogant Jaya to dictate which seats we should contest in our own backyard. The Congress has not been given a single seat here, where the two Congresses could sweep the polls even if we contest independently, as we have done in the past. That’s all because a coterie around our ailing leader Moopanar has chosen to destroy the Congress movement to bag a few seats for themselves in areas where the party is weak and is at the mercy of the ADMK…”
He, himself, had wanted to rebel and contest as an Independent, protesting against the allocation of his home constituency to another ADMK front partner, but subsequently withdrew under pressure from the high command.
But an angry M. Appavoo, a popular school teacher-turned-politician in Tirunelveli, has not proved to be that pliable, and is contesting as an Independent from Radhapuram. The sitting MLA is taking on the DMK and the PMK.
Jayalalitha’s decision to field a PMK candidate in a district without even a token presence of Vanniars, the PMK votebank, has surprised observers. Moreover, the goodwill the TMC leader enjoys here is there for all to see.
“He attends to our grievances with alacrity. He got us this irrigation tank, a long-pending demand which even a minister from this area could not achieve,” said a resident in his constituency, echoing the view of the electorate. In fact, activists from the rival DMK, MDMK, and Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam are working for him enthusiastically.
The result is, however, not a foregone conclusion. Appavoo cannot even hope to match the money and muscle power of the other two candidates. But he could take away enough votes and, thus, administer a resounding snub to both
Jayalalitha and her favourite
for the time being, PMK boss
But Appavoo is playing it safe. While asserting that he would come up trumps, he said: “Our party has messed up the whole scene. I won’t blame her (Jayalalitha)… It’s my enemies in my own party who did me in.”
Rivalry within and between the Congress and its cousin has further affected its chances. Alagiri, a Congress MLA who stood a good chance, was snubbed by Amma, who gave away his seat, Chidambaram in northern Tamil Nadu, to the PMK. But he was done in by TMC leaders, who scuttled his chances in the other two seats he was pitching for.
Another TMC MLA from Tirunelveli has crossed over to the BJP in disgust. Party general secretary Peter Alphonse, an articulate politician who comes from this region, is so cut up that he is keeping away from campaigning.
Most of them made no bones about the harm to Jayalalitha’s prospects. The workers’ frustration is going to badly affect the ADMK front in the southern region, where a sweep was expected.
Defying poll logic, Jayalalitha has cracked down on the slightest hint of defiance. After wooing Moopanar and the Congress back to her front, she systematically targeted all their star candidates and bastions. She has even snatched the seats of her known detractors in the CPI.
But the CPM has escaped her wrath and got the seats it wanted, a reward for its unquestioning loyalty. In gratitude, it has come out with posters denouncing the “injustice meted out to her by an evil Karunanidhi government which has conspired to get her disqualified”.
Jayalalitha’s move has taken TMC rebel and Amma-baiter P. Chidambaram by surprise. He said: “Leave the CPM to stew in its own juice… what is surprising is that she should have tried to destroy her own allies even before the polls when she desperately needs every single vote she could garner from anywhere she could…”
Whether resentment among her allies would dent Jayalalitha’s poll prospects remains to be seen. But the fact is that the two Congresses will suffer a serious erosion in their ranks and the BJP will come out trumps.
Though RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav held his ground in Patna today, retaining most of his MLAs, a possible legal pitfall around the corner kept him on tenterhooks.
If Laloo is incarcerated in Hazaribagh jail, in BJP-ruled Jharkhand, in the fodder scam case, his hold over Patna will weaken considerably. The fear of this is so great that the RJD convention adopted a resolution to condemn the Jharkhand government’s public statement that Hazaribagh jail is being prepared to accommodate the RJD chief.
“This is very funny. There is no chargesheet by the CBI as yet. The question whether he will be in jail or not is a judge’s prerogative. But it has already been decided by the Jharkhand government whose jail minister has made a public statement on this. This only exposes the BJP conspiracy,” said Ramchandra Purve, state minister for parliamentary affairs.
