Whispers in Red fortress throne room
Pitroda II in Left lair
Doctor banks on spin doctors
If Madhabi wins, guess who’ll smile
Malda shadow on city cousin
Battle to deal minority ace
Mamata heads for the frontline
Mamata ‘flight’ shot down
Kerala Left banks on Cong self-goal
Twin bomb burst in power hub

Birbhum, May 9: 
There is an air of suppressed anticipation in Madanpur and Chishti villages of Birbhum. People whisper questions to each other about the “vote”. People are looking over their shoulders before saying the simplest things. Everyone lowers their voice, everyone pleads with me not to repeat what I have heard from them. Each hushed conversation has the same conclusion: a shaking of the heads, no one can predict who will come to power.

The implication of this is slowly sinking in. In 24 years, there has never been this doubt. But no one is saying anything openly. Even garrulous old men are silent. “No amount of scrutiny can predict who we will vote for this time,” is all they say. “No one can ascertain what is really in the people’s hearts and minds,” they tell me in weak triumph. Only one young man, Zaffar, a lone Opposition supporter, dares to articulate the possibility of a change in government. Everybody avoids him in public spaces.

As a political anthropologist who has lived with these people during several visits over the past three years, I find the current atmosphere of such palpable fear demands our attention and requires elaboration. What exactly are people scared of?

Madanpur and Chishti are mostly Muslim villages with a Dom and Bagdi population. The villages are composed of two main categories of people: the poor but high-status Syeds (Mir sahibs) who form the middle peasantry with landholdings of about 4-20 bighas, and, the very poor Shekhs, Pathans, Doms and Bagdis who make up the agricultural labour force. While the two villages are distinct, a great degree of interdependence exists between them through shared domestic and agricultural labour arrangements and through the exchange of visits, gossip, goods and shared TV viewing. To control these villages through social networks is, therefore, possible.

The local “comrade” exercises this control with success. Over the past 10 years or so, he has consolidated complete hold over the people’s lives through a variety of mechanisms. All men who have had any independent political career in any other party, even within the Left Front, have been threatened, outmanoeuvred, kidnapped and tortured into silence. Absolute power rests with the comrade and his small coterie of devoted workers. Displays of power are practically feudal. The local leader can have any woman he wants and his taste for virgins is widely known. Communal pukurs are appropriated for his personal fisheries business. Attempts have been made on the lives of men who have supported the Congress in the past. Bargadars have been forced on their land. Operation Barga in this case was used as a sanction against non-party political activity. Anyone wanting to have a life outside the village is threatened with dire consequences. For instance, women who travel out of the village on their own to go to the bank or for training courses are labelled promiscuous. Brothers have been pitted against each other over land disputes.

As a result, all decision-making mechanisms within the village have broken down. People can no longer solve their own disputes without the intervention of the comrade. Every aspect of their lives lie exposed, all knowledge is made public, debated, gossiped over and used for manipulating favours.

As a result their self-image has suffered. Without the comrade, no arbitration or “bichaar” is possible. They emphasise that it is for this aspect that they need the comrade to win, much more than any food or shelter which comes only from hard work.

For the past year, however, Zarrar, an unemployed graduate who says he has nothing to lose, has been trying to build a challenge to the status quo. The people who support him and may vote for his party have said nothing openly. They are too terrified of the consequences. But like him, many of them belong to the middle peasantry who are the most disgruntled. Operation Barga has severely limited their income and has proletariansed them. The elite Syeds who never ploughed land are now having to save labour costs in order to make a small profit. Others like Zaffar have degrees but never got jobs and are wracked by envy because some others have been luckier.

A large number of rural voters are unaware of the clash of personalities or indeed of any alliances which may have been formed or broken. A lot of them have heard the name of the chief minister but are not clear what the link between that person and their own impoverished existence is. For them, the phenomenology of fear suggests that Big Brother can control almost any aspect of village. This is what is important. No one says or does anything that could be construed as going against The Party. This is the fear, the “shontrash” (terror) that everyone is talking about.

