They make one of the most cohesive sects in Bengal's social matrix, but rarely do they mix their religion with the political choices they make. They are the Matuas, or the namasudras -- a community of nearly 8 million low-caste Hindus, of which about 4 million live in Bengal and can make a difference in as many as a dozen constituencies.
In this election though, the lines that separated the Matua tradition from its politics seem to have blurred.
Thanks to a masterstroke from Mamata Banerjee, the youngest son of the sect's supreme leader, Binapani Devi, is in the election fray – contesting Gaighata seat as a Trinamool candidate. Gaighata covers Thakurnagar, the headquarters of the Matua sect.
The decision of the Trinamool leader raised many eyebrows, within and outside the community, and triggered speculation if it had Devi's approval. The clouds appeared to have blown over since.
"Of course, I have decided to contest after her consent," said Manjul Krishna Thakur, who worked at a local bank and, along with other brothers, helped mother run the sect's activities.
Streets of Gaighata now flank Thakur's posters feature Devi along with Mamata and the leader of alliance partner, Sonia Gandhi. One poster read: "With blessings of Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, the youngest son of Boroma is seeking your votes." Devi's followers call her Boroma – which is akin to godmother.
For the Left Front, it is another of the many setbacks it has suffered in recent times.
The Left's concern extends beyond Gaighata, which in any case had gone to Trinamool in last election and will likely do so this time. The Matuas are concentrated mostly in the districts of North Parganas and Nadia, and if they take the same cue as Thakur, Trinamool could sweep in these areas. That would be in contrast to the experience of the Left's 34-year tenure, when it mostly had an unstated ally in the Matuas, who were historically forced to live as untouchables in the southern swamps of undivided Bengal. The importance of the Matua vote was evident when, in a rare gesture, leaders of the Left Front and Trinamool shared the same dais at a community meeting that Devi addressed three months ago in Kolkata. The Left Front's star campaigner for this election, state housing minister Gautam Deb, was there. Opposition leader and Mamata's close aide Partha Chatterjee represented Trinamool.
"All these years, we supported the Left because they were seen as a party of the poor. But they have done nothing for the Matuas," said Lakshman Giri, who is now a local campaign manager for Trinamool.
For most Matuas, agriculture is the main source of livelihood. Average literacy rate is about 55% compared to the state average of nearly 80%. Many Matua families live off remittances from members who have migrated out to work as factory workers.
Mamata saw the opportunity in their growing resentment with the Left, which came to fore in 2006 when Gaighata emerged one of the few (30) seats that Trinamool could win in the 294-seat assembly.
On her behalf, Gaighata MLA Jyotipriya Mullick worked hard on the Matuas' iconic family of Thakurs. Mullick used NREGA funds to build a holy pond alongside the Thakurnagar temple.
He built better roads and got Mamata to name the nearest railway station after Devi's husband, Pramath Ranjan Thakur who founded Thakurnagar after India was partitioned and a large number of Matuas migrated from East Bengal to West Bengal.
The Left failed to counter. Instead, it committed a couple more blunders. A local school that the Matuas wanted to be named after their leader was instead named after B R Ambedkar. Efforts were made later to make up, with a promise of a college and a function in the state capital to recognize the contribution of the Thakur family. But they were too little, and came too late.
(With inputs from Snignedhu Bhattacharya)