West Bengal Assembly polls | High stakes in Birbhum as a resurgent BJP challenges TMC in its stronghold

On April 5, hundreds of Trinamool activists gathered at the subdivisional office in Bolpur, Birbhum. They brought along with them brass bands and vehicles decked with balloons as State Minister Chandranath Sinha filed his nomination for Bolpur.

All COVID-19 safety norms were cast aside even as scores of police personnel stood outside the SDO office.

The pomp and show at the nomination centre, where a few hours later the BJP candidate also arrived, was in sharp contrast to the rural elections held three years ago when no candidate of the Opposition was able to file nomination papers in the area.

What prevented the candidates of the Opposition to file nomination papers in 2018 was unnayan [development by the TMC government] in the words of TMC district president and strongman Anubrata Mondal.

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Almost 48 hours before the 11 seats of the district are going to the polls on April 29, the Election Commission ordered a strict surveillance by the executive magistrate and the CAPF on Mr. Mondal. He will be videographed, the EC said. Mr. Mondal, known to speak in political innuendos, said “such surveillance will not hamper his game”. It was Mr. Mondal who first raised the slogan “Khela Hobe (game on)” that was adopted by the ruling party.

What makes Birbhum one of the sensitive areas is the regular incidence of political violence. On April 6, one person was found dead in Dubrajpur area of Birbhum and locals clashed with the police when the forces tried to take the body for the medico-legal processes. On April 10, a huge cache of crude bombs was recovered and diffused in the Nanoor area. Several incidents of violence have been reported in the district, where in 2018 the State’s ruling party had won the highest number of seats without any contest as the Opposition was not allowed to field any candidate.

On one occasion during the campaign in this month, a local TMC leader threatened sitting MLA and Samyukta Morcha Candidate Shyamali Pradhan and her supporters that their hands would be “chopped off” if she campaigned in a particular village.

In the 2016 Assembly elections, the TMC had won nine of the 11 seats in Birbhum — the remaining two seats went to the Congress and the Left; but by 2019 Lok Sabha polls the scenario changed, and the BJP was seen leading in five Assembly segments, while the TMC was ahead in six. The district which borders Murshidabad has about 37% minority population and along with the surge of the BJP, the TMC has to deal with vicious in-fighting.

Bolpur in Birbhum where Rabindranath Tagore set up the Visva Bharati University provides a sharp contrast to the culture of political violence. Santiniketan, which means abode of peace, can also be described as being the cultural heart of Bengal where attempts are made to live by the ideals of universal brotherhood. Tagore’s abode of peace, however, has witnessed a lot of unrest over measures taken by the Visva Bharati administration. The University’s plans to erect a boundary wall and suspend and show cause a professor of the 100-year-old university haves created a lot of resentment.

Despite the attempts by the BJP leadership to appropriate the legacy of Tagore with Prime Minister Narendra Modi often quoting the poet and Union Home Minister Amit Shah visiting the university, there is resentment among the local academic circles and the ‘ashramites’ against the varsity administration.

The BJP candidate from Bolpur Anirban Ganguly has tried to distance himself from the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Mr. Ganguly, who heads the Syama Prasad Mukherjee foundation and helped the BJP make cultural inroads in the State over the past few years, harps on plans of “resurrecting and rejuvenating” the glory of West Bengal including the Santiniketan.

The TMC leadership including Mr. Mondal and the candidate Chandranath Sinha have described him as a bahiragata (outsider) who has neither any connect with the people nor can fulfil the aspirations of the Visva Bharati University.

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