The history of other nations has taught us that human beings are not satisfied with food and shelter. They need privacy, some autonomy and a sense of control over their lives. Leaders may exhort their supporters not to be afraid and cast their votes fearlessly. Election Day will be an evidence of their gumption.


Behala, May 9: 
As railway minister, Mamata Banerjee had hired Sam Pitroda to revamp the archaic department. To win a CPM bastion like Behala (West), she has turned to a corporate whizkid to do the job for her.

Partho Chatterjee, who resigned as general manager (human resources management) of Andrew Yule to contest the polls from this constituency on the southern fringes of the city, says it was a request from Mamata that he couldn’t refuse.

Putting to effect his corporate skills, the first thing Chatterjee did was to script and make a 20-minute video film highlighting the government’s failure to develop Behala in the way it should have been done after being included in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation area in 1985.

As a pointer, Chatterjee says that Behala is the residence of the Indian cricket captain, “yet there aren’t enough cricket coaching camps”. “I thought that my personal campaigning and the screening of the video film would have a double-barrel impact. In fact, there was a tremendous response,” he says.

The film shows dogs roaming around Vidyasagar Hospital, rats scurrying about on the site near Sakherbazar where the government had announced that an industrial estate would come up, waterlogging and traffic snarls.

“These are visuals which leaves an indelible impression. These are unmistakable pointers to the government’s attitude towards improving the quality of life,” says the political rookie.

An expert in industrial technology, Chatterjee is often described as Mamata’s political Pitroda. “If I win in Behala (West), I will try to bring about a total synchronisation of the first, middle and top lines of political management to ensure better service by the people’s representatives,” he adds.

But for that he has to do something that no one has for 24 years: topple the CPM. Nirmal Mukherjee won twice, in 1991 and 1996. The seat earlier belonged to another CPM heavyweight, the late Rabin Mukherjee.

But the first sign of change came in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections when the CPM trailed by 36,000 votes in the segment. In the parliamentary polls the following year, the Left again trailed by 35,000 votes. In last year’s Calcutta civic polls, Trinamul won eight of the 10 wards in the Behala (West) constituency.

The CPM is on tenterhooks though Nirmal Mukherjee put up a brave face and said he will win. “We only want the elections to be held peacefully,” he says.

The CPM hat-trick hopeful tosses aside the argument that Trinamul gained significant leads in the two Lok Sabha elections. “We have made one thing clear to the people that this very Trinamul was a close ally of the BJP-led coalition at the Centre and a party to all its anti-people policies,” he says.

But the CPM is worried about the PDS, which has fielded Soumendra Sarkar, a former CPM local committee secretary.

“Whatever votes the PDS can divide will only be in our favour,” says Sovan Chatterjee, Trinamul councillor.

The Trinamul hopeful also promises to rid the area of criminals. “The Oxytown murder case is yet to be solved and an employee of Barisha High School was murdered in broad daylight a few months ago. These are among the few cases which rocked the area recently,” he says.

For Chatterjee, the battle has begun. And it’s not confined to the corporate boardroom.


Midnapore , May 9: 
What’s a doctor doing on this page?

He’s a doctor who’s won all elections since 1978. But he doesn’t speak much about healthcare though. He’s the man who’s stepped into Benoy Choudhury’s shoes and tried to cure the land system

Who’s he anyway?

He’s the minister for land reforms. He has won from Narayangarh in Midnapore since 1991 and before that he had won every time he contested in the zilla parishad polls. Ironically, he lost the 1977 Assembly elections when the Left swept to power

What’s his calling card?

Vote for the party, he says. But the 53-year-old minister has hardly campaigned in his backyard. He is relying on partymen to sell his image

What’s his opponent saying?

Mishra is a good man but he has done nothing for the place, that’s the favourite line of Salil Das Pattanaik, a former Congressman who’s now in Mamata’s camp

And what’s Mishra’s reply?

Why should I work for Narayangarh only? I’m a minister for the state and my work in land reforms should affect all constituencies, not just Narayangarh

Are people convinced?

Some are. Others are asking why one needs an MLA then?

Will he sail smoothly?

The CPM is wary. In 1996, Mishra won by 56,000 votes, but in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the CPI got a lead of only 5,000 in Narayangarh

What’s Mishra doing?

