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regular-article-logo Saturday, 15 June 2024

Bengal's Nitish Kumar and the art of political survival: Arjun Singh 'enjoying the game'

Trinamool’s bet against Arjun is Partha Bhowmick, a three-time MLA from Naihati, who the party thinks is best suited to take on the Barrackpore Bahubali. The Bengali bhadralok tag on Bhowmick did benefit the party in 2021 and the ruling party is expecting a repeat this time

Kinsuk Basu Barrackpore Published 18.05.24, 07:22 AM
Arjun Singh in his office in Jagaddal, North 24-Parganas.

Arjun Singh in his office in Jagaddal, North 24-Parganas. Picture by Kinsuk Basu

A narrow lane hem­med by hutments with a few concrete ones here and there winds past a three-storey bui­lding in green. A white Toyota Fortuner remains parked at the gate. Underneath a tree adjoining the entrance streams of youths, some perched on bikes, engage in a chatter. A battery of CRPF men in olives guard the entrance to the building, scanning every visitor before letting anyone inside the most famous address on New Chird Road of Jagaddal in North 24-Parganas.

This is the home of Arjun Singh, Bengal’s Nitish Kumar in this poll season and the BJP’s bet for the Barrackpore constituency, around 45km north of Calcutta.

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Like Nitish, the Bihar chief minister known for his political somersaults to keep himself relevant, Arjun is a master in the craft of political survival.

Arjun entered the fray on a BJP ticket after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee denied him a nomination, mirroring events from five years ago when he switched to the BJP from Trinamool to win the 2019 polls only to jump back to Mamata’s fold three years later.

Arjun joined the BJP in March, two months after Nitish scripted an almost similar flip-flop in the eastern state.

Nestled on the eastern bank of the Hooghly, the Barrackpore constituency — from Barrackpore to Shyamnagar — is an expanse of chimneys that pierce the sky. Smoke billows from only one or two of them. With rows of jute mills and factories — some ailing, others shut — dotting the landscape, the divide between the majority, comprising the Bengali-speaking bhadrolok, and the bulk of non-Bengali migrant factory workers from Bihar, is as defined as the battle for ballots here.

And like it was once synonymous with Bihar, Barrackpore is notorious for the three Bs during elections. Bombs, bullets and bloodshed — a lurking sense of fear binds almost all the seven Assembly segments of the Lok Sabha constituency.

The latest round of bloodshed began in November last year when Vicky Yadav, said to be a Trinamool worker, was shot dead by motorcycle-borne killers who arrived at the doorstep of his house in Purani Talao area, some 600 metres from Arjun’s house, and pumped bullets into him.

“I’m still not aware why Vicky was murdered,” said his brother Tarak Nath Yadav, a jute mill worker in Jagaddal who hails from Bihar’s Bhojpur district. “My brother had begun shying away from politics, from Arjun Singh and almost all others. Vicky wanted to focus on his business of transporting goods on vehicles when he was killed.”

Almost six months later, the blood stains have dried up. Arjun’s nephew Sanjit alias Pappu has been arrested along with five others for the alleged murder.

But the fears haven’t been arrested. A fortnight before Vicky was murdered, a busine­ssman — Mohammad Hasan — was shot dead outside his house in Titagarh. Last May, a section of businessmen in Barrackpore resorted to a 12-hour strike protesting the murder of the 26-year-old son of a jewellery shop owner inside his shop.

The Trinamool has built a part of its campaign around this lurking sense of fear and lawlessness to take on the might of Arjun, the “Barrackpore Bahubali” as he is often called.

Posters of a smiling Arjun sitting on a heap of skulls with names of persons who have been murdered and who were attempted to be killed are splashed on walls and shops. “No vote to murderer,” the posters scream while banners proclaim, “Gundaaraj noy. Barrackpore ey shanti chaai (No more hooliganism, we want peace in Barrackpore)”.

None of them bears the name of the Trinamool Congress though.

