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Two nations blend, candidate tries to

Rabiul Islam of Haripukur stands between a house (on his right) that falls in India and another (on his left) that is located in Bangladesh. Picture by Mithun Roy

Twenty-five-year-old Rabiul Islam stands on a stupid border, a grocery in India’s Haripukur village on his right and a mosque in Bangladesh on his left, and says he’ll vote for the grass-flowers, the symbol of the Trinamul Congress.

He knows nothing of the party’s Balurghat candidate, Arpita Ghosh, whom he describes as a “natok-shatok” (theatre) person.

Rabiul is a Trinamul activist who shoos others away while giving this correspondent a tour of his village. Haripukur and the Bangladeshi village Bagmara are in effect one: how Cyril Radcliffe drew a border through it beats the mind.

It’s stupider, perhaps, that India and Bangladesh believe they can actually maintain such a border. But it exists only on paper, and the resigned acceptance of an absurd history elsewhere in India is ignored here.

Life winks at the Border Security Force and Border Guard Bangladesh 24x7.

In Haripukur, elections are about maintaining a threatened citizenship.

Rabiul is prosperous: his father Afzal Ali Mandal is probably the richest farmer in the village. The family owns 32 bighas, mostly beyond the border fence erected by India and stretching up to a railway line in Bangladesh’s Rangpur division.

The family grows rice, potatoes and mustard that, Rabiul says, it sells at the Tirumani Haat or to the Hili Rice Mill.

The last time they sold rice, the rate was Rs 290 per maund (28kg). Their fields yield about 35 maunds per bigha. Mustard sold at Rs 3,300 per quintal. Rabiul claims the family pays hired labour between Rs 200 and Rs 250 a day.

Does he get anything from Bangladesh? “What can they give us?” asks Rabiul. “Only their hilsa is better.”

A BSF jawan manning a check post on the little road to Haripukur says Bangladeshi labour is cheaper and the border force cannot but ignore its use in India.

The Balurghat Lok Sabha constituency spans all of South Dinajpur district. It is surrounded by the international border on three sides. Take a look at the map of north Bengal and Hili, the second biggest border crossing in the state, is right there at the tip of the district that is pushing into Bangladesh.

Hili, 26km from Balurghat, is a dusty little wreck of a town. Two broken roads pass through it leading to the border crossing. Heavy trucks loaded with grain and electrical goods and a Dhaka Metro lorry carrying cement head into Bangladesh.

Before 1947 a train from Calcutta, 440km to the south, could make the journey to Hili in eight hours. The station is now in Bangladesh.

The use of the railway line on the other side could cut a journey to Guwahati by three hours. But transit rights from Bangladesh are always a “work in progress” and linked to, among other things, the sharing of the Teesta waters in which Mamata Banerjee put a spoke during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit three years ago.

A backward district, South Dinajpur’s development is actually linked to the border that nearly surrounds it.

Yet, the issue is absent from the election discourse. In the four-cornered contest, Trinamul’s Arpita Ghosh, with an “outsider” tag, is taking on the RSP’s Bimalendu Sarkar, the Congress’s Om Prakash Mishra and the BJP’s Biswapriya Ray Chaudhury.

“She’s from a world that people here cannot understand,” says Rana Dey Choudhury, 30, who runs the Srishti Hotel, an eatery in Gangarampur on the road to Balurghat.

“We really can’t say what will happen in this heavyweight contest this time. The RSP is hoping it will scrape through because it has a committed vote, and the votes that it lost to Trinamul the last time may now get transferred to the BJP,” he explains. Gangarampur has been a Left stronghold.

The RSP’s Prashanta Kumar Majumdar defeated Trinamul’s Biplab Maitra by just 5,105 votes in 2009. The BJP has a substantial vote base itself, polling 3 lakh or more in 1999 and 2004. In Balurghat town, there is some evidence that Narendra Modi has injected an electricity into transferable votes.

At the town’s taxi stand, where the drivers are all young men in their 20s and early 30s, Prafulla Sarkar says they switched support from the Left to Trinamul in 2009.

Around 20 men join in the conversation, each trying to outshout the other and express support for the BJP.

“It was we who took Trinamul to where it is now. We left the RSP union and ensured a Trinamul victory in the Assembly and panchayat polls. But look how difficult they have made life for us. So we are going to vote for the BJP. It’s time for change,” says Prafulla.

The drivers are angry because the authorities did not allow them to ply their vehicles — mostly diesel-driven, aged Ambassadors — inside the town during the last Puja. That is the season, Prafulla says, they earn the most and save for the entire year.

There is a strange conviction among the youthful BJP supporters. Asked if a victory for Modi may create problems for the minority community, Piyush Saha, a BA-pass graduate who drives a car part-time, says: “That is inevitable because the BJP cannot stand Muslims and the Muslims are fearful of the BJP.”

Asked whether that might not be bad for business, Saha says: “People are not that afraid any more.”

He adds that the BJP is popular in the villages because of the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana, introduced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The support for the BJP is vocal even if its campaign on the ground is less visible than that of Trinamul.

At Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Balurghat on April 16, some 8,500-9,000 people filled a school ground. Political rallies in Bengal easily have more women in the crowds than probably anywhere in north India. Mamata held Arpita’s hand and took the bull by the horns straightaway.

Bohiragoto? Ke bolchhe bohiragoto (Outsider? Who says she’s an outsider)? Tahole aamio ki bohiragoto? Aami ki aapnader ghorer meye na (Then am I too an outsider? Am I not one of your own)?” the chief minister said.

The crowd shouted: “Na, na (she’s not an outsider).”

Arpita, for whom the “outsider” campaign has easily been the toughest challenge, looked relieved.

It’s being whispered, however, that she is yet to blend in despite her connection with the little theatre groups of Balurghat. The young, especially, do not easily take to the theatre in the age of television.

A story goes that in one of her early meetings with party workers in Gangarampur, she told them: “Listen, if I’m elected I will be here for five days a week but the other two days I must be in Calcutta for my rehearsals.”

This was early in the campaign, shortly after her name had been announced. Mamata chose Arpita because of infighting among the party’s two factions in the district, one led by Shankar Chakraborty and the other by Biplab Maitra.

Arpita can hope for support from the womenfolk. “O toh Didir choice. Aamra Didir shongey (She is Didi’s choice and we are with Didi),” explained Pramila Saha, who had come to the meeting from Harirampur in a bus full of women from her village.

Asked why, she said Didi was a lone fighter and deserved all the support she was getting after taking on the Left.

In a sense, the anti-incumbency factor against the Left Front is still working for Mamata, three years into her first term in office. She whips up the image of a fighter while addressing crowds over a cordless microphone while strutting to the left and right of the rostrum.

“When the Left was in power, the Congress government in Delhi used to give it loans. Now we have been saddled with that liability,” she says.

“Let us say you have bought a house. Will you also be paying off the loan liability of the seller? Then why are we being asked to do so? Aamader kichhui nei. Aami achhi bole sorkar cholchhe. Onyo keu thakle chole jeto shob kichhu bikri kore (We have nothing. The government is running because of me. Anyone else would have sold everything and fled),” she says and is loudly cheered.

Arpita herself is clear about her task. “Didi has said that this time Trinamul has to be a decisive force at the Centre so that we can shape policy. The BJP has almost always supported bills presented by the UPA/Congress in Parliament,” she says.

“Our voice used to be drowned out. Do bless me this time so that I may go to Delhi and bring you the development you crave.”


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