He complains that the BJP-Trinamul combine triggered terror in around 30 booths in the area. But he’s confident of a repeat of 1996.


Jadavpur, May 9: 
Vengeance is mine, Samir Putatunda would cry if Mamata Banerjee moves into Writers’ Buildings. Revenge will be sweeter for him if Trinamul’s Madhabi Mukherjee unseats Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Jadavpur.

The former secretary of the CPM’s South 24-Parganas unit has a battle on hand — against his old comrades — and hopes others will win it for him. He hopes to do his bit, pitting his comrades against Bhattacharjee’s.

Putatunda’s battleground, though, is not just Jadavpur. It’s all over Bengal. No wonder his most trusted comrade — wife Anuradha — has joined the battle in Jyoti Basu’s Satgachhia against Gokul Bairagi, Basu’s election agent of two decades and this time the Marxist nominee there.

The Putatundas represent — along with the likes of Saifuddin Chowdhury and Tapas Basu — the revolt against the CPM from within. The Party for Democratic Socialism, as Putatunda puts it, was born with the CPM’s death warrant as its one-point agenda.

“I have information that CPM leaders are more worried about my presence than Madhabi’s. We are certain that CPM nominees will face a challenge from us in at least 40 seats,” he says.

It all began on February 13 when Putatunda met bosses at Alimuddin Street to finalise the names of nominees from South 24-Parganas. But on February 19, Putatunda caught CPM mandarins unawares by announcing his decision to resign at a news conference. On February 21, he joined forces with Saifuddin to float the PDS.

“The new outfit is the outcome of our long-standing protest against the lack of inner-party democracy in the organisation,” Putatunda says.

He says he decided to challenge Bhattacharjee to protest against the humiliation meted out to him and other party functionaries who were suppressed over the years.

“My victory will prove that Alimuddin Street bosses don’t have the final say in every matter.”


Howrah, May 9: 
Both the Congress and Trinamul are making a last-gasp effort to reach some kind of an understanding, to work together here, but there’s too little time.

In Howrah, where the Congress bagged eight of the 16 seats in 1996, the party has fielded candidates in only three seats. The rest have gone to Trinamul as part of electoral agreement. “But this pact is on paper only. No Congressman is working in tandem with Trinamul workers,” says Asim Roy, Howrah district Congress president. He says the party rank and file was disappointed with the way the leadership surrendered to Mamata Banerjee. “How can we accept only three seats when we have won in eight last time?” he asks.

However, Trinamul district chairman Ambika Banerjee, who is seeking reelection from Howrah central on a Trinamul ticket, claims there is “perfect understanding” in almost all the 16 seats. “There was no protest from the Congress when it was agreed that the party would contest three seats, leaving the remaining 13 to Trinamul. All these illogical arguments do not carry any weight,” he adds.

He claims Roy, who was angling for a seat in Howrah town, was aggrieved after he failed to get a ticket.

But even Trinamul has to contend with intra-party bickering. Arup Roy, who is contesting on a Trinamul ticket from Howrah south, admits that some party nominees are unhappy at the way they have been allotted seats. “Our results would have been better had the candidates been chosen in a more systematic manner,” he says.

Both parties, however, hope to reap benefits by highlighting the CPM’s failure. They claim the Left Front has done nothing to reopen any of the closed industries in Howrah which employed over 10,000 people.

Undeterred by such “false” complaints, the CPM appears confident of wresting at least four seats from the Congress-Trinamul combine. “Last time, our results were not up to the mark. But we have improved a lot,” Howrah district CPM secretary Dipak Dasgupta says.

He says the Left is also comfortable in the urban belt, including central Howrah where Banerjee is a candidate. “We will have a lead in central Howrah, Sankrail and Shibpur as we have regularly interacted with the people there over the past five years,” says a Forward Bloc leader.


Basirhat, May 9: 
Trinamul was a BJP ally in 1999; in 2001, it has a Muslim candidate and the Congress, with its traditional Muslim votebank, as its partner. The party is happy that the Pir Saheb of Basirhat has indicated to the faithful that he would be happy if they voted for Trinamul.