“Within three days of winning the seat in May 2019, Arjun and his men had unleashed unprecedented violence. My house was bombed. Several party offices were ransacked and Trinamool supporters thrashed,” said Debojyoti Ghosh, vice-ch­air­man of Bhatpara municipality. “Within a month of his victory, Arjun handed over flight tickets to councillors of several municipalities, made them take a flight to Delhi, join the BJP and usurp most of the municipal boards, including Bhatpara.”

Of Barrackpore’s seven Assembly segments, Bhatpara was the only one that the Trinamool conceded to the BJP in the 2021 Assembly polls. Arjun Singh’s son Paban won by a margin of over 13,000 votes.

Arjun has been the MLA of Bhatpara for two decades and MP from Barrackpore for one term. The charges against him do not bother him as he knows what his strengths are — the non-Bengali identity, Brand Narendra Modi and the return of Ram to Ayodhya.

“The chant of Arjun Singh the murderer surfaces ahead of every election. This is nothing new. I’m used to such slander campaigns. Such posters and hoardings betray Trinamool’s insecurity against me,” says Arjun, sitting inside his cramped office on New Chord Road in Jagaddal.

Streams of workers pour in and out of the office room, where pictures and idols of religious leaders share space with that of Modi and other senior BJP leaders, including Amit Shah, his hands folded and smiling.

Until a few months ago, Mamata’s picture used to hang at the very place where Modi’s is on show now.

“The workers that you see will shortly leave my office, join Trinamool rallies outside… But ahead of polling day, they will work for me overtime,” smiles Arjun.

Others around him break into laughter.

“Didimoni wanted to finish me politically by denying the MP ticket from Barrackpore. I knew at least eight months in advance what she — and the nephew — were up to. I didn’t make a move and just sat tight, kept enjoying the game,” he says.

But doesn’t the flip-flop from BJP to Trinamool to BJP again leave him embarrassed?

He says his followers know exactly what he has been up to all through his political career and the “Palturam” tag cannot do any damage to his image.

Trinamool’s bet against Arjun is Partha Bhowmick, a three-time MLA from Naihati, who the party thinks is best suited to take on the Barrackpore Bahubali. The Bengali bhadralok tag on Bhowmick did benefit the party in 2021 and the ruling party is expecting a repeat this time.

Trinamool's Partha Bhowmick  on the campaign trail.

Trinamool's Partha Bhowmick on the campaign trail. Picture by Subhasish Chaudhuri

Bhowmick — who is known as TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee’s candidate — doesn’t talk about himself, focusing more instead on his leader Mamata and her Lakshmir Bhandar scheme.

In February, the allowance for general category women under the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme was hiked to 1,000 from 500 per month while for the SC/ST category, it was increased to 1,200 from 1,000 per month.

“One doesn’t need to chalk out any specific campaign strategy to win the Barrackpore seat. Lakshmir Bhandar is a game-changer. Mamata Banerjee’s social welfare sc­hemes that reach out to the masses speak for themselves,” says Bhowmick. “Irrespective of whether someone is Bengali speaking or not, the scheme has reached all households. This time there is no contest actually.”

Trinamool poll-war veterans think Bhowmick’s deft handling of factionalism inside the party and his clean image will be his assets in the hustings.

Soft-spoken with a backgr­ound in theatre — separate groups are holding street-corner plays in his support —
Bh­owmick has the ability to win Bengali middle-class votes, believe Trinamool poll managers.

Their main worry is the kind of inroads he can make in Assembly segments with a higher minority concentration, including Amdanga and in pockets with a strong non-Bengali presence.

Arjun knows that the battle to retain the seat is tough owing to Bhowmick. He is also aware that it is a do-or-die battle for him as his political relevance will depend solely on his victory this time.

“There is no retake in my political career. It’s only take. I don’t need poll strategists like I-PAC to win elections for me,” he says.

Barrackpore votes on May 20

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