|(Clockwise from top) Trinamul’s Satabdi Roy, the Congress’s Syed Siraj Jimmi, the CPM’s Kamre Elahi and the BJP's Joy Banerjee campaign in Birbhum. Pictures by Snehamoy Chakraborty
Rampurhat, April 27: The heat is scorching in Birbhum. It is a frying 40-plus degrees in the open, and Satabdi Roy is feeling every bit of it.
Her campaign companions from Trinamul say the Birbhum MP is running a temperature. Her skin is sprouting rashes. But Satabdi wants to hold 45-50 public meetings every day.
She has made one change to her campaigning style, though, to get some shade — Satabdi now moves around mostly in a black Mahindra Scorpio, not the Willys open-hood jeep that used to be her and BJP rival Joy Banerjee’s campaign chariot.
“She wants to visit each of the 2,260 villages in her constituency. So far, we have covered about 1,700 villages. In this unbearable heat, which sometimes touches 45°C, such a busy schedule will definitely take a toll on her health,” says a Trinamul leader from Rampurhat.
Some of her party leaders admit Satabdi has been working hard this year because of the uncertainties associated with the four-cornered contest.
Asked why she is conducting this punishing carpet-bombing campaign, Satabdi says with a smile: “I want to go to each village and tell the people that I will be there with them for the next five years.”
But the leaders campaigning with her know the difference between last time — when Satabdi had trumped CPM veteran Braja Mukherjee by 56,192 votes — and this time. “Last time, people came rushing to have a glimpse of the star, but the scenario has changed. Now, we have to visit villages to meet people,” a Trinamul leader says.
There are bigger changes that are keeping Satabdi on her toes.
In 2009, Trinamul and the Congress had an alliance. This time, they are rivals.
As if the heat wave in Birbhum was not bad enough, there is also a “Modi wave”.
The once star-starved Birbhum of 2009 has another tinsel town face in the fray this time — the BJP’s Joy Banerjee.
Joy, the candidate who makes it a point to say “I love you” to people he meets, has acted with Satabdi in a few movies.
Successive election numbers are also not entirely in favour of Trinamul.
Satabdi’s victory margin of 56,192 came down to 45,433 in 2011 in the seven Assembly segments that make up the Birbhum Lok Sabha seat.
In the 2013 panchayat polls, the Left won 11 of the 27 zilla parishad seats in the Birbhum Lok Sabha constituency and the Congress three, indicating an Opposition clawback in the district.
“Fighting against the odds, the Left Front and the Congress had made a mark in the panchayat polls…. It is good that our candidate has realised the threat and is working harder,” a Trinamul leader said.
If Satabdi is under pressure, she does not show it. “I am not worried at all,” she says.
To beat the heat, the actress drinks a glass of sharbat. Breakfast is not a heavy affair — two pieces of bread with butter around 8am daily.
She carries biscuits, some fruits and adequate water in her Mahindra Scorpio.
Five years in the rough and tumble of politics have taught Satabdi to appreciate alu posto. She generally lunches in the houses of local Trinamul leaders. “I am used to Birbhum’s special dish — alu posto,” she smiles.
She confesses that food was a problem when she first came to Birbhum. “I did not like the curries.”
For dinner, she has bread and vegetables at her rented house in Rampurhat town.
The BJP’s Joy, whose name Satabdi does not want Trinamul leaders to take while campaigning, is sure “the people of Birbhum will vote for us. I am getting the sense wherever I go.” A saffron bandana covers his head.
The generous turnout at BJP’s roadshows and meetings has apparently made Trinamul leaders a bit nervous. They fear a sizeable section of those who voted Trinamul in 2011 — the party won eight of the 11 Assembly seats in former CPM bastion Birbhum — may support the BJP.
To counter the possibility of an improved BJP performance, Satabdi holds at least 45 meetings a day, stopping for a few minutes at this village crossing or that village market. She gets off her Scorpio, seeks support for Trinamul, hops back into the SUV and moves to the next intersection.
The sitting MP has published 3 lakh booklets mentioning the projects she has successfully executed. The 84-page booklet is supposed to be distributed among voters, but party sources say large bundles are lying in various party offices in Rampurhat.
“You need money to distribute them. In 2009, we were given funds but this year, the fund flow has dried up,” says a Trinamul leader in a party office, where at least 25,000 booklets are dumped.
Inaction by a section of party leaders in Rampurhat, Nalhati and Suri has become a headache for Satabdi, admits one of her close aides. “She has learnt the ropes. She is not waiting for anyone, but doing her bit,” says the aide.
Congress candidate Syed Siraj Jimmi, a former chairman of Rampurhat municipality, is criss-crossing the constituency to woo back Congress voters who had shifted allegiance to Trinamul after the panchayat polls last year.
Several parts of the constituency such as Nalhati, Muraroi, Hason and Sainthia had strong Congress presence till a few years ago. Jimmi is confident of winning back a sizeable section of these supporters by cashing in on anti-incumbency.
In last year’s Assembly bypoll at Nalhati, the Congress came second to the Forward Bloc, pushing Trinamul to the third position. The panchayat polls also proved that the Congress still has a presence as it bagged over 1.5 lakh votes in the zilla parishad.
Fever-weary Satabdi also has a doctor for a rival in Left Front candidate Kamre Elahi.
A surgeon by profession, Elahi was posted in Muraroi hospital for several years. He goes on campaign with a stethoscope and treats voters for free. “We are not holding large meetings or roadshows. We are holding small street-corner meetings in every village. Such street-corner gatherings have already been held in 90 per cent of the villages,” Elahi says.
Some voters seemed a trifle unhappy with Satabdi’s blink-and-you-miss campaign style.
Sajal Garai, a grocer in Muraroi, said: “Satabdi came twice to our village after she became the MP. But during campaigning, we found her in a hurry, too busy with her schedule. She came on the dais and requested that we vote for her. ‘Please cast your vote for me if you want to see me for the next five years’, she said. But we thought she would give us more time and speak about her development plans for backward areas like Muraroi.”
Mohammed Safique, a voter from Pratappur in Margram, said: “Didi (Satabdi) stayed for five minutes. Workers and supporters were a bit upset with her. But she wants to visit all villages.”
In sartorial preference, the tinsel town contestants have clocked higher on the glamour quotient. While Elahi and Jimmi have stuck to kurta-pyjamas, Joy was seen wearing a leopard print sleeveless shirt.
Satabdi is almost always seen in sunglasses. “Brand does not matter to her,” a Trinamul leader says.
The actress is in a full-sleeve blouse, generally co-ordinated with the colour of her sari.
There is generally a neckpiece to go with the attire and matching shoes. “She spends a lot on her clothes. She has at least 20 pairs of shoes, which she wears during campaigning,” says an aide.
Satabdi yesterday told a campaign meeting that development projects would be taken up in places where more people would vote for Trinamul, prompting the Birbhum district magistrate to seek a report from the assistant returning officer for the constituency.
“Those who will not vote for me, they are not in favour of development. They should not seek development,” Satabdi said at Mohammadbazar.
“If I really find that the number of votes have decreased, there won’t be development in that particular area. We shall take up development work in places where people will support us,” she added.
“In villages where more people will support us, we will do even more development work there,” Satabdi said.
District CPM secretary called Satabdi an “immature politician”. The BJP’s Joy said it was “unbecoming of a public figure to make such statements before the elections”.
Birbhum votes on April 30