The other contender, the secular CPM, has reasons to be happy as well. Local maulana Haji Mohammad Ghulam has told the faithful that he would be happy if they voted for someone who worked. And who else but “kajer chhele” Gautam Deb qualifies for that sobriquet, ask comrades.

In Hasnabad, with a 60 per cent-plus minority population, the party which woos the minority voter successfully stands a better chance of winning. And nobody knows that better than the Opposition. In 1996, Deb defeated his Congress rival, who wasn’t supported by the BJP, by only about 4,000 votes. In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, the CPM got a lead of about 18,000 votes over its nearest BJP-supported Trinamul rival.

But the picture remains incomplete. The complete picture is something like this: if you add the Congress votes to the Trinamul kitty of 1999, the CPM trails behind the mahajot vote by over 10,000 votes.

That, perhaps, explains the deep-under-the-skin wariness of the CPM. Santi Banerjee, Deb’s election agent, would like to be a picture of confidence. But talk soon veers to the state of the party in the state. Banerjee’s comrades admit that the situation is unpredictable and, for the first time, the party has to take into account the anti-incumbency factor. One of them intervenes — “the anti-establishment factor will hit a wall here”. So, what is the wall made of?

“Development and work,” replies Banerjee. The list is unending, he says. He names five roads, one water-testing laboratory, two completed bridges, two more are under construction, three arsenic treatment-plants and a night-halt place for residents of the Sunderbans.

Local people, however, say that many of these projects have come up in and around Taki municipality where Deb stays. A quick tour through the constituency reveals that at least some of the work on roads, tubewells and electricity poles began after the elections were announced.

The Trinamul candidate, Rafikul Islam Mandal, is quite unlike Trinamul’s other Rafique of Keshpur fame; this one is a headmaster, has four first-classes to his credit and is soft-spoken. But he says the recent spurt of activity on the part of the administration in the “development sector” has come in handy: “When one deep tubewell is sunk in one neighbourhood, three other neighbourhoods in the vicinity turn against the CPM.”

Campaigning might have ended on Tuesday but Deb, like his challenger, is out in the villages. Deb, however, has one worry less than most other CPM candidates in the district; the man who helped arch-dissident Subhas Chakraborty organise his camp in North 24-Parganas has managed to get the whole party behind him.


Midnapore, May 9: 
As Bengal votes tomorrow in its most bitterly-fought elections in three decades, all eyes will be on the Midnapore tinderbox where one of Mamata Banerjee’s nominees is shying away from the contest saying his supporters will be killed if he does not withdraw.

Mamata left for Midnapore this evening and plans to visit the district’s most volatile seat, Keshpur, tomorrow, inviting howls of protest from the CPM which says her presence will trigger violence.

Rajani Dolui, the Keshpur candidate who was forced back into the ring by Mamata after he cried off the contest on Monday, has made a “last appeal” to the Election Commission to postpone polls in his constituency. “Otherwise, I withdraw myself from the contest,” he said in a fax to chief election commissioner M.S. Gill.

The largest district with 37 seats that could decide which way the results will swing, Midnapore is perched on a powder keg.

Though the arrival of Central security forces had inspired confidence in Mamata’s team, their hopes dipped today when it became clear that the forces would not be posted at the 3,000 sensitive booths in the district. Inspector-General (CID) C.K. Mukherjee today said the forces would be stationed in sectors and mobile units.

In Keshpur, Dolui had almost given a walkover to Left Front nominee Nandarani Dal. But by deciding to visit the constituency on polling day, Mamata has made it clear she will not give up without a fight in the district which elected 28 CPM nominees to power in the last Assembly elections.

Seventy Trinamul activists were killed in Keshpur over the past year. The CPM lost 37 of its men in three years. Dolui says free and fair polls are impossible. He wrote to Gill after 476 supporters, who returned to their villages from relief camps under police protection yesterday, rushed back after they were allegedly beaten up by CPM activists.

“By sending my men back home on Mamata’s instructions, I have added fuel to the fire. Those people may be killed any moment. I am not going to yield to her any more. I want to be expelled from the party,” Dolui said.

