PANSKURA HERO, KESHPUR LIFELINE 

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By BY SUJAN DUTTA in Midnapore
  • Published 1.05.01
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Midnapore, May 1 :    Midnapore, May 1:  Mohammed Rafique climbs the stairs one by one in slow, deliberate strides and by the time he knocks on the door to meet for an interview, his men have staked out the hotel, checked the interviewer's credentials and told him it's okay. Rafique takes the election as if it were a guerrilla war: choop-chaap, phooley chhap. Quietly, vote for Trinamul. This is the man who Mamata Banerjee believes found the key to winning elections in West Bengal - the "Panskura Line" - which, implemented successfully in the Panskura Lok Sabha byelection last year, ensured a victory for her candidate in a Left bastion. The CPM did not know what hit it. There is a wind in our favour, Rafique will say, and we just caught it. That wind is blowing this time, too. But Rafique and his men are unsure how much of it they can catch. Their failure - after Mamata claimed on Saturday that the Trinamul-Congress alliance was poised for victory and Midnapore will be the CPM's comeuppance - will mean the harvesters of the wind can just as easily become windbags. Rafique is contesting against Sushanta Ghosh in Garbeta East, Keshpur's neighbouring constituency, which gave Trinamul a lead of 18,000 votes in the Panskura bypoll. But he is from Keshpur's Sankua village. For Mamata, he symbolised the changing face of rural Bengal. He was said to have been a CPM activist once, who left the party and joined her. Rafique denies he was ever in the CPM; he has been a Congress worker since he passed out of Mugbasan Hokkaniya Higher Secondary School. Rafique's importance in Trinamul has declined in direct proportion to Ghosh's importance in the CPM. What will it take Rafique to win this election if he is to be taken at his word - that there is a groundswell against the Left? "If the polls are free and fair, I will win by 48,000 votes," says Rafique. At the same time, he admits, he does not have the organisation to translate the support into votes. "It is not so important because of this wind in our favour." Coming from Rafique, this betrays a lack of faith in his own tactics. The "Panskura Line" was hailed by Trinamul as evidence of its ability to pit its organisational might against the CPM's. If Rafique is now justifying that Trinamul will make up with fervour what it lacks in method, it is evidence of the party's nervousness. In Midnapore, though, it is just as surely a sign that resentment against the Left still runs deep. The fear that something could happen just before the elections cannot be wished away. The voter is keeping quiet. And Trinamul's campaign, too, is not high-decibel. Rafique, 40, is one of Midnapore's own. His grandfather and father were both Congressmen. His wife Zorina Begum is from Icchaipur village in Keshpur. He has two children. The elder, his son, goes to the same school he went to. Rafique runs a transport business - he owns two buses that ply the Midnapore-Ghatal and Keshpur-Daspur routes. If there is anyone who can delve into the Midnapore psyche, he should be able to. "It's not luck," says Rafique. "The support for us has come after years of resentment. Take our potato farmers - they are badly off, input costs have gone up but earnings have come down. The CPM says that in Keshpur, jotedars conspired against it. Utter rubbish. There were just three or four landlord families who had ceiling surplus land. That land has been redistributed. It's still not enough. The (CPM) leaders who barely had two square meals a day are now building double-storey bungalows in the town. The farmers who were supporting the CPM are now our supporters. That is what is happening in all of Midnapore." Rafique believes that with a little help from the administration, all those who were forced out of their villages should be able to return. "Our people are shelterless. They have to return home to the villages. I believe they will. You come here on the 10th, the day of the elections, and check for yourself," he says. "In Midnapore, I believe we will win 19 to 24 seats out of the 37 in the district." Rafique's confidence boggles. Here is a party that shows little sign of physical presence in vast stretches of the district - certainly none in Keshpur and scant in Garbeta - but it does not mince words on its expectations. Rafique's constituency, Garbeta East, has 1.44 lakh voters. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, Trinamul got 70,000 votes. Given that the average voter turnout in a Midnapore constituency is about 1.02 lakh, that is an unbeatable figure. The CPM would say the poll was rigged by Trinamul. Chances are, the party was caught off-guard. Rafique was a fluke at the right moment for Mamata. He's now trying to prolong the moment.