|Adhir Chowdhury, called “Ratnakar” by the RSP, acknowledges that a stage in his life mirrors that of the robber who transformed into the erudite rishi Valmiki. Adhir, a school dropout, taught himself English in jail reading The Statesman with the help of a dictionary. Pictures by Amit Datta
Can you imagine Gabbar Singh reading an English dictionary in jail? This is why the multiple monikers hurled at Adhir Chowdhury fail to get the full measure of the man.
The “Gabbar” tag is the latest for Adhir and comes from an opponent boasting a formidable arsenal: the blessings of a leader who can draw crowds in enemy territory and a mellifluous voice known across Bengal.
Trinamul candidate and poll debutant Indranil Sen, Mamata Banerjee’s pick to fight the state Congress chief in his den, has been criss-crossing Behrampore with his leader’s name and some of her favourite songs on his lips.
But realising the magnitude of the challenge, he has understandably decided to also unsheathe a louder weapon than Rabindra Sangeet, firing a comparison from a legendary Bollywood blockbuster.
“You remember Jai and Veeru? They were brought to Ramgarh to ensure the end of Gabbar Singh,” Sen told a meeting in Badarpur village.
“Our Didi has sent me to end the reign of Adhir Chowdhury, the Gabbar Singh of Behrampore. Can’t we do it together?”
A few young men near the dais clapped animatedly but most in the audience seemed lukewarm.
Trinamul insiders say the plan to invoke Sholay has two objectives: one, to hit Adhir hard in a constituency he has been winning since 1999 and two, to counter the “outsider” tag on Sen, a Calcuttan.
Sobriquets are nothing new for Adhir, called “Robin Hood” and “Phantom” by his supporters. But it took a lot of prodding to get the 58-year-old junior railway minister to open up and react to the newest tag.
“As far as I remember, Jai and Veeru were petty criminals, who were lodged in jail,” he smiled, sitting in his room at the four-storey party office where some of his aides fondly call him “Captain”.
At the time the 1975 film was released, a young Adhir himself was in jail — for five years and a half — as a Naxalite.
|Indranil Sen is crisscrossing Behrampore, with Rabindra Sangeet and Mamata’s name on his lips
The Left has been left rummaging through — of all things — Hindu mythology to find an apt nickname for the Behrampore strongman: the bloodthirsty robber Ratnakar who became the rishi Valmiki and wrote the Ramayan.
“But in our times, Ratnakar will always remain a Ratnakar,” says RSP candidate Pramothes Mukherjee.
Yet Ratnakar’s transformation into the erudite Valmiki indeed mirrors a stage in Adhir’s life, which he is candid enough to acknowledge.
“After spending around a year and a half in jail doing nothing,” said the Class IX dropout, “I decided to learn English and got the authorities to give me an English newspaper, The Statesman, and a dictionary. That’s how I learnt to communicate in English.”
So, Adhir smiles at the new nicknames he attracts. He says he has learnt not to get ruffled by the “strategy” the CPM had devised to discredit him in his early days in politics, when he was accused in several cases, including ones with murder charges.
“The CPM has this policy of first giving a dog a bad name and then killing it…. They couldn’t kill me but continue to demonise me. Now Trinamul has started doing it too.”
Clash of titans
Adhir became the state Congress president merely a month before the general election after steering the party in Murshidabad for years. The battle for Behrampore, a constituency of 14.43 lakh voters spread over 1,653sqkm, is actually a clash between him and Mamata, with whom he has had differences since the days both were in the Congress.
It’s only natural the chief minister should be keen to wrest Behrampore from Adhir, who has continued to own Murshidabad at a time the Trinamul juggernaut has been rolling across most of Bengal.
In last year’s panchayat polls, Trinamul won just one of the district’s 70 zilla parishad seats and one of its 26 panchayat samitis.
It’s his ability to resist the Trinamul onslaught that has earned Adhir another label — “the hero from Bengal” — at Delhi’s 24 Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters.
Rahul Gandhi made the high command’s faith in Adhir explicit at his April 19 rally in Behrampore.
