A filmy battle amid rising polarisation in Bengal's Asansol
Large cut-outs of Trinamool Congress leaders and giant banners of Bharatiya Janata Party hang at every important crossing, flags and festoons of different political outfits flutter from shops, tea stalls and road dividers.
Numerous public rallies, mobile campaigns and street corner meetings through the day mark the election frenzy in Asansol constituency of West Bengal, that will go to the polls on April 29.
A hub of coal mining, railway activities and once a formidable Left citadel, Asansol is set to witness a filmy battle between singer-turned-politician-turned actor Babul Supriyo of BJP and yesteryear's silver screen heroine and present Trinamool Congress politico Moon Moon Sen in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. CPI-M's Gouranga Chatterjee and Congress's Biswarup Mondal are also in fray.
The Lok Sabha seat, a conglomeration of coal mine labourers, factory workers, coal mafia, scrap dealers, minority population and a large section of Hindi speaking people, comprise seven assembly constituencies -- Pandaveswar, Raniganj, Jamuria, Asansol Dakshin, Asansol Uttar, Kulti and Barabani - and is home to over 16 lakh voters.
15 per cent of the constituency's population comprises minorities, and close to 50 per cent are ‘non-Bengalis'.
Situated on the West Bengal-Jharkhand border, it is also one of the two parliamentary constituencies where BJP triumphed in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The other seat was North Bengal's Darjeeling.
The stakes are high as the BJP has re-nominated union minister Supriyo, who ended the CPI-M's 25-year stranglehold (1989-2014) over the seat in the last General Election. Supriyo had then obtained nearly 37 per cent of the votes, with his nearest Trinamool Congress rival getting 30.58 per cent of the vote - the CPI-M had to be satisfied with 22.39 per cent of the vote.
In the 2016 assembly election, however, the saffron outfit performed poorly, failing to open its account while the Trinamool Congress re-established its domination by bagging five seats. The CPI-M, which teamed up with the Congress, got the remaining two.
This time, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has brought in Bengali screen legend Suchitra Sen's daughter Moon Moon, who also caused a major upset last time by defeating nine-time CPI-M MP Basudeb Acharia in Bankura on her poll debut.
It is either BJP or Trinamool Congress this time. Gone are the days when the Left dominated the area with the help of their strong trade unions. The situation has become more bipolar since the communal tension centering around a Ram Navami rally in the area last year.
"It is evident that the BJP will get very few minority votes. But they have the backing of a large section of Hindus here, especially the Hindi speaking community," said a local taxi driver Ram Babu, who described himself as an active RSS worker.
Outside Supriyo's apartment in Mahishani Bazar, a tempo was being decorated with saffron flags and flowers since early morning for his scheduled road show in Asansol south assembly segment. The area opposite the flat was abuzz as several party workers gathering to welcome their leaders.
Aveek Naskar, who runs a tea shop beside the sitting MP's residence, agreed there has been a paradigm shift in Asansol's politics in the last few years as the space for both the Left and the Congress has shrunk in and around the constituency.
"He (Supriyo) is popular here as he is young, famous and has done some developmental work. But he is being obstructed by the Trinamool Congress. Asansol Mayor and ruling party leader Jitendra Tiwari is popular among the hindi speaking voters. The fight would have been more interesting had he been the Trinamool Congress candidate this time," Naskar said adding many in Asansol hardly recognise Sen.
The Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, is canvassing for its candidate, an Oxford alumnus. The number of banners, posters and graffiti in support of Sen seem much higher than that of any other party in the area.
To add to the glam quotient, many of these hoardings also feature photographs of Sen's mother, Suchitra Sen, whose beauty swayed many a Bengali heart over the decades.
At a street corner meeting near south Asansol's Sabuj Sangha club, Supriyo took a dig at his rival, accusing her of fleeing from Bankura as she failed to do any development work.
"I'm confident about my victory, I've done a lot of work. I go door-to-door and meet people daily. There is a spontaneous love for me among the locals. By contrast, there have been attempts to fill the ground during chief minister's rally by forcibly taking coal mine workers, many of whom are residents of Jharkhand," Supriyo told IANS.
"There is a pro-Modi wave. Also there is an anti-Mamata wave in Asansol and many other places in Bengal because of her attempts to aid and abet the corrupt. Add these three and it is clear who will win," noted Supriyo.
A few kilometres away, Banerjee was holding a road show in Asansol town, drawing a huge crowd, as she walked briskly with folded hands, accompanied by her party leaders, amid constant slogans of "Mamata Baneree zindabad" and "didi", "didi".
"I'm not concerned about who my opponents are and what they are saying. I'm here to win the votes and serve the people of Asansol. I came here leaving Bankura as Mamatadi asked me to.
"I am blessed to have her as my leader. She is extremely popular in all parts of the state. No one can take away Bengal from her," Sen told IANS.
"If I win, I will work for making Asansol more environment-friendly as residents here are choking to death due to massive air pollution."
Conceding that they had lost considerable ground in the coal belt, CPI-M candidate Gauranga Chatterjee - a former lawmaker of Pandaveshwar - says people are fed up of the communalism and hooliganism of both Trinamool Congress and BJP.
"Ram Navami has been a tradition here since our childhood. Look what they have turned it into. Swords, maces, guns are being used in the name of religion. Nobody is talking about the labour wages, the locked out factories or the lack of basic amenities among poor," he said.
"Our organisation is still strong. We are also getting back a lot of supporters we had lost. The two communal forces should be ready for a surprise from people in 2019," he added. IANS