A significant part of Indian politics has always been appealing to the voter’s emotion. On March 23, speaking in North Bengal’s Malda district, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi tapped into this tradition.
“A person has betrayed you,” he declaimed, his voice rising. “Have you not been betrayed?”
The crowd cheered. They did feel a bit betrayed.
Gandhi continued, amping up the theatrics, “Remember this, never forget. An old Congress candidate has betrayed you.”
He was speaking about Mausam Noor, the Congress MP from Malda North who defected to the Trinamool Congress in January and is now the ruling party’s Lok Sabha candidate there.
Noor is the niece of Ghani Khan Choudhury, railways minister under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Though Bengal was ruled, and dominated, by the Left Front at the time, Ghani Khan Choudhury exercised such control over his district that one of his obituaries in 2006 was simply titled “The monarch of Malda”.
Thirteen years later, his family still controls Malda’s politics. His brother and niece are MPs while his nephew was elected MLA in 2016. However, feudal loyalty to the House of Khan Choudhury is now being challenged by a new political equation – communalism.
In Malda as well as in neighbouring Murshidabad, both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool are hoping to dislodge the Congress by mobilising, respectively, Hindus and Muslims.
Speaking to Noor, it seems that Gandhi’s charge was not completely off the mark. “It was a tough decision for me to leave the Congress since our family are well known as Congressmen,” the MP said, sitting under large portraits of Ghani Khan Choudhury and the leader of her new party, Mamata Banerjee.
She talks frequently about her lineage, stopping only to praise Banerjee and criticise the Congress’s state leadership, who shot down her proposal for an alliance with the Trinamool, forcing her to defect.
To talk to Noor’s competitor and cousin, one only needs to walk across the house. The Trinamool and Congress Lok Sabha candidates for Malda North both live in Ghani Khan’s residence. Like Noor, Isha Khan Choudhury is clear that his principal political card is avuncular heritage. He criticises his cousin’s jump. “The local population identifies the Ghani Khan family with the Congress,” he said. “Mousam Noor switching party is a mistake.”
That Ghani Khan Choudhury’s heritage is identified with the Congress is true. In fact, it is an obvious point to anyone in Malda. Why then did Noor jump ship?
A quick look at the 2018 panchayat election results offers some clarity. In Malda, the Congress won 17% of the panchayat seats. The Trinamool won 49% and the BJP 23%.
Putting this number to any Congressman in Malda yields a stock answer: the results are not an accurate reflection of their party’s strength since the panchayat election was substantially rigged by the ruling party. While the charge of rigging is true, it does not explain why the BJP still won more seats than the Congress.
The BJP’s panchayat election success is a good indicator of how politics around Hindu and Muslim communalism is eroding the Congress politics of cross-community feudal patronage.
Nearly every BJP leader and worker Scroll.in spoke with in Malda made it clear that the party had a single pitch: appeal to the Hindu community against the backdrop of communal tensions. “Every Hindu is worried whether he will be here for another 10 years,” the party’s Malda district chief Sanjit Mishra said on March 22.
“Wherever Muslims are more numerous in a village, Hindus are scared. Women can’t put sindur and blow the conch,” he added, referring to Hindu religious markers.
Asked if he had any economic policies for Malda, Mishra replied, “We have not got any chance to present economic policies.”
In Murshidabad, where Muslims make up two thirds of the population, Hindus are moving from the Congress to the BJP. “Every Hindu will vote for the BJP,” said Amit Ghosh, a chemist in the district headquarters, Berhampore. “If their vote goes wasted, not a problem.”
Out of power
Murshidabad is dominated by another Congress strongman, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. He is a four-time MP, who, with remarkable pluck, managed to turn Berhampore parliamentary constituency from a Left bastion to an Adhir stronghold.
Ghosh, who is in his 40s, was once an Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury supporter. While Ghosh has been influenced by the BJP’s communal massaging on social media, the fact that the Congress is out of power in both New Delhi and Kolkata is also a factor. “Adhir cannot do anything for Berhampore now, he has no power,” he reasoned.
Ghosh’s view of the Congress’s ineffectiveness is echoed in Bahalnagar, a Muslim village in Murshidabad that falls under Jangipur constituency. “What has Abhijeet ever done? He is simply never here,” said Golam Mustafa, 19, referring to the Congress’s Lok Sabha nominee and former President Pranab Mukherjee’s son.
In contrast, Mustafa is happy with the Trinamool’s development work in the village: the roads are cemented and the panchayat repairs the tube wells. “Earlier, we had to collect chanda, voluntary funds, from the village to fix tube wells,” he said.
That the Congress does no work on the ground is such a strong belief that even when the party does do something it has little impact. “When I did work using my MP local area development funds, everyone thought it was done by Mamata Banerjee,” said Mausam Noor, listing it as one of the reason for her defection.
While the Trinamool is often accused of “minority appeasement”, it is, ironically, the weakest in the North Bengal districts where Muslims are in the majority. In 2016, the party sought to aggressively enter these areas by appealing to Muslims. While the statements of Trinamool leaders are not as shrill as those from the BJP leaders, in North Bengal both parties basically follow the same strategy: woo one community.
In the 2016 Assembly election, Banerjee held a rally in Kaliachak, Malda, where a Muslim mob had burnt down a police station and claimed her government had controlled the fallout from the attack, a not so subtle pitch to the area’s Muslims that the incident had been managed.
That the Trinamool gives representation to Muslims, from Parliament to panchayats, is also a major selling point for the party. “Did the Congress or the CPI(M) ever do that?” asked Hussain Sheikh, whose wife is a Trinamool gram panchayat member from Sakorma village, Malda.
In Jaluabadhal gram panchayat of Malda, Trinamool’s Mohammed Ziaul Choudhury is a local strongman who threatens to resort to violence in order to get people to vote for his party. In the gram panchayat’s Hindu villages, which are now leaning towards the BJP, this message is not lost. “We would like to vote for the BJP, but we will end up voting Trinamool since we need to stay here,” said Samir Mondal, a villager.
Congress mukt Bengal
It is not just communal polarisation effected by the BJP and the Trinamool that the Congress must contend with. The party is also beset with largescale desertions. Since 2016, over 40% of its MLAs in Malda and Murshidabad have moved to the Trinamool. Banerjee’s party has even poached members of local government bodies and village workers. “Every Congress worker in this village now works for the Trinamool,” said Manwar Hossain Malitta in Murshidabad’s Bali.
Trinamool spokesman Ashok Das said triumphantly, “The Congress has no workers left in Murshidabad.” Das himself as well as two of the Trinamool’s three Lok Sabha candidates in Murshidabad are ex-Congressmen.
Given this animosity, when Gandhi spoke in Malda on March 23, he ignored the national compulsion of putting up a united anti-BJP front, and directly attacked Banerjee.
Down but not out
But despite these setbacks, the Congress is not out of the race. Gandhi’s March 23 rally had a large turnout – so large in fact that there was a small melee before the Congress chief arrived. While younger voters have shifted to the Trinamool or the BJP attracted by their communal pitch, low literacy and high rates of poverty mean such changes in ideology take time.
Many older people say they will still vote for the “hand”, the Congress’s symbol, simply because their fathers and grandfathers did so. Such loyalty is remarkable when the grand old party is unable to provide direct material benefits. “We have always supported the Congress,” Nirmal Saha summed it up at Gandhi’s rally. “Why should I change now?”