If the Trinamul was crying foul all day, it was the turn of the CPM to protest in the evening. “Election rules do not permit Mamata to visit Keshpur tomorrow.... It is clear that Mamata is trying to disturb tomorrow’s poll in the district, which might be peaceful if she stays away,” CPM district secretary Dipak Sarkar said.

Of the 22 companies of paramilitary forces in Midnapore, five have been reserved for Keshpur and the additional superintendent of police (headquarters) will take charge of Keshpur police station tomorrow.

Garbeta is no less tense. Two firebrand contestants — Susanta Ghosh of CPM and Mohammad Rafique of Trinamul — are pitted against each other. Mamata’s party alleges that Ghosh, the junior transport minister, carries arms in his government vehicle. The CPM counters that Rafiq has killed many of the party’s activists.

Chhota Angaria is infamous for the mystery murder of 14 people last January. Now, the People’s War Group has drawn up a hit list of CPM leaders.

Pingla is under the scanner because the Trinamul nominee for the Panskura parliamentary byelection had got 30,000 more votes than his Left rival in this Assembly segment, the largest margin between the two sides. Trinamul activists were accused of spreading terror 11 months ago. This time, the charge is on the CPM.


Calcutta, May 9: 
The Election Commission has shot down Mamata Banerjee’s request to travel by helicopter on polling day tomorrow.

The Trinamul Congress leader had said she would make aerial surveys of troubled districts — Midnapore, Bankura, Hooghly and the 24-Parganas — where she apprehended CPM-sponsored violence during the polling process.

State chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen said today the commission had issued instructions stating that no political leader would be allowed to fly either in fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.

The commission cited several reasons for this:

Leaders are under several security grading. If they move around, security has to be offered as well as the accompanying curtsies.

Security arrangements made during elections are meant to provide safety to voters, polling staff and equipment and no extra arrangement can be made for leaders.

Air travel by prominent leaders may be seen as a campaign to garner votes.

It also adds to the election expenses at a time, according to the commission, it is trying to instill austerity in the poll process.

A political leader travelling by air could queer the level-playing field during the polls.

Sen said the election panel’s decision has already been communicated to the parties. “The commission has also issued a direction to the director general of civil aviation not to permit such flights either tomorrow or on the day of counting on May 13,” Sen said.

The commission has also requested the parties and their candidates not to use more than two vehicles during the polling process.

“The candidate can have one car for himself or herself, the other car will be used by polling agents and party functionaries,” Sen said.

The cars will be issued permits which will be pasted on the windscreen. Sen said ministers, MPs and other leaders were not supposed to roam around during the polling period. “If they do so, the police can ask them to stay put,” he added. However, voters can travel in cars to go and exercise their franchise.

The day passed off peacefully barring stray incidents in which two persons died while making crude bombs.

Inspector-general of police Prasun Mukherjee said the incidents took place in Domkal, Jagaddal, Nabadwip, Jangipur and Bolpur.


Kochi, May 9: 
A mood of cautious optimism prevailed in the three major political camps of Kerala — the LDF, UDF and BJP — on the eve of elections to the 140 Assembly seats of the state.

The public posturing of the LDF and UDF leadership was one of satisfaction at the manner in which their campaigns had unfolded over the last two weeks. Both fronts claimed that the reins of Kerala would be in their hands after the May 10 polls, while the BJP was certain of opening its account in the Assembly this time.

However, leaders in all three camps admitted in private that there were many imponderables to be overcome before tasting success.

The UDF, which hopes to ride an anti-incumbency wave against the CPM-led LDF, is uncertain whether the faction feud that rocked its primary constituent, the Congress, during seat allocation has been reconciled. The actions of some its leaders, including former chief minister K. Karunakaran, even on the last day of campaigning suggested otherwise.

Despite an understanding within the UDF that the question of chief ministership would be addressed only after results were out, Karunakaran told the press at Chenagannur in Alappuzha district that “he had no objection to becoming chief minister once again”.

