Nandigram, Jan. 4: The stars of many an election campaign have left the field in Nandigram to an elderly, bespectacled housewife who had never dabbled in politics before.
Feroza Bibi, 60, has a tag that is difficult to match: Shahider Ma or the Martyr’s Mother.
All other contestants appear to have thrown in the towel in anticipation of a rout by Mamata Banerjee’s candidate.
Land minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah, one of the top campaigners for the CPI candidate fielded by the ruling Left Front, provided a pointer. “Winning or losing the seat will not make or unmake our government,” he said. “We are taking a long-term view.”
Another pointer is the absence of Mollah’s bosses, stars like chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, state CPM secretary Biman Bose or Left leaders from Delhi, from the campaign.
An early school dropout, Feroza’s show is run by a bunch of ambitious local Trinamul leaders and a few close relatives, but the voter does not seem to mind.
How will she present Nandigram and its need for development in the Assembly? “My people (of Nandigram) have brought me this far. I am sure they will teach me the things to do in such a big place (the Assembly),” Feroza said.
She is dead right, for a straw poll across the villages revealed that voters were not bothered overmuch about her CV. No one doubts that she is a puppet on a string being pulled by Contai South MLA Subhendu Adhikary and his aides like Abu Taher.
Taher had fancied a ticket for himself but a shrewd Ad-hikary propelled Feroza into Mamata’s vision. The move was to stymie Sheikh Sufiyan, another ambitious Trinamul functionary with some notoriety who draws strength from Mamata’s managers at Kalighat, where Adhikary is seen as “nasty competition”.
Feroza’s main rival, Paramananda Bharati, 68, of the CPI, has the right credentials: he is a retired headmaster of a prominent local school and a respected teacher of history with over 40 years’ association with the communist movement and a clean image. But these have been put in the shade.
Choreographed by Adhikary, Feroza was presented at meeting after meeting as the “good woman from Sonachura” (which witnessed some of the fiercest CPM-Trinamul clashes over two years) who lost a teenage son to police bullets.
The diminutive woman, a mother of three, had seen her youngest son Raja being killed on March 14, 2007.
According to a popular version, the police had targeted Raja because he was slipping in and out of the battle zone and carrying the injured away. Another version has it that he was in the mob that had viciously attacked the police team that had come to break the siege of Nandigram and restore normality.
The Martyr’s Mother has become such an emotive mascot that Trinamul poll managers did not have to milk the bribery scandal that led to the expulsion of former CPI MLA Ilyas Mohammad Sheikh from the Assembly. Ilyas had beaten Sufiyan by about 5,000 votes in 2006.
“I still hope the people will see through Trinamul’s ploy of exploiting emotions,” said Paramananda. “With due respect to Feroza Bibi, she is not the sole sufferer. Hundreds of families suffered even more in the hands of Trinamul goons for their political leaning.”
In the prevailing situation, the front’s hopes of capitali-sing on the presence of Siddi-qullah Chowdhury’s nominee Badshah Alam, a Trinamul friend-turned-foe, have been dented.
The front’s assessment that Alam would seriously cut into an estimated 42 per cent Muslim votes, piggybacking on Jamait Ulema-i-Hind leader Chowdhury’s image, appears to have fallen flat in the face of a superior Trinamul campaign. It was woven around the fears of land acquisition by the government and a demand for justice for those raped, murdered or maimed.
The BJP and the disgruntled Congressmen have been thrown out of the frame.
About 170km southeast of Calcutta, at the confluence of the Hooghly and the Haldi, Nandigram occupies a place in the Indian political lexicon as the symbol of political violence and the pan-India debate on using farmland for industry.
Adhikary wowed the crowds by talking about “our martyrs”, “their goons”, “safeguards against acquisition” and “lakhs in compensation”.
Away from the public gaze, Trinamul supporters terrorised rivals and poor villagers to retain their new-found grip.
“The election has been re-duced to a farce,” said Alam. “Trinamul supporters tried to torch my car at Bhangabera when I went to campaign. Police saved me.”
For the CPM and its allies, vast swathes became off-limits. Its leaders could not campaign in at least 30 villages. The CPM could not find agents for about 55 booths.
The absence of competition does not make the election less momentous. For the parties, it is a dry run before the Lok Sabha elections, due in a few months. From the Trinamul point of view, a favourable mandate will be a major boost to its drive for a larger number of parliamentary seats.
For the Left, the scale of the loss or win will offer an opportunity to answer this question: How deep-rooted is the new dynamic that has begun to emerge in Nandigram and elsewhere in East Midnapore district?