Mukherjee campaigns in Jangipur
Beldanga could be ages away from the world of South Block, but it is very close to Pranab Mukherjees ancestral village of Miriti in Birbhums Labhpur block. As they wait for him to arrive, villagers assembled on the small ground point to the cattle grazing in the fields at a distance. Thats where Murshidabad ends and Birbhum begins. Pranabbabus family home is just 18 miles from here.
And they dont forget to voice one of their old complaints: See how the fields that side are still green, while ours are dry even at the beginning of summer. Thats because the water from the Tilpara barrage does not come to our side.
Standing in the sun which blazes like a fireball, its easy to imagine not just their fields, but also their homes going dry in the coming weeks, leaving many of the villages around to depend on water scooped up from below the sand in dried-up rivers.
But neither the proximity to his native place nor the water scarcity is the reason why Indias external affairs minister has chosen Beldanga in the Barowan block as a campaign stop. Its no random stab at his constituencys map. Theres a saying here that all of Jangipur goes whichever way Beldanga goes, a local Congress leader says.
But then, Mukherjee didnt come to Beldanga in 2004. This time his CPM rival, Mriganka Bhattacharjya, hasnt had time for the village.
Mukherjee has never been a leader of the masses or even a politician in the mould of a Mamata Banerjee or a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. But he is known for not doing things without a strong reason. His choice of Beldanga cant thus be one of those condescending excursions to a rural outpost by a high-profile politician.
Mukherjee certainly doesnt share the local politicians account of the importance of Beldanga. What he knows, though, is that the village is fairly representative of the sentiments of the peasantry in large parts of Jangipur.
It is a large, all-Muslim village with a population of nearly 10,000 people. If his campaign can resonate with the people there, it can do so with many other such villages, especially those where the number of Muslims is high. Jangipur has the second largest Muslim electorate over 62 per cent of all the parliamentary constituencies in Bengal, next only to neighbouring Murshidabad, where nearly 68 per cent of the voters are Muslims.
When he finally arrives at the campaign venue, his convoy of cars throwing up clouds of red dust, Mukherjee has nothing much to say about the village or the Muslims there; he doesnt even mention the Sachar Committee report on the minorities, which is a major weapon for the Opposition this time in Muslim-dominated areas all over the state.
Instead, Mukherjee sounds like an economics professor lecturing to his students how India has managed to keep its GDP growth at 6.5 per cent in these cruel times of global recession, how much more would be added in the next budget to the several thousand crores already allocated for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme and so on.
No wisecracks, no shrill rhetoric against his opponents. When he makes light of the comrades dream of forming a Third Front government in New Delhi, all he tells the crowd is that the Left and its new-found allies cannot get anywhere near the majority mark in the Lok Sabha even if they won all the seats in Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
Judging by the crowd response, it isnt exactly a speech that moves minds and hearts or even inspires routine clapping. But then, demagogy has never been Mukherjees strongest political asset.
Yet Mukherjee is nothing if not a man of numbers. And the numbers in recent elections are the reason why he chose to campaign in a remote village like Beldanga.
He knows his situation this time is not too good, Esher Ali, the gram panchayat pradhan, says. Its true at least in Beldanga, where the CPM wrested the panchayat from the Congress after 15 years in the 2008 polls.
Sitting in the partys Sagardighi zonal office later in the day, the CPM nominee, Bhattacharjya, says much the same thing.
The numbers in polls since 2004, when Mukherjee had his first-ever direct election win, should indeed be worrying for him. In the municipal polls in 2005, the Left won all three civic bodies falling within his constituency. His CPM rival is now the chairman of Jangipur municipality.
In the 2006 Assembly polls, the Left won five of the six seats falling within Jangipur.
Even more disconcerting for him were the results of the 2008 panchayat polls. Of the 19 zilla parishad seats within Jangipur, the CPM won 13 and the Congress six. Five years earlier, the picture was very different the Congress had 14 and the CPM five.
In the panchayat samiti, too, it was the same story the CPM winning six out of eight this time.
But Mukherjees problems dont end there. The delimitation of his constituency has robbed him of two Assembly segments Farakka and Samshergunj (part of old Aurangabad) which had given him considerable leads in the last elections.
Mukherjee won the seat in 2004 by 37,000 votes. How much of this loss will be compensated for by the inclusion of Lalgola, which has moved over to Jangipur from Murshidabad, is somewhat uncertain.
Arithmetic is thus clearly against Mukherjee this time. But the chemistry of politics and his place in New Delhi still make him the favourite in popular perception.
The buzz in Jangipur goes like this. Mukherjee is the second most important leader in the Congress and the UPA. If the UPA is to form the next government in New Delhi and if Manmohan Singhs health fails, Mukherjee is the obvious choice for Prime Minister. Against this tall man in national politics is only a retired primary school teacher the CPM nominee.
So, the dream that a section of Congress workers are selling is that obscure Jangipur could be the Amethi or Rae Bareli of the future.
Mukherjees fate and that of Jangipurs big dream may ultimately depend on a very large and very poor section of his electorate. The constituency has about 600,000 bidi workers the number was even higher before delimitation.
Of several things Mukherjee did in order to show his gratitude to Jangipur after his victory in 2004 was to open an office of the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner (along with a branch of the Regional Passport Office). The idea was to assure bidi workers of the future of their provident fund dues.
Its another story that middlemen are said to rule the roost at the newly opened PF office. But Mukherjee did keep his promise to the bidi workers.
The owners of major bidi-manufacturing units are openly supporting the man who once loved to smoke his pipe. They wield much influence in Jangipur; in critical times Jangipur sees a heady cocktail of bidi-making and covert religious campaign.The man who knows this well enough is the CPM candidate who has long been involved in the bidi workers movements for better wages and job security.
Much more than last time, Mukherjees path to power and glory lies through the humble huts of Jangipurs bidi workers.