Congress MP Deepa Das Munshi campaigns in Karandighi, which is part of her constituency Raiganj. Picture by Nantu Dey
The road that goes to Dalkhola from Raiganj town, troublesome as it is now, is considered a blessing. The 48km of NH34 would take five or six hours to cover even a few months ago.
The road, which is the spine of a district shaped like a chicken leg, has been repaired to a large extent, although the ride is severely bumpy in parts. But except improvement in general health, it has nothing else to show.
On an early mid-April morning that is inexorably hot, there is no place to stop for refreshments. For someone requiring a toilet, there is no respite. The highway is dotted on both sides with small mud-and-bamboo tea stalls, but they sell nothing but tea and hard biscuits. Even bread and eggs are a distant civilisation.
Tungidingi Mor is a point between Raiganj and Dalkhola, more towards Dalkhola. From Tungidingir Mor, Deepa Das Munshi’s open-hood car turns right into the villages of Karandighi block.
These villages are among the more prosperous: the fields are green with paddy and maize. A sizeable Muslim population lives in these villages.
Deepa, the Congress candidate from Raiganj, the sitting MP and minister of state for urban development at the Centre, is draped in a fine Sambalpuri, her trademark power-bindi in place. Speaking on a loudspeaker, she attacks her rival from the CPM, Mohammad Salim, a Calcuttan, for playing the communal card.
“In Calcutta he has always been known as Comrade Salim. Why has he turned into Mohammad Salim here?” she asks, as people crowd to her vehicle in what is traditionally a CPM area. The villagers exude warmth. When she takes a break from talking about the UPA government’s secularism and focus on development, the party plays Jai Ho, the upbeat song from Slumdog Millionaire.
Later, she talks about improving roads, including NH34, in the last five years, flyovers, railway connections, including a daily train to Delhi, the Radhikapur-Anand Vihar, about bringing jute-based industries to the district. But nothing has stopped large-scale migration from Raiganj to other cities and states.
Then she speaks about presiding over vast stretches of nothingness.
“There is no industry in Uttar Dinajpur except the spinning mill,” she says.
North Dinajpur, of which Raiganj Lok Sabha constituency covers all the area except two blocks, is one of the most backward districts in the country.
Deepa talks about what was hope once in this grim landscape. It is the giant shadow of an AIIMS hospital, respected for its high standard of teaching and treatment, which never took shape.
Deepa took over when husband Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the Congressman who took up Raiganj in the nineties and promised hope. In 2008, he fell ill, suffering a stroke that rendered him paralysed and brain dead. He is being treated in a Delhi hospital. In 2009, Deepa won the Raiganj Lok Sabha seat.
Priya Ranjan had mooted the idea of an AIIMS in Raiganj. In this part of the world, people dying on their way to another city for treatment is like children dropping out of school. The idea of AIIMS at Panishala in Raiganj, on NH34 on the way to Dalkhola, was promptly approved of by the UPA government at the Centre in 2009, with specific nods from the Prime Minister and Ghulam Nabi Azad, health minister in UPA II. Apart from Delhi, each of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand has an AIIMS. An AIIMS in Raiganj would bring health, wealth and hope to much of north Bengal, deprived of treatment as well as jobs.
Deepa blames it all on Mamata Banerjee, her greatest adversary.
Deepa, known in Raiganj as Boudi, was always opposed to Didi, Mamata, even when the Trinamul was a part of the UPA. Deepa was vindicated when Mamata left the alliance in a huff and was rewarded with a ministerial berth.
But the stand-off is not working entirely in Deepa’s favour any more.
Deepa stresses that the farmers are ready to give land to for the AIIMS. She has their official letters, when Mamata has claimed that land is a problem. Mamata apparently refuses to meet them, even bypassing Raiganj when they were waiting for her by the highway to show her their assent and eagerness.
But one thing has happened. Backwardness has bred more backwardness, and backwardness can often be milked politically more than development. More and more politicians are homing in here.
Raiganj is a five-cornered contest. This has led to endless conversations and complex mathematical computation all over the district, about who is cutting into whose vote-share.
Though Deepa defeated her CPM rival by a margin of more than 1 lakh votes in 2009, this time, the margin may be smaller, it is being said. That is, if Deepa wins at all. A tired electorate is willing to try someone new, even if it is the CPM. Salim has made lack of development and Deepa’s reported invisibility his poll planks. He also hopes for the support of the Muslim community, which constitutes almost 50 per cent of the population here.
Deepa’s supporters quickly point out one of Salim’s “weaknesses”. He is travelling in an AC car and only stopping at strategic points to avoid the heat. Boudi is always in an open-hood vehicle.
Boudi has other interesting rivals.
Her brother-in-law Pabitra Ranjan Das Munshi (Satyada) has been fielded by Trinamul as the true inheritor of the Priya Ranjan legacy. Many have dismissed him as a non-event, but not Deepa. They share the same ancestral house, and Deepa apparently also takes care of his meals, but she sees him as a challenge thrown by Trinamul to break her family, and therefore the support commanded by her family.
Then there is the BJP candidate, ageing actor Nimu Bhowmik. He apparently begins his speeches saying “Kusumasa”, a famous exhortation from his film Tulkalam, which also featured Mithun Chakravorty. The film had cast Bhowmik as Japanese.
Both Bhowmik and Satyada fell ill while campaigning, and it is someone else who is campaigning as hard as Deepa and Salim.
Samajwadi candidate Sudip Ranjan Sen, backed by the lone Samajwadi Party heavyweight in the state Kiranmoy Nanda, is making waves silently.
Nanda apparently had almost won the Assembly segment of Raiganj in 2011. Sen, an industrialist from Uttar Pradesh who is also chairman of Uttar Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, and a high donor to the Samjawadi Party, may even spring a surprise, according to some. But no one expects him to win.
All this makes a young hotel manager in Raiganj angry. In his late twenties, he is from Raiganj. He studied hotel management in Durgapur for four years at a cost his family could hardly afford. He wanted to go away, to a future that all young Indians seem to aspire to, but was forced to return to Raiganj.
Here he is cooped up in this small hotel lobby. It is the best that he can get in Raiganj, but that is just not enough.
“Politicians don’t care about the people. If they did, they would think what AIIMS could have done to Raiganj,” he says. He adds that it is not only Mamata’s fault that AIIMS is not happening. He thinks that Deepa is equally guilty. She should have dropped her ego.
“Voting for Deepa will take us nowhere,” says the young man. “If she wins, the state government will allow nothing. The people are going to vote for the cycle (the Samajwadi symbol),” he says.