Home >specials >In Bankura, it’s a battle between the old guard and the new order

Bankura (West Bengal): As he walks gingerly from door to door, braving the unforgiving afternoon heat, to personally distribute leaflets among voters, it doesn’t take too long to figure out why Basudeb Acharia, a veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, wasn’t initially keen to contest this year’s general election.

For almost a month now, Acharia, 71, has been camping in his constituency, Bankura, considered until lately a Left bastion. The heat is taking its toll on him; his feet are swollen and aching. With only a handful of supporters by his side, Acharia is on a mission to reach all voters in their homes.

“It’s hard to draw people out of their homes in this heat," says the winner of nine general elections. The last time, in 2009, Acharia received 47.66% of the polled votes and won by a margin of 107,802 votes, but the red earth of Bankura doesn’t look as red as it did previously.

Since the Trinamool Congress party ended in 2011 the Left Front’s 34-year rule in West Bengal, the CPM’s support base has collapsed in this district, where at least 40% of voters are tribals.

“Our workers are being attacked everywhere; the administration is partisan; even the panchayats are not with us anymore," says Acharia, when asked why his campaign is so low key compared with that of his Trinamool Congress rival, Moon Moon Sen.

A former actor, Sen’s screen career almost didn’t take off, overshadowed by her mother, the late Suchitra Sen—the most celebrated Bengali actor of all time. Yet, Moon Moon Sen has always made heads turn, widely regarded among Bengalis as one of the most attractive young ladies back in the day.

While Sen is riding on her glamour quotient, Acharia is trying to sway voters with “hard facts about the Trinamool Congress’ misrule" such as withholding of payments in the Centre’s rural jobs guarantee scheme. But there doesn’t seem to be many takers for his conventional style of canvassing.

“The odds are heavily stacked against us this time," admits the 71-year-old CPM leader, even as he claims that the Left Front has lately managed to regain some lost ground. There was no indication, though, of such reversal in last year’s panchayat election, in which the CPM was routed in Bankura.

As West Bengal sees a paradigm shift in politics, Moon Moon Sen appears to be getting all the attention in this tribal-dominated constituency, and that, according to some, is largely on account of the combined star appeal of her own and her daughters, Raima and Ria. More celebrated as actors than their mother, they are campaigning not only for her, but also for other Trinamool Congress candidates.

As thousands throng the streets of Mejhia town to catch a glimpse of Moon Moon Sen, one of her daughters blows kisses while the other waves at people from atop a utility vehicle. In this one horse town, such opportunity to come within handshake distance of these screen divas is worth waiting for hours, says a group of young fitness enthusiasts standing in front of their closed gym.

If one goes by turnouts at so called road shows, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s “experiment" seems to be working, says a veteran leader of the party, who was not given any key responsibility in this year’s general election.

He doesn’t hide that he took exception to “didi’s new strategy of connecting (with voters) through celebrities", but can hardly do anything about it. “Let’s see if it delivers the numbers in the end," he says grudgingly. This person, who asked not to be identified, is among many key Trinamool Congress leaders missing in action this time, not immediately clear why but replaced by celebrities such as actors Mithun Chakraborty (recently elected as a Rajya Sabha member) and Deepak Adhikary (better known by his screen name Dev)—a candidate from Ghatal constituency in Paschim Medinipur district.

Many screen heroes from states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have turned into politicians, but hardly any in West Bengal. But that looks set to change with the Trinamool Congress fielding as many as 10 celebrities to contest this year’s general election, and deploying many more to campaign for the party. Banerjee had said while announcing her party’s candidates that she wanted people from the world of performing arts—singers and actors—to have a say in law-making, but it now appears that she chose them to contest the election because she wanted to overhaul her campaign strategy.

“Raima and Ria are campaigning for me and other candidates because didi was keen that they show their support for the party," says Moon Moon Sen. “Even I have joined politics because she asked me to. In our eyes, she is a star."

Banerjee and Moon Moon Sen struck a rapport while Suchitra Sen was ailing and was undergoing treatment at a Kolkata hospital earlier this year. She died on 17 January. Though Banerjee has always tried to befriend actors since she became chief minister, her choice of Moon Moon Sen to take on Acharia surprised many even within the party, according to the unnamed leader cited above.

Many Trinamool Congress leaders had privately ridiculed Banerjee’s decision, saying the former actor and her daughters would “melt in Bankura’s heat", but Moon Moon Sen says she is enjoying “every bit of it".

A defeat at the hands of such a greenhorn will surely hurt, but until Bankura votes on 7 May, Acharia will continue to knock on doors hoping to regain its voters’ lost support in what is perhaps the most symbolic battle in the state between the old guard and the new order.

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