|(From top) Subhendu Adhikari, Tamalika Panda and Lakshman Seth
Haldia, June 2: On the ground floor of a sprawling three-storey CPM zonal office in Haldia’s Khudiram Nagar, Tamalika Panda Seth, the wife of jailed CPM heavyweight Lakshman Seth, settles down in a chair as she steals a glance at the main gate.
She seems to be expecting people — maybe her comrades — to come and fill the rows of empty chairs in the room.
A desolate CPM office on a Thursday afternoon barely 72 hours before an election may surprise many, but Tamalika seems to have realised that a paribartan (change) has taken place in this port town. An eerie silence prevails in the building, which till a couple of years ago used to be abuzz with activity. The security guard scans the handful of visitors at the gates.
“Unknown faces are not allowed,” says the man, aged in his early 30s and barely five-foot-five in his uniform.
As Bengal’s biggest industrial township, set on the Haldi’s banks, goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a civic body, a sense of fear hangs in the air, which green activists regard as heavily polluted.
No point speaking to Tamalika about it as she is only interested in talking about how the political environment has been “vitiated”.
“Flags are being pulled down. Polling agents are being threatened. False cases are being slapped. Police permission for holding public rallies is hard to obtain,” Tamalika reels off a litany of woes.
Such accusations from a political leader are nothing new in Haldia; what is new is that they are coming from a CPM leader who has been chairperson of the Haldia municipality for 15 years.
“There is a poetic justice in this. She has always spoken the language of power; now she is getting it back,” a senior police officer said, alluding to the clout Tamalika and her husband, now behind bars in connection with the 2007 Nandigram “recapture”, used to wield in Haldia.
The couple’s undisputed authority across the 109sqkm territory where elections will be held to elect 26 civic councillors started eroding since Nandigram erupted and the Left lost the zilla parishad to Trinamul in 2008.
In the Lok Sabha elections the following year, Trinamul’s Subhendu Adhikari strengthened the party’s grip on Haldia by defeating Seth.
“This time, Tamalika is contesting from Ward No. 13, which is still regarded as a CPM bastion. This time our focus is on defeating her,” a Trinamul leader said.
Removing the CPM from Haldia’s political landscape is, however, not the only objective of Trinamul, a businessman who runs an engineering establishment in the port town said.
“Trinamul is desperate to win the elections. Even though they do not have much competition as the Left is almost a spent force, they are using the same power tactics that the Left had adopted,” he added.
The reason is more economic than political. Haldia municipality is the state’s second-richest civic body after the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. Its annual budget is around Rs 60 crore, of which about 87 per cent comes from taxes on industrial units.
If Trinamul wins the civic polls, it will also control the Haldia Development Authority (HDA), which has an annual budget of around Rs 40 crore.
“The Haldia pie is even more lucrative when you consider that the party running the civic body and the HDA will gain control of the trade to supply materials and manpower to the industrial units and the port. In his heyday, Seth used to control the industrial units and the port. That gave him power. Today, Adhikari is trying to follow the same model,” a senior port official said.
According to Trinamul sources, Adhikari’s aim of gaining absolute control on the industrial units and the port has caused cracks in the party, which tumbled out into the open when Shiuli Saha, the party MLA from Haldia, complained that her nominees for the civic polls had been struck off by Adhikari.
The problem was resolved for the time being after senior leaders intervened — the party sources said Mamata had expressed “dissatisfaction” at the way Shiuli had publicly criticised Adhikari. A section of Trinamul workers in Haldia is still discontented. Shiuli could not be found in Haldia, her aides saying she was in Calcutta.
“This discontentment, however, will not have any political impact as Adhikari is the undisputed leader here; no one dares oppose him,” a Trinamul leader said.
The young leader, who had to withdraw his nomination following a message from Adhikari, is now campaigning to “prove” that he is with the strongman.
“It is difficult to survive politically in Haldia if you are anti-Adhikari,” he murmured, standing outside Satish Samanta Bhawan, the local Trinamul office.
Even Congress leaders are talking about the “reign of terror” unleashed by Trinamul.
“Because of the reign of terror, we have not been able to put up candidates for all the seats,” Manas Bhunia, senior Congress leader and irrigation minister, said on the sidelines of an election rally in Haldia.
Despite repeated attempts, Adhikari could not be contacted.
Residents alleged that none of the political parties was talking about addressing the concerns of Haldia’s 2 lakh people, such as the water problem. “We pay water tax but don’t get enough water. The quality of the water is poor; it has a high salt content. The last civic board did nothing and it seems Trinamul, which is likely to form the new board, has no plans of solving the problem, either,” a resident said.
“The colour of the party ruling Haldia may change, but that is unlikely to bring any positive change to our daily lives. The political parties are only interested in the industrial units and the port,” he summed up.