Laloo, however, put on a brave face and told the party executive earlier in the day: “I see a stronger RJD in future as I see my former colleagues standing shoulder to shoulder on a burning deck with Ranjan Yadav.”
The rebels led by Ranjan Yadav are equally confident of success. “The game has just started. Although we don’t believe in taking revenge for the pounding we received, our supporters will be on our side more openly now,” said Chatra MP Nagmani, a leader of the RJD (democratic), formed by the rebels yesterday.
The rebel’s strategy seems to be to carry the momentum of yesterday’s split to the Bihar Assembly and the Rajya Sabha, which holds the key to the political future of both factions.
Nagmani’s efforts to split the RJD in the Rajya Sabha has, however, suffered a setback. With only three members openly rebelling against Laloo, including Ranjan Yadav, Kum Kum Rai and Dharma Virio Bhante, the group needs one more member to split the 10 member unit. “We will not show our cards now. It will be clear in a day or two,” Nagmani said.
But back in Bihar, Laloo hit out at his detractors and categorically ruled out a split in the state legislature party. RJD spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari declared that the party stands behind Laloo, after the national executive met this morning to take stock of the situation.
“We are not aware of the split or any party being formed. The expulsion was a step intended to send a lesson that no one was expected to take party discipline for a ride,” said Tiwari.
He said the national executive unanimously endorsed the expulsion of Ranjan Yadav and Bhante (Rajya Sabha members) and Lok Sabha member Nagmani from the party for six years. The party also decided to defer organisational polls from July to October.
Besides, most of the 12 MLAs who had earlier been identified as rebels came back to the Laloo fold, with the exception of former finance minister Shankar Prasad Tekriwal and Ramdas Rai, another former minister.
Despite pressure from some leaders to take drastic action against Tekriwal and Rai, Laloo himself exercised restraint in punishing any state-level leader but set up a disciplinary committee to look into each complaint of anti-party activity and deal with it.
Minutes before, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) worker was closing his small shop in Kotoloborkuchi village when five men suddenly emerged from the darkness and pushed him into a corner, cursing him for campaigning for his party. Then the beating began and the blows to his head sent him crashing.
More than the booming voices of the Ulfa “boys”, it was the cold steel of the revolver barrel thrust against his temple that clearly told Kalita of the danger he was in. Yet, in desperation, he was hoping that it was not a gun but an iron rod that the Ulfa boys were threatening him with.
“At times like this, you like to think that even the improbable is probable,” Kalita said two days after the Ulfa boys had left him bleeding on the floor with a final warning they would kill him if he did not boycott the polls. “But I know these people don’t play games and carry out every threat that they issue.”
Kalita has now decided that his life is more precious than party.
Twenty kilometres away, in Bahjani, at the home of Ulfa’s deputy commander-in-chief Raju Barua, his mother sits desolately in one corner, weeping at the fate that has befallen her. Her elder son fled from home to join the “organisation” 15 years ago and has not shown up since; her son-in-law was shot in a revenge killing by a Sulfa hit squad a few months ago; her husband has become a schizophrenic, unable to take the shock.
Her only hope is younger son Hitesh, a teacher in the village school. “The day he goes, I should be taken away also, for what will be there to live for,” Saryubala says quietly, wiping away a tear. “And now, with the elections around the corner, who knows what harm may come to us. My son-in-law is dead, and they may soon come calling for my son and daughter as well.”
Nalbari is a microcosm of Assam today, with its tangled mesh of problems.
Many top-rung Ulfa leaders are from this district as also some of the better known Sulfa “bosses”; the mass killings of the state’s minority Hindi-speaking people began in this district and continues here sporadically; the separatist National Democratic Front of Bodoland is firmly rooted here and is involved in a violent fratricidal war with the pro-talk Bodo Liberation Tigers; this district has the dubious distinction of recording one of the highest unemployment figures in the state.
It was also in Nalbari that the state BJP leadership, fuming at the alliance with the AGP “imposed” on it by the Centre, broke with the parent party and formed the Asom BJP. The Congress, a strong contender for power this time, has generally been making the most of the discontent in the BJP’s state unit.
“In Assam, it is Nalbari which has always shown the way and will continue to do so,” says Hiranya Bhattacharya, the leader of the new party and its candidate from Nalbari. “The AGP-BJP alliance will use all its money and muscle power to get its way. But we will not be deterred by violence and will teach them a lesson.”
But, in fact, it is the AGP today that is more worried by the Ulfa’s poll boycott call and the spate of attacks unleashed on its cadre. At least three AGP functionaries have been killed, two in Nalbari itself, and its election office blown up with a grenade in the heart of Guwahati.
At his heavily-guarded office in Nalbari town, where even newsmen are routinely frisked before being allowed to enter, district collector B.K. Chakravarthy is only too aware of the state of his “sensitive” district.
The Ulfa-NDFB combine has vowed to “disrupt” the polls, threat letters have found their way to many AGP leaders in Nalbari and news has filtered in that Raju Barua has made “obstruction of the election process” in his home district a “prestige issue”.
“It is a psychological battle that is going on,” says Chakravarthy. “The terror campaign has been unleashed to deter party workers, mostly from the AGP, and turn the elections into a farce. But my message to the people is that we are fully geared for any eventuality and are doing everything possible to ensure a decent turnout.”
But even the most optimistic know that “sanitising” the entire district is an impossible task. As columns of armymen, part of the state’s joint command to tackle insurgency, moved through the villages and jungles of Nalbari, blasts were reported from different parts of the district, sending a chilling message to the administration.
Moving through her constituency in a convoy of vehicles crammed with armed bodyguards, AGP’s candidate from Nalbari and wife of slain minister Nagen Sharma, Alka Desai Sharma portrays what this election is all about, at least in Nalbari.
A massive crowd greeted Mamata at the Pirtala Math, which is part of the largely rural constituency of Satgachhia, when she arrived at 8.45 pm, an hour-and-half late after addressing election rallies at Baruipur and Harinavi.
“What has Jyoti Basu done for this constituency in the last 24 years? He has only inaugurated a hospital, which was built during the Siddhartha Shankar Ray regime. Throw this inefficient government out this time,” she said.
The Trinamul chief said Basu retired because he could not muster the courage to contest from Satgachhia again as he knew he would lose. She requested the crowd to vote for the Trinamul candidate, her close associate, Sonali Guha: “Bhikshey noi chaichhi reen, Trinamul ke vote deen.”
“You don’t eat the same preparations for lunch and dinner every day. You also need to change your clothes. In West Bengal, we badly need a change. Bring about the change. It is only you who can bring about the change in the government through the ballot,” Mamata said.
Contrasting Basu’s lifestyle with that of former chief ministers Prafulla Sen and Ajoy Mukherjee, Mamata said both had died quietly and in virtual poverty.
“But look at Jyoti Basu. See how his skin glows and his cheeks are rosy. He only travels in helicopters and air-conditioned cars. In West Bengal he is the undeclared chief minister, taking more benefits than the chief minister himself,” she said.
This seemed to energise a section of the gathering, which shouted that Basu had visited London for cosmetic surgery. Mamata, however, admonished her supporters. “One should not make such comments about a former chief minister,” she said.
Mamata, who had just completed a hectic tour of Midnapore district last night, looked tired. “I have travelled thousands of kilometres over the last few days in a car. I don’t have a helicopter,” she explained.
At Baruipur and Harinavi, the Trinamul chief asked the people to raise slogans with her. “Bodley deen, paltey deen, ultey deen,” the crowd shouted.
At Baruipur, Mamata also came down heavily on chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. She said all major massacres in Bengal, like those in Keshpur, Nanoor and Garbeta, had taken place during Bhattacharjee’s tenure as police minister and chief minister.
“The CPM has never faced the kind of challenge that they are facing this time. They could not implement 24 projects in 24 years and now they are begging people to help them turn around. Is it possible?” she asked.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today urged the people to make the Left Front “stronger” to fight the BJP-led coalition government in Delhi.
