An eerie calm greets you on arrival. The earthen roads meandering through swathes of farmland are mostly deserted. There are no street corner meetings, no loudspeakers, not much of canvassing, even though elections are just about a week away. Once a battleground, Nandigram is unusually quiet.
Most local leaders of Trinamool Congress, which snatched control of this area from the Left after a violent farmers’ agitation in 2007, have gone into hiding because police have issued non-bailable arrest warrants against them. They face criminal cases for their involvement in the agitation and the clashes that followed. As for the Left, it has lost the courage to face the hostility of the people and threats from their rivals.
The result: the festivity that usually accompanies elections is missing in what is considered the epicentre of the change that is now sweeping Bengal’s political landscape.
“Our people have been implicated on false charges. They will be in jail if they come out to do anything for the elections. Every day there is police search here,” said Firoza Bibi, who wrested Nandigram seat from the Left in a 2009 by-election. Bibi’s son died in police firing during the agitation against a chemical hub that the Left Front proposed to build on Nandigram’s fertile agricultural land.
Bibi and others in Trinamool are hoping things will change for the better when Mamata Banerjee visits on Friday. There are at least 290 Trinamool workers in Nandigram who face arrest warrants, according to local police. Although these have been pending for a long time, the police are now on a hot pursuit because of an EC directive.
Ahead of the elections, the EC asked the state to arrest all such people who are wanted in criminal cases and against whom warrants are pending.
In Nandigram there are about 150 Left workers who also have warrants pending against them. The difference being many of them have been able to obtain a bail, because they didn’t ignore summons, said Ashok Gudiya, CPM’s man in charge here. In contrast, many Trinamool workers ignored the summons and allowed the warrants to become non-bailable, he said.
But Trinamool insists that the charges against its workers were more serious and leveled arbitrarily. Citing instances, Bibi named 80-year-old Khelpa Rehman who has been slapped rape charges. Hazi Kaspa, another Trinamool supporter has 25 cases against him.
Even without any campaign, Bibi is set to win and the margin is likely to be bigger than 2009, when she won by 39,000 votes. During the Zilla Parishad elections in 2010, Trinamool got 54,000 votes more than the Left.
The widening gap, Gudiya admits, reflects a growing mistrust for the Left and has forced it to withdraw. “We need to give them time. Let them see for themselves what this change really brings,” said Gudiya.
A bigger concern for the Left is to rehabilitate its supporters who had fled after the clashes. There were about 4,800 of them. Most have returned and are trying to reconcile with other villagers. “Polling is not on top of their mind,” said Pulinbehari Mondol, a CPM worker who switched to Trinamool after his son died in the 2007 agitation.
That incident appeared to be a reversal of fortune from the past, when the Left had a political monopoly here.