Murshidabad is a sad town. It was the final capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, deputies of the Mughals, who became independent as the empire in Delhi crumbled. Yet, almost no Mughal architecture survives and the place looks more a cheap Victorian knock-off – an 18th century Bengali version of a Chinese copycat town. The palaces are Doric, there is an absurdly short clock tower and its Marwari noblemen’s mansions bristle with marble statues of nude Greek goddesses.
Murshidabad was also where, as every school child learns, the British started their colonial project in India. The Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-Daulah was stabbed in the back by his courtier Mir Jafar, leading to the fall of Bengal, with “Mir Jafar” becoming an idiomatic phrase meaning “traitor”.
Unlike in 1757, though, the rulers of Murshidabad today are having a bit more luck than the challengers from Calcutta. The town and the district with the same name are Congress hubs – one of the last holdouts for the party in a state which it ruled till 1977. Even the Trinamool sweep in 2011, which dislodged the ruling Left, failed to snatch Murshidabad from the Congress. Under local Congress strongman, Adhir Chowdhury, the party has held out against Kolkataite Mamata Banerjee.
In 2016, even as the TMC makes a determined push in the countryside in Murshidabad district, the town itself remains strongly pro-Congress. Nasser Hussain sells trinkets by the imposing Hazar Duari, thousand doored palace built by the puppet Nawab in 1837. The palace is built in the neoclassical Greek style, as was the high European fashion at time and even has a leonine crest engraved on its pediment.
Hussain is clear that the Congress will get his vote. “We’ve always voted Congress, so why change?” he says. “Let there be any government in Kolkata, but here Adhir sahib has supported us.”
Rabbi-ul-Shaikh, also a local, agrees. “There is no other party here other than the Left and the Congress. And I don’t like the Left”. Behind him stands the massive Nizamat Imambada, a congregational place of worship used by Shia Muslims. Oddly for most of Bengal, Murshidabad town has a large proportion of Shia Muslims, descended from the family and retinue of the Nawabs, who were Shia.
Geeta Singh, 19, has sneaked into the palace gardens via a gap in the fence to avoid paying the Rs 10 entry fee. She says she’ll vote for the Congress too but Narendra Modi is who she really likes. “He’s honest and gets things done. I like that,” she says decisively. "But it's no use voting for the BJP here since they'll never win."
Outside the palace compound, Abharani Bala runs a small tea shack. Born in Khulna, Bangladesh, she migrated here as a young girl and unlike everyone inside the palace grounds, she’s decided to vote Mamata. “Mamata has no one. No husband, no sons, no daughters,” she reasons. “So I’ll vote for her.”
In the extravagantly marbled villa of Jagat Seth, Harihar Das acts as an energetic if somewhat unreliable tour guide. Seth – described as one of the richest people in the world – was one of the conspirators who colluded with Mir Jafar to betray his Nawab to the British. Das claims he is 19 but looks not a day more than 15 and suitably enough has no idea about the polls at all.
At the imposingly ugly Katra (market in Urdu) Mosque, Murshidabad’s only surviving pre-British monument, the tour guide, Swastik Mandol, is more laid-back but just as imaginative about making up stuff. He claims that the mosque’s imposing defence – almost fort-like appearance – is to protect from Maratha raids in the 1740s. Unlikely, given that the mosque was built a good two decades earlier. Mandol is more certain though about his political support. “Of course Congress. Giving it to anyone else in Murshidabad is like wasting your vote.”