The Telegraph
Sunday , May 11 , 2014
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Final walk on preoccupied rival’s potholed road

Tapas Pal looks tired as he gets off his SUV at the Sonatala High School ground, about 45km from Krishnagar town.

It’s late evening: the Trinamul MP has been criss-crossing his Krishnagar constituency through the day.

The audience of 200, mostly women and children, lets out a cheer. The actor starts his speech, urging them to re-elect him so he can complete his “unfinished work”. So far, so good.

Then, a woman cuts him short. “Why has the 14km road between Barnia and Bethuadahari not been repaired during your tenure?” asks homemaker Suparna Bhowmik, 35.

Joyshree Roy, 34, joins in: “This potholed road is a nightmare, particularly during the rains.”

The road connects Barnia, which adjoins Sonatala village, to National Highway 34 at Bethuadahari.

Caught unprepared, Pal hurriedly winds up the meeting and walks to his car. Before climbing in, he turns to this correspondent, keen to ensure he does not stay back to talk to the villagers.

“Don’t listen to them. These are all lies. I spent Rs 22 crore in the past five years on the development of the seven Assembly segments,” Pal claims. He is then off to the next venue, about 5km away, with Nakashipara MLA Kollol Khan in tow.

Back at the school ground, as they troop out of the venue, people grumble about their MP’s absenteeism.

“He doesn’t have an office in Krishnagar town. It’s not possible for us to travel to Calcutta to meet him,” complains private tutor Swapan Roy, 65, who doubles as a priest at a few village temples.

Tapas Pal

Roy says he voted for Pal in 2009 but is having second thoughts this time.

Pal sees nothing wrong in failing to visit his constituency regularly. “As an MP, I’m mostly preoccupied in Delhi. If people want to meet me with their problems, they are welcome at my Nizam Palace office in Calcutta.”

But small incidents like the one in Sonatala, part of Nakashipara Assembly segment, are not escaping the attention of Trinamul poll managers in Krishnagar.

“People are talking of Tapas’s non-performance and absenteeism in some pockets. The area is a party stronghold but still, we’re worried,” a Trinamul secretary in Krishnagar town confesses.

Trinamul had not fared much better than the Left in Nadia district in last year’s rural polls. It won 25 of the 47 zilla parishad seats to form the board but the Left emerged as a formidable Opposition with the remaining 22.

The Left outdid the ruling party in panchayat samiti seats, winning 695 against Trinamul’s 549.

Although Trinamul had led from each of Krishnagar’s seven Assembly segments in 2009, bagging 42.43 per cent votes against the CPM’s 35.03, it lost from Tehatta and Plasseypara in the 2011 Assembly polls. Across Krishnagar’s Assembly segments, its lead over the Left fell from 7.4 per cent in 2009 to 3.8 per cent in 2011.

The anti-incumbency sentiments along with Trinamul’s iffy performance in the rural polls are giving hope to the CPM and the BJP in this pre-dominantly rural constituency with an electorate of over 14 lakh.

Buoyed further by the “Modi wave”, BJP candidate Satyabrata Mukherjee — “Juluda” to many — is promising a “miracle”.

In his pyjamas and sneakers, the 81-year-old former junior minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ministry has been campaigning even in the remotest villages.

“This may be my last battle before I die. You rejected me in 2004 and 2009. This time, please give me a chance to serve you again,” the barrister tells a gathering of 200 in Satyapur village, Plasseypara.

The former additional solicitor-general had walked 3km along a dirt track, crossing a makeshift bamboo bridge over a canal, to reach the village.

“What has your MP done these five years? It’s sad you are still using this bamboo bridge, risking your lives. I’ll give you a concrete bridge,” he says.

The bamboo bridge connects Satyapur with Arpara and serves over 10,000 people.

Mukherjee’s supporters believe the only hurdle before him is the constituency’s demography: over 35 per cent of its voters are Muslims. But Juluda is banking on his personal charisma.

“Through the year, I divide my time between my ancestral home at Paglachandi, about 40km from Krishnagar town, and my Sunny Park flat in Calcutta. I always stand by the people here in times of need,” he says.

The Left is upbeat too. “Given our performance in the rural polls in Nadia and our victory in two Assembly seats in 2011, Krishnagar would not be a cakewalk for Trinamul,” says CPM nominee Santanu Jha, 52, a professor of agri-entomology at the Kalyani Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya.

He concedes that Mukherjee too is a contender but refuses to credit Modi. “The BJP has emerged as a force because of the people’s growing disenchantment with Trinamul,” he says.

Congress candidate Razia Ahmed’s sense of resignation is palpable. Picked from Topsia in Calcutta and foisted on Krishnagar, she has failed to involve senior leaders — such as Nadia strongman and district president Shankar Singh — in her campaign.

Party sources admit that their choice of candidate has failed to impress Nadia, which has always had a Congress vote bank.

“Poor candidate selection has turned a potentially four-cornered contest into a three-way one,” a senior district Congress leader says. He believes this can give Pal an edge.

But like Juluda, Pal may need a miracle too.

Krishnagar votes on May 12