Going by the flags and posters all about town, a stranger would be forgiven for thinking that the electoral contest in Nandigram, the nondescript site of violent showdowns in 2007 between the forces of the Left Front government and Trinamool Congress-backed locals, is between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress. But, at least on paper, it is a repeat of the contest between the Trinamool’s Firoza Bibi and the CPI’s Paramananda Bharati.
There is not a single hammer and sickle sign in sight. Except in the dark, charred, gated CPI(M) office where a red flag flutters as if in tatters. “We will have to die,” says Shaikh Nashir, 32, a CPI(M) cadre locking the collapsible gate behind him in broad daylight. “This party office was attacked after the Trinamool won the panchayat elections in 2008; it was attacked after the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. Party worker Abdullah Khan was hacked to death and no one dared to pick up his body from the street for days. We’re next.”
Outside, however, Nandigram wears a festive air. People have dressed up and are going to or returning from voting. The sprawling grounds of the 100-year-old Nandigram Brajamohan Tiwari Shikshaniketan have been taken over by polling officers and security personnel. One local shouts out to an old Left-supporting neighbour in jest, “You’ve always taken votes, now give them!” The latter laughs and proceeds to join the queue.
Murarimohan Patra, 76, a peon at the school, has seen it all. With a salary of R700 a month, he sees the Trinamool in government as a good thing, but wonders how the new regime will manage to change things substantially. “Someone will have to sit down and sift through 34 years of papers — that is, if many of these official files are not being destroyed right now as we speak. I can’t see a new government wanting to shake up things too much. They’ll take action in only the day to day things.”
But what about Mamata Banerjee’s promise to Nandigram’s people of providing 10 lakh jobs and ‘looking after Nandigram with her own hands’ if Trinamool comes to power? Patra wears a wry smile and says, “The rail project? The rail line is being made. Let it be finished, let the trains come, let the trains move. Then we can talk about jobs.”
Four years ago, even before more than 4,000 police first entered Nandigram in March 2007 to stamp out local protests against the government’s plan to take up land to set up a chemical hub under a special economic zone policy, there was disaffection against the sitting CPI MLA Iliyas Mohammad, suspected of being corrupt. There was, however, not much of an opposition to the Left. “Congress and Left leaders drank together in the evenings and argued in the assembly in Kolkata,” says Prasenjit Nayak, owner of a medical shop and born in the year the Left Front first came to power in 1977.
But with the carnage unleashed in the villages of Nandigram in January and March 2007, a line was crossed and Banerjee was there to pick up the gauntlet.
The 12.30 azaan rings out from the loudspeakers on top of the Nandigram Jama Masjid as 70-year-old former teacher Ujjal Maiti explains that the terror unleashed by CPI(M) cadres in 2007 in the border villages like Shonachura and Adhikaripara “populated by Muslims” made the community, traditional Left voters, switch sides en masse.
Amanullah, a local Trinamool leader, has just returned from a polling booth. He is ribbed for going out to vote in a shabby shirt and lungi. “It is my constitutional right to wear what I want when I vote. I didn’t go out in my underwear, did I?”
Shobhon Tripathi, a teacher, is more serious. On being asked how he sees progress come, he says stoically, “I used to teach a girl once. I first planned on making her get a first or second division. She failed and I was disappointed and stopped teaching her. After a while, I became her tutor again. She was an extremely poor student but this time she scraped through. It was a huge event in her family. The case with Bengal is pretty much the same. It’s state is so bad that anything will be a bit better.”