He took off on a “helicopter yatra”, which covered only constituencies of his supporters. All along he gave the impression that he would be chief minister if the UDF was elected and laced his speeches with references to what he would and could do once the UDF came to power.

Therefore, a whisper campaign has started in sections of the UDF that the Karunakaran faction might sabotage the chances of some candidates of the rival A.K. Antony group. A UDF victory will depend on getting over these apprehensions and suspicions, at least on polling day.

The incalculable for the LDF is the UDF’s woes. The more the faction feud festers, the better are the chances of the Left front. Though the LDF had gone about its campaign in a systematic manner and put together a youthful list of candidates — rated by independent observers as much better than the UDF — its leadership admits that there is a strong anti-incumbency factor at play.

The LDF leadership hopes that infighting in the Congress would have sent the message across to people that the UDF cannot provide a stable and good government. But it also admits that there are no ways of gauging it.

Another worry for the LDF is the enmity of a section of the RSS against the CPM. This section, hailing mainly from north Kerala where RSS-CPM clashes are a routine affair, has been advocating that the Sangh should transfer votes to the UDF to ensure a CPM defeat.

Another section of the RSS, however, holds that votes should be given to non-CPM constituents of the LDF and non-Congress constituents of the UDF, thus making both the main parties weaker in their respective fronts.

The BJP’s hopes of entering the Assembly revolve around three constituencies, Manjeshwaram and Kasaragode in north Kerala and Nemam in the south. Manjeshwaram, where it has fielded state unit chief C.K.P. Padmanabhan, is its best bet.

However, in the last elections its chances were ruined in the seat when the LDF transferred votes to the UDF, reconciling itself to a third position. If the LDF adopts the same strategy, the BJP would once again find the Kerala Assembly impregnable.


New Delhi, May 9: 
The capital’s security was breached yet again after two low-intensity bombs exploded today, one behind the South Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office, and the other outside Sena Bhavan, the defence headquarters. There were, however, no casualties except for one injured person in the blast outside Sena Bhavan, according to reports available so far.

Joint commissioner of police Suresh Roy said it was too early to say who was behind the blasts. “It is too early to say if an anti-national element was involved in the blasts,” he maintained. Roy said the police would review the situation to “frustrate any further attempts made by anti-national elements to destabilise law and order”.

However, it is still not known whether the probe into today’s blasts will be carried out by the police or the army since the defence headquarters is within the latter’s jurisdiction.

The first explosion took place inside a two-wheeler parking area opposite the defence headquarters. Within seven minutes, the high-security South Block zone was rattled by another blast.

According to the police’s initial assessment, both the explosives contained either ammonium chlorate or nitrate, raw materials commonly used in crude bombs. Police sources said the explosives were “mild” and did not have the potential to wreak large-scale havoc.

An amateurish timer device had been incorporated with the detonator. A similar timer device was also attached to the RDX explosive which was detected in the capital’s commercial hub Connaught Place last week before it exploded.

The first bomb had been wrapped in a cloth and placed on the rear seat of a bicycle while the second bomb was concealed in a plastic bag and placed in a garbage dump camouflaged with leaves under a neem tree.

The police sources seem convinced that there is a link between the two blasts that occurred today as they used similar materials, timer and batteries. The modus operandi also appears to be similar.

Eyewitness Kachni Bai, a fruit vendor near South Block, said: “We heard a loud noise at 3.07 pm and within few minutes another explosion took place 10 yards away from where I was selling my fruits. For a moment we thought that the tyre of the bus parked next to my stall had burst. Then we saw pieces of garbage flying.”

Ram Swami, also a fruit seller, said he had noticed three Maruti cars parked close to the garbage heap.

This is the third incident of planting of bombs in the capital in less than a month. On April 10, an explosive had been planted within the precinct of North Block, which houses the home and finance ministries. Less than a month later, a crude bomb was found in Connaught Place.

The sources, however, said no clear pattern has yet emerged either in the nature of the explosives or their timing or even the reasons for their periodic occurrence.

Last Sunday, the police had got a hoax call about a bomb left in M-Block market of Greater Kailash. There were two more hoax calls on Tuesday warning about bombs being planted in two cinema halls in Connaught Place.


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