Monday, 30th October 2017

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Mutiny in the Barracks

Mamata-vs-turncoat prestige fight poised like a cliffhanger

  • Published 6.05.19, 12:30 AM
  • Updated 6.05.19, 12:30 AM
  • 5 mins read
A child garlands Trinamul sitting MP Dinesh Trivedi in Barrackpore. Picture by Pranab Kumar Biswas

1824 Bindee Tiwari, the Barrackpore Mutiny.

1857 Mangal Pandey, the Sepoy Mutiny.

2019 Arjun Singh, this general election?

Mamata Banerjee would certainly hope so. Fate has not been kind to flag-bearers of mutiny in Barrackpore, the provenance of two abortive raj-era rebellions against the British East India Company.

Barely 25km from Calcutta, the cantonment town developed by the British since 1772 is now the battleground for perhaps the most intriguing contest in Bengal this poll season as the Trinamul Congress chief seeks to defend her hegemony against marauding mutineer Arjun Singh.

Singh, a four-term Trinamul MLA from Bhatpara and a trusted lieutenant of Mamata, defected in March. Days later, the BJP nominated him from Barrackpore.

Given his strongman image and a firm support base in the diverse constituency’s 35 per cent Hindi-speaking voters and the 80-odd per cent urban voters — both sections believed to be favourably disposed towards the BJP, Singh switching sides has made this suburban contest keenly watched.

Most of Barrackpore’s 14,33,276 voters know Singh played a key role in scripting the victory of Trinamul’s two-term MP Dinesh Trivedi, at least in 2009. In 2014, because Bhatpara was the only Assembly segment that denied Trinamul a lead, Singh was accused of sabotage. This time, his stakes are higher. He has to ensure his victory in his backyard, which Mamata is bent on winning, to ensure his relevance. His victory is also crucial to the BJP for felling the Trinamul through defection of lawmakers and leaders. The stakes are possibly higher for Mamata, who has taken it upon herself to win, because she needs to drive home a message. She has promised to look after Barrackpore personally if the voters hand 68-year-old Trivedi another victory.

“She wants to make an example of Arjun. She needs him to lose, to show that defection to the BJP will yield little. She needs to finish his political career,” said a Trinamul zilla parishad functionary of North 24 Parganas.

Singh himself said his victory would be the “beginning of the end” for Mamata’s reign.

“(Narendra) Modiji has talked about 40 Trinamul MLAs being in touch with him. Another 60 are in touch with me…. After May 23, Didi’s government will fall,” he said.

Despite discounting the element of campaign hyperbole, the ruling establishment is aware of the threat. Mamata, therefore, has come out all guns blazing in Barrackpore, giving a different spin to the 1857 narrative in the constituency, likening Modi to the British oppressors and projecting herself as the spearhead of the pan-India movement against him. She has been appealing to the electorate to uphold the legacy of the Great Rebellion when they go to cast their votes.

Mamata knows Singh is no ordinary foe.

The 56-year-old son of three-time Congress MLA Satyanarayan Singh rose to prominence decades ago as a contractor for supply of labour from the Hindi heartland to the factories and mills — besides Hanuman temples — that Barrackpore is strewn with, before branching out to other businesses as industry waned there. He is believed to hold considerable sway among the Hindi-speakers, enough to outweigh the prospect of the constituency’s 14 per cent minority voters shunning him.

“Didi has demanded a lead bettering that of the 2.06 lakh in 2014, which looks very difficult against Arjun,” said a Trinamul leader from Jagatdal, an Assembly segment Singh is bullish on. “On Monday, we have to guard against Arjun’s malpractice on a war-footing,” he added, accusing Singh of trying to vitiate polls in hundreds of the seat’s 1,567 booths.

BJP leader Arjun Singh (with folded hands) campaigns with former Trinamul colleague Mukul Roy in Barrackpore.
BJP leader Arjun Singh (with folded hands) campaigns with former Trinamul colleague Mukul Roy in Barrackpore. Picture by Pranab Kumar Biswas

Such caution is not characteristic of Bengal’s ruling party; but the Trinamul leadership is wary of the “election-management” abilities of the seasoned politician.

A Trinamul councillor from Naihati pointed out how Singh quietly fielded five “dummy” Independent candidates in Barrackpore so that their polling agents, besides his own, can work to his advantage inside the booths. Later, Trinamul rushed to field two such candidates before nominations closed.

“Arjun has mastered election management, is a feared mass leader with organisational strength, and is Modi’s candidate now,” said the councillor. “Besides, (the CPM’s six-term Barrackpore MP) Tarit Baran Topdar is secretly backing him,” he alleged, saying a split of nearly 26 per cent votes the Left managed in 2014 could be the clincher.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Topdar rubbished the allegation and endorsed the CPM’s Gargi Chatterjee.

However, consummate parliamentarian Trivedi refused to consider his 2014 “saboteur” a threat. “He will be shown his place by the people,” said Trivedi, whom Mamata dropped unceremoniously as the railway minister in 2012 to replace him with her then Number Two, Mukul Roy.

Now a BJP leader, Roy —despite their famously testy ties in the past — engineered Singh’s defection.

In Barrackpore, the BJP was not considered a factor till 2014, when it managed an 18 per cent spike in vote share and finished third with 21.92 per cent of the votes.

But discontent over his candidature within the BJP is something Singh has to watch out for. Having made a political career out of crushing non-Trinamul forces, Singh is no darling of the local rank and file of his new party.

“Sick of Trinamul, mainly because of Arjun, people turned to the BJP. Overnight, he became the face of the BJP. For Barrackpore, it’s now a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said a BJP insider.

He said Singh’s chances are exaggerated. “Weeks ago, Arjun was confident of massive leads — possibly enough — from four of the seven Assembly segments, Bhatpara, Jagatdal, Noapara and Bijpur. Now, he is only sure of Bhatpara,” the BJP insider added.

Even in Bhatpara, Singh lost control of the civic body after many Trinamul councillors who had promised to follow him to the BJP backed out.

The game appears to have changed in two other Assembly segments as well.

Singh’s brother-in-law Sunil Singh, the Noapara MLA, allegedly backed out of defection after he realised he would not be able to retain control of the Garulia municipality. Trinamul’s Bijpur MLA Subhranshu Roy —the son of Mukul Roy — has reaffirmed his commitment to Mamata, promising a massive lead for Trivedi.

“Before Arjun defected, he got promises from numerous sections of Trinamul. Now, he suddenly finds himself corned with unfulfilled promises,” said a BJP leader from Noapara.

But Singh has left no campaign stone unturned and resorts to analogies of epic proportions. “Remember my name…. This is a Mahabharat, a dharmyudh (crusade), where the people will give a fitting response to anti-national Didi,” he said, referring to Mamata’s anti-BJP statements in the wake of Pulwama and Balakot, his core campaign theme.

“Both of us will win, for Modiji,” he added, referring to his son Pawan Kumar Singh, fielded by the BJP for the Bhatpara Assembly bypoll.

The bypoll has made the contest more intense, as Mamata pulled all stops to bring back Madan Mitra from electoral exile to field him against Singh’s son.

Political scientists said Barrackpore, unlike any other seat in Bengal, was poised like a Twenty20 cliffhanger.

“None of what has gone before, the parties, the leaders, the issues… none of it matters in that seat,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University. “All that will count is the election management during the polling hours. It is Monday’s Super Over that will be the decider, nothing else.”

Barrackpore votes today


Contenders: Dinesh Trivedi (Trinamul), Arjun Singh (BJP), Gargi Chatterjee (CPM), Mohammad Alam (Congress)

Y-factor: Mamata Banerjee’s vow of preventing Singh from wresting the seat, which could open a Pandora’s box of defections for her.

Policy perils

  1. Rapidly growing unemployment from the shutting of factories and mills, already over a dozen.
  2. The failure — by both the Centre and the state — to rejuvenate industry in the once-bustling hub.
  3. Demonetisation dealt a body blow to the masses.