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HOP AGAINST HOPE

- Abhijit’s mountaineering skills come in handy on the campaign trail but unexplored hillocks lie in wait

Abhijit Mukherjee, 54, grabs the iron rod at the rear of the Mahindra pick-up van and swings himself down comfortably.

He approaches the knot of 15-odd people gathered at a dusty crossing in Jhilli, a village around 60km from Behrampore near Murshidabad’s border with Birbhum.

“Everything’s fine, I hope?” he asks no one in particular. Several heads nod in agreement. The outgoing MP seems content.

Abhijit received a decisive 10,000-plus margin from the Khargram Assembly segment, where Jhilli falls, in the 2012 by-election from Jangipur after his father vacated the seat and moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan. His overall victory margin was a slender 2,500.

“Won’t you vote for me this time too?” the man in the Ray Ban aviators asks.

The villagers, some with Congress flags wrapped round their heads as protection from the sun, nod with a blank expression. The Congress candidate steps forward to shake a few hands.

Five minutes later, Abhijit, barely five-foot-four, grabs a rope tied to the iron rod and swings himself up onto the goods vehicle’s deck, which is at least 3.5ft from the ground.

“I’m a trained mountaineer,” boasts the mechanical engineer from Jadavpur University who quit his job as a general manager with the Steel Authority of India Limited three years ago to join politics. He fought his first election from Nalhati in Birbhum in the 2011 Assembly polls. Now he faces his third election in three years.

Abhijit’s chief opponent, CPM nominee Mozaffar Hossain, needs help to get off a similar pick-up van when it pulls up at Moregram, off National Highway 34, which connects Calcutta airport with north Bengal.

Unlike the stretch near Calcutta, the four-lane highway offers a smooth drive in these parts, so Hossain’s convoy has reached Moregram ahead of schedule. The moment he is on his feet, after the brief struggle to get off the van, the 60-year-old folk singer gets cracking.

If the Marxist whole-timer in khadi kurta and dhoti isn’t locking someone familiar in a bear hug, he’s either waving at passing cyclists or striking up a conversation at a roadside tea stall.

“Has there been a permanent solution to the floods? Have the bidi workers got their due? Has the BSF’s highhandedness come down?” his questions come like a rapid-fire round in a quiz.

The monsoon breaches the Bhagirathi's banks every monsoon; the 6.5 lakh bidi workers are always battling for better wages and work conditions; and most people in these parts, close to the Bangladesh border, have a bitter story to share about the BSF.

“Not one problem has been solved in 10 years,” Hossain thunders, raising a clenched fist, “right?”

A moment later, he is off towards the next stop. Hossain’s sense of urgency, having lost the by-election to Abhijit, is unmistakable as he criss-crosses the constituency of 13.87 lakh voters that stretches from Khargram bordering Birbhum to Lalgola to Chapgati near the Bangladesh border.

Identity politics

Jangipur’s geographic spread and electoral size, though, are not the only challenges before Abhijit and Hossain.

Around 72 per cent of the voters are Muslim, traditionally split between the Congress and the Left. But with the politics of identity making its way into Bengal in recent years, they have found new options such as the Welfare Party of India (WPI) and the Socialist and Democratic Party of India (SDPI).

In the 2012 by-election, these two parties together polled around eight per cent votes. The BJP, too, witnessed a remarkable spike bagging around 10 per cent of the votes amid a controversy over the establishment of an Aligarh Muslim University campus in the district.

“Our vote share will rise further this time; even Muslim voters will choose the BJP,” says the party’s Jangipur candidate, Samrat Ghosh, 29.

Sipon Sheikh and Bittu Sheikh, both in their mid-20s and carrying BJP flags, step forward to support Samrat’s claim.

“We are with the BJP. Yes, we know that most people in our community won’t vote for the BJP but we think that Muslims are being used in the name of secular politics,” says Sipon, a supplier of construction materials.

He claims he has been threatened with debarment from the Id prayers at his village mosque but remains unfazed.

One reason may be that the “Narendra Modi model” of development is likely to benefit the construction business but Sipon and Bittu insist that their main interest relates to Modi’s development promise per se.

Local villagers say that people like Sipon are a minuscule minority among the Muslims but Jangipur still appears poised for a departure from traditional voting patterns this time.

New entrant

For instance, there’s Trinamul candidate Haji Nurul Islam, a close associate of Mamata Banerjee since she left the Congress in 1998.

Although Nurul is talking about Mamata’s “development” projects at public meetings, some of his aides revealed they were highlighting the candidate’s “pious image of a Haji” to consolidate Muslim votes, without which the party stands little chance.

The WPI and SDPI may have done well in 2009 cashing in on the identity factor, but this time they have competition from Trinamul’s Nurul, villagers say.

Trinamul is a new entrant in the Congress bastion of Murshidabad, and several party activists admit that getting voters to recognise the party symbol is their biggest challenge.

“Mamatadi has sent me here with a special mission; I won’t let her down,” says Nurul, wiping sweat off his forehead after a fiery speech at Umarpur.

Nurul, outgoing MP from Basirhat, repeatedly mentions the “mission” to avoid uncomfortable questions on what prompted him to shift from North 24-Parganas.

Despite a few awkward moments at some public meetings, Nurul has been drawing crowds, prompting his aides to speak hopefully of a “surprise” result.

Mamata had not fielded anyone in the 2012 by-election but she appears to be focusing on toppling the Congress in Murshidabad this time. She launched a tirade against the former ally at a rally here on Sunday, and has sent star campaigner Mithun Chakraborty to canvass votes. But Abhijit sounds confident.

“Nurul’s candidature is a blessing for me, because he is a discredited man. The fight here is between the Congress and the CPM,” he says.

Past trends support the contention of the Congress nominee. But if Nurul makes even a partial impact — and Samrat’s forecast on another round of spike in BJP’s vote share becomes a reality — Abhijit will find it difficult to retain his seat.

A whiff of anti-incumbency against the Mukherjee family, too, is in the air in the constituency, which Pranab had represented since 2004. Abhijit is trying to counter it by publishing a booklet highlighting the development carried out by him and his father, which is available even in the remotest pockets of the constituency.

“Even Left supporters had voted for Pranabbabu in 2009 as they had great expectations from him, but he didn’t deliver. His son is hardly visible in the constituency,” says CPM district secretary Mriganka Bhattacharya, who lost to Pranab in 2009 by over 1.25 lakh votes.

At almost every meeting, the Opposition parties are mocking the former Union finance minister’s attempts at financial inclusion by bringing 30-odd banks to his constituency. Banks are no substitute for the basic needs of the poor, goes their argument.

State Congress president Adhir Chowdhury, who helped Pranab and Abhijit win elections here, argues: “Pranababu did so much for this constituency; he can’t be blamed if people expected the moon.”

Abhijit says his biggest asset is the party’s organisational strength in the district. “Chowdhury has created a well-oiled machinery.”

No doubt organisational might plays a key role in elections, but it may not be enough in a four-cornered fight and only a miracle can ensure a second term for Abhijit.

Jangipur votes on April 24