“Adhirji… has been made the PCC president because he fights for you. I want to tell him that the way you have prepared the ground in Murshidabad for the Congress, prepare a similar ground for the party all across the state,” Rahul had said.
Adhir has interpreted the mandate as doing everything possible to retain all the six seats — Behrampore, Murshidabad, Jangipur, Malda North, Malda South and Raiganj — that the Congress had won in 2009 in alliance with Trinamul.
“Earlier, I used to focus on Behrampore and the district’s two other seats and occasionally campaign in Malda. This time, the entire state is my responsibility and I accept the challenge,” Adhir said.
So, as he criss-crosses the state, Adhir’s visibility has been low in Behrampore in comparison to that of Sen and Mukherjee.
“I believe in delegating responsibility. We have a proper party structure and the leaders at their levels take care of campaigning,” he said, virtually echoing management textbooks.
Till now, Adhir has addressed just two workers’ meetings in his seat while Sen and Mukherjee are holding at least 10 to 15 a day besides taking part in roadshows.
“Normally, I avoid roadshows. There’s no point showing my face to the people. I prefer small meetings and brief addresses. I don’t make tall promises; I stick to things I can deliver,” the three-time MP said.
His opponents accuse him of having done nothing for the constituency. From demanding a white paper on his use of his MP’s development funds to accusing him of blocking the state government’s development initiatives, Trinamul is on the offensive.
Sources said Mamata was planning a focused campaign in Behrampore, addressing meetings herself and sending her star campaigners too.
Sen, asked how he felt about his tough assignment on debut, said: “I felt proud when Didi selected me.”
Adhir’s victory margin has risen steadily since he first contested the Lok Sabha polls in 1999, reaching 186,000 votes in 2009. But going by the Congress and Left votes in Behrampore’s seven segments in the 2011 Assembly elections, the margin falls to around 89,000.
“Mamatadi has told me, ‘Indranil, you will win the election.’ She calls up regularly for feedback and passes on necessary tips,” said Sen, who is maintaining a gruelling schedule in the Murshidabad heat.
For the singer, once close to former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the day starts at 6.30. The morning is meant for roadshows and the evening for meetings, before he retires around 12.30 in the night.
“Our party has made inroads here and I’m confident,” Sen said, referring to the recent Behrampore civic polls in which Trinamul opened its account for the first time by winning two wards. Trinamul is tiptoeing into the district and even the man in the street acknowledges it.
“Trinamul may be a new party here, but everyone knows they are in power and so some people are joining them,” said flower dealer Dona Das at the Kandi bus stand.
“But we can’t think of Dada (Adhir) losing from Behrampore. Murshidabad is a Congress bastion only because of him,” Das added. Driver Prosenjit Bittel and trader Debu Potuya echoed him.
Another of Trinamul’s problems in Murshidabad is infighting. The differences between Subrata Saha, the only Trinamul MLA in a district with 22 Assembly seats, and Mohammad Ali, district Trinamul chief and nominee from Murshidabad constituency, are well known.
Nor is Humayun Kabir, Trinamul working president in Murshidabad, on good terms with Saha or Ali.
Sen would not admit the feuds but ground-level Trinamul workers are unhappy at being saddled with two “outsiders” in the district: Sen and Jangipur nominee Haji Nurul Islam who has shifted from North 24-Parganas.
Even if a last-minute intervention by Mamata brings everyone on board, Sen may still struggle to script an upset win.
“People here love Dada because he is one of us and always stands by us,” said Nakul Mondal, a vegetable seller at Jibanti market.
Despite Sen’s aggressive campaign, Adhir claimed not to be taking him seriously. “Trinamul doesn’t exist in my constituency. My fight is with the CPM,” Adhir said, adding that his target was to improve his victory margin.
That will be tough to do in a four-cornered fight: the BJP is expected to better its 2009 vote share of 2.9 per cent. If Sen can reduce Adhir’s margin, he should be proud of his achievement.
Behrampore votes on May 12