“Only a chief minister and a handful of ministers in Bengal will not be able to change the socio-economic condition of the country. Unless the Left forces grab power in Delhi, the common people’s interests will not be protected,” he told a rally at Bahadur Math in Behala.
“Delhi controls the country. We will not be able to implement our policies unless the NDA government is removed from power,” he added.
He is the only Indian among the 12-member jury and six alternate jurors who will decide the fate of these bin Laden associates. Two of the four men could face death penalty if convicted.
The trial which began on January 3 and could last several more months has implications for India. This trial — along with that of terrorists who bombed the 110-storey World Trade Centre in Manhattan in 1993 — helped crystallise American public opinion against Al Qaeda, the armed wing of bin Laden’s world-wide organisation which has declared war on India.
These sensational terrorist plots, along with other minor ones, forced the Clinton administration to monitor Pakistan’s aid to global terrorism for potential inclusion of Islamabad on America’s list of countries sponsoring terror.
Every day, at the New York trial of the four men now accused of the embassy bombings, chilling details are emerging of Pakistan’s role in facilitating bin Laden’s global plots.
If the four men are convicted and two of the accused are put to death, the publicity surrounding the verdict and the execution of the sentence will consolidate opinion in this country against the menace of terrorism in South Asia — and against Pakistan as the fountainhead of such terror.
The lone Indian on the jury will have as much of a whip hand on the final verdict as the other 11: if even a single juror disagrees with the final decision of “guilty” or “not guilty”, the trial has to start all over again with another jury. And whatever the jury decides by consensus, cannot be challenged.
The Indian juror, a 51-year-old inspector of cars who lives in the New York neighbourhood of Bronx, was selected from a group of 1,302 citizens who were randomly asked to answer questionnaires for mandatory jury duty.
The jury selection, after filing of the questionnaire, is normally open to the media and the public. But in view of the sensational nature of this trial and a possible terrorist threat to all those associated with the case, the presiding judge, Leonard Sand, ordered the selection process to be in camera.
The implications of such fears of a terrorist attack on the court are there for all to see. The four accused are brought to court every day through an underground tunnel which connects the district court to the high security Metropolitan Correction Centre where they are held.
And the accused whose legs are bound in chains and hands cuffed behind their backs are surrounded by armed guards who use ultra-modern communication equipment wired to their body.
The court room, which is open to those with prior clearance, can only be entered after more than one physical search and identity checks. Not even newspapers and mineral water are allowed into the court room, which has been converted into a veritable fortress for the trial.
The jury must remain anonymous for their privacy and security: even the judge and the lawyers do not know their names. The jurors are, therefore, identified only by numbers.
So the only insight into the lone Indian member of the jury in this trial is the questionnaire which he has filled in. And it is fascinating.
One of the questions which all the 1,302 citizens screened for jury duty in this case were asked to answer was whether they were aware before the start of this trial that US embassies had been bombed in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
Believe it or not, our Indian compatriot had never heard of the terrorist attack on the two embassies. So much for the interest of Indian immigrants to America in politics as in, say, making money.
This Indian may not follow the ups and downs of diplomacy, but his heart surely is where his purse is: he meticulously reads The Wall Street Journal four times a week.
Lest he be accused of being a philistine, here is another insight on him. Our man writes poetry in his spare time.
And his poetic mind was at its best when asked to answer the question: “How do you feel about the death penalty?”
“Just changing the mineral and water from an improperly behaved person to another creature possibly properly or improperly behaved”, was his answer.
The jurors are not allowed to make contact with anyone in the court or outside who may have an interest in the case, least of all the lawyers.
But the Indian juror was alert enough to spot the only other Indian in court this week, this correspondent.
After looking furtively at the judge, he smiled in recognition of a compatriot between taking copious notes of the proceedings even as several other members of the jury were nodding off in sheer boredom at the lengthy proceedings.
This trial is expected to last eight to nine months and jurors who have to set aside all other work during this period and attend court every day are paid just $40 a day during the first 30 days and $50 a day thereafter.