The Durga Puja festival in Birbhum has shown indications of a shift in the Trinamul Congress's equations in the district, deemed a stronghold of the ruling party.
The change is somewhat apparent on roads. The change is clearer at Puja pandals. The change is conspicuous in the scale of two Puja celebrations.
One is held at Trinamul’s former Birbhum strongman Anubrata Mondal’s ancestral home in Nanoor’s Hatserandi village. The second is barely 3.4km away at Papuri, the ancestral village of Sheikh Kajal — Mondal’s rival within the party.
“Anyone visiting Birbhum this Puja can clearly understand that the district is no more a bastion of Mondal and power is centralised under Kajal. The 'welcome' gates set up on various roads in Birbhum will tell you that here Kajal has replaced the jailed leader,” said a senior Trinamul leader.
Until last year, it was customary to display large pictures of Mondal, along with those of chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek, on makeshift gates, offering greetings for Durga Puja. Even after Mondal was arrested before last year’s Puja, there was no major change in the display.
This time, at most pandals in the district, there are banners with pictures of Kajal.
Mondal was arrested on August 11 last year by the CBI in a cattle rustling case. He is currently lodged in Delhi’s Tihar prison, along with his daughter Sukanya.
Mondal — who remains the district president of Trinamul — used to spend the Puja days at his ancestral home in Hatserandi, 16km from Santiniketan.
It was a must for hundreds of Trinamul workers and leaders to visit Hatserandi and meet Mondal. The family used to arrange lunches for at least 1,000 visitors daily.
When this newspaper visited the place on Mahashtami (Sunday), the ancestral home and its Puja were deserted. The celebration was subdued and only two brothers of Mondal were present to conduct the rituals.
“Those who visited our Puja earlier know how the premises would be crowded. There was not even a place to sit because of the crowd of followers of my elder brother,” said Bablu Mondal, Mondal’s younger brother.
A relative said the rush was not missing even in 2023 when the Puja took place around two months after Mondal was sent to prison.
The attention of the crowd, however, shifted to Papuri this year.
Kajal was included in Trinamul’s core committee by Mamata, who then made him the chief of the Birbhum zilla parishad.
Kajal, who has been overseeing the Puja for 12 years in the village, said the festival had changed for him in 2023. He had to personally visit over 100 Pujas in the district.
“A lot of people and party leaders are coming here. Senior leaders were present at our puja inauguration,” said Kajal at his residence while attending to dozens of visitors.
He, however, did not forget to pay a visit to Mondal’s house on Mahasaptami (Saturday) and distribute new clothes among poor villagers. “Anubrata Mondal is my senior leader and that is why I visited his ancestral home,” said Kajal.