It Will Be A Close Contest In Diamond Harbour, And That Itself Represents A Moral Defeat For Incumbent MP Abhishek Banerjee

by Jaideep Mazumdar - May 20, 2019 10:28 AM +05:30 IST
It Will Be A Close Contest In Diamond Harbour, And That Itself Represents A Moral Defeat For Incumbent MP Abhishek BanerjeeA scene from a communal flare-up in Diamond Harbour (pic: @tanmoyrc76/Twitter)
  • Diamond Harbour has been plagued by rampant illegal influx of Bangladeshis.

    With alleged support of the Trinamool, Muslims in the area have been arm-twisting Hindus into fleeing their homes, thwarting their rightful exercise of adult franchise.

As the curtains come down on the long-drawn, seven-phase Lok Sabha polls in Bengal on Sunday, all eyes are now riveted on the Diamond Harbour constituency. Of the nine Lok Sabha seats in Bengal where polling will be held on Sunday, the backward, under-developed and riot-torn Diamond Harbour has emerged the most prestigious since its incumbent and mostly absentee MP, who is contesting once again, happens to be Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and heir Abhishek Banerjee.

Once a thriving river port with a hinterland dotted with jute and steel plants and many large- and medium-scale industrial units, Diamond Harbour is today little more than a fishermen’s wharf. And the hinterland is now pock-marked with rusted shells of once-thriving industries surrounded by farmlands that yield barely enough for their cultivators to survive on. Acute unemployment, despair and poverty are the hallmarks of this constituency. An air of despondency hangs heavy over Diamond Harbour, which had invested a lot of hopes on Abhishek Banerjee, only to be let down by him.

The only ‘development’ that Diamond Harbour has seen over the last few years is the sprouting of residential high-rises in the industrial graveyards. The out-of-job workers of the closed industrial units and their families work as security guards, maids and service staff at these high-rises.

Agriculture is subsistence, and fishing no longer the profitable means of livelihood it once was. The after-effects of Cyclone Aila, which wreaked havoc a decade ago, still persist. Vast swathes of farmlands that were devastated with the entry of sea-water are still uncultivable, triggering migration of tens of thousands of poor farmers to other parts of the country in search of menial work.

The silting of the Hooghly, and the rapid industrial decline that set in Bengal since the 1960s, sounded the death-knell for Diamond Harbour port. With large vessels not being able to dock at the harbour, and also not having anything much to transport due to the gradual closure of most of the industrial units, the port went into decline. Overfishing and intense competition have reduced the catch of fish and crustaceans from the Bay of Bengal and deep-sea fishing no longer yields the handsome profits it once used to. Thus, it is only petty businesses that turn the wheels of this area’s economy.

It is, then, only natural that crime flourishes in Diamond Harbour, and the crime syndicates enjoy political patronage. The real estate boom, triggered by the availability of vast tracts of land where the closed industrial units used to stand, has spawned the growth of ‘syndicates’ of suppliers and contractors that Bengal has become infamous for. These syndicates are either helmed allegedly by Trinamool Congress leaders, or have close links with them and enjoy their patronage.

According to locals, the lower-level functionaries of the Trinamool have turned extortionists and everyone ranging from labourers working in the docks to those running roadside food stalls have to part with a substantial share of their meagre earnings as “protection money”. Thus, the plight of the common people has turned from bad (during the Left regime) to worse now.

Dashed Hopes

The first MP to represent Diamond Harbour in the Lok Sabha (from 1952 to 1957) was the Communist Party of India’s Kamal Basu, who later went on to become the Mayor of Calcutta. His father, Bhupendra Nath Bose, was once the president of the Indian National Congress. After favouring the Congress for the next two terms (1957-1962 and 1962-1967), the electorate of this constituency shifted their allegiance once again to the communists and for the next 11 consecutive elections from 1967 to 2009, the CPI(M) retained this seat.

“Very little was done for Diamond Harbour for all those years that we voted for the CPI(M). Actually, the CPI(M) encouraged militant and irresponsible trade unionism that led to the closure of many factories. The CPI(M) also did nothing for the fisheries business and for dredging the river to enable larger sea-going vessels use this harbour. It encouraged political violence and also changed the demography of this place by encouraging settlement of Bangladeshi Muslims here. The influx of Bangladeshi Muslims and the continued official patronage extended to them first by the CPI(M) and now by the Trinamool has skewed Diamond Harbour’s demography and economy,” said Shyamal Sarkar, an INTUC leader.

The electorate pitched for the Trinamool, which promised change, in 2009. The Trinamool’s Somen Mitra won the seat in 2009, but locals say he was a big let-down. “Somen Mitra was more interested in politicking and trying to become powerful within the Trinamool. He was totally ineffective and did nothing for this constituency. He never projected our concerns in the Lok Sabha and never took up issues that concern this constituency,” said Manish Sen, a former Congress functionary who runs a garments store at Diamond Harbour town.

Somen Mitra, a veteran Congressman who had defected to the Trinamool, returned to the Congress after he failed to make a place for himself in the higher echelons of the Trinamool.

Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek was fielded from Diamond Harbour in 2014. “We wholeheartedly supported him in the belief that being the party chief’s nephew, he would be able to do a lot for Diamond Harbour. We thought he would highlight the problems faced by this constituency - revival of the port, rejuvenating the fishing and fish-processing sector and getting in fresh investments as well as reviving the sick industrial units - in the Lok Sabha and take up these issues with the respective Union ministries. But he was a terrible let-down. His performance as an MP was extremely poor and he barely ever visited this constituency. In fact, we got to know that his attendance in the Lok Sabha was also poor. He took us for granted,” said an angry Trinamool functionary who has now distanced himself from Abhishek Banerjee’s campaign.

Abhishek’s poor performance as an MP has been effectively highlighted by the BJP and the CPI(M) during the gruelling election campaign. Records (see this) show that his attendance in the Lok Sabha is a very poor 28 per cent (national average is 80 per cent), he participated in just three debates in five years (national average is more than 67 per cent), did not move any private member’s bill (national average is 2.3 bills per MP) and asked just 48 questions (national average is 293).

None of the questions, incidentally, concerned or were connected to Diamond Harbour even remotely. While his opponents have been highlighting these facts, Banerjee, in his campaigns, has been skirting the issue and promising that he would visit Diamond Harbour more often from now on and work for the progress of his constituency.

Communal Tinderbox

The unchecked entry and settling down of Bangladeshi Muslims, and the patronage accorded to them by the Trinamool government, has upset the demography of Diamond Harbour and led to a sharp rise in communal tensions. Muslims, who now constitute about 34 per cent of the 15.56 lakh-strong electorate of this constituency, form a solid support base for the Trinamool and, thus, the ruling party feels beholden to the community.

The alleged bias of the Trinamool and its chief towards Muslims has, say BJP functionaries, resulted in hardliners among the Muslims getting aggressive. “There have been many minor attacks on Hindus in the Muslim-majority pockets of Diamond Harbour over the past few years. Various sorts of atrocities are being perpetrated on Hindus.

The police and the administration have been turning a blind eye and have been, instead of protecting Hindus, ensuring that the Hindus do not retaliate. This has only emboldened the Muslims to step up attacks on Hindus,” said a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) functionary. Hindu organisations like the VHP, Hindu Jagran Manch and the Hindu Samhati have extensively documented the atrocities and attacks on Hindus by Muslims in Diamond Harbour over the past few years.

There has, thus, been a sharp polarisation of Hindus in favour of the BJP. The VHP, RSS and the BJP have been working silently in Diamond Harbour, as in the rest of Bengal, for many years now and have been providing help and succour to Hindus who have faced attacks from Muslims and repression at the hands of the police and the state administration.

“This has translated into open support for the BJP among a large section of Hindus,” admits a BJP leader. The Hindu polarisation has, expectedly, rattled the Trinamool Congress. “The Trinamool had egged Muslims to launch attacks on Hindus in various parts of Diamond Harbour constituency since last week. Hindus are being forced to flee their homes in villages across the constituency. The absence of the Hindus, who would have otherwise voted for the BJP, will facilitate rigging of polls on Sunday (May 19),” said a BJP leader.

Newspaper reports of Hindus being forced to flee their homes after open threats were issued against them by Muslim clerics over loudspeakers started appearing since early this week. The violence against the Hindus started late last week and according to many eyewitness accounts and well as statements made by the displaced (read this, this and this), threats were blared from loudspeakers after last Friday’s prayers asking Hindus to leave their homes or face attacks.

Hindus were reportedly told to stay away till the polls get over. “It is very clear that a desperate Trinamool has resorted to such ugly and shameful tactics to rig the polls and win this seat,” said a senior BJP leader.

However, this exodus of Hindus has backfired. While the mainstream media has kept silent, clips of terror-stricken Hindus leaving their villages and taking shelter in safer places has gone viral on social media.

“Everyone in Bengal and the rest of the country has now come to know about the forced exodus of Hindus from Diamond Harbour. This has triggered a greater Hindu consolidation not only in Diamond Harbour, but across the other eight constituencies going to the polls on Sunday,” said the BJP functionary. The BJP has been successful in forcing the state administration to deploy paramilitary forces and facilitate the return of the Hindus. The Trinamool’s sinister game plan has, thus, been foiled.

While the polarisation on communal lines will favour the BJP, the much bigger issues facing Diamond Harbour are the lack of development, poverty, economic decline and acute unemployment that people face.

“The only positive thing that has happened in the last few years is a marked improvement in the condition of roads and beautification of parks and public places. But these cosmetic changes do not mean anything to us. We want jobs, a decent livelihood and an end of extortion by Trinamool-supported criminals,” said Mohammed Ashraf, 46, a jobless man who used to work at a cold storage at Budge Budge, which shut down a few years ago.

Ashraf has two sons, both of them working as daily wage labourers. “The Trinamool-supported criminals do not spare them and demand a share of their paltry earnings. The Left didn’t do anything, but it never extorted money from the poor. We will support the Left this time,” said Ashraf.

Many Muslims here feel the same, especially since the CPI(M) has fielded Fuad Halim, a medical practitioner and son of Hasim Abdul Halim who was Speaker of the Bengal Assembly for 29 years during the Left rule. Fuad Halim is popular, smart and approachable, and the free clinics he has been conducting in the constituency over the past few years has won him a lot of praise.

The Muslim vote will, thus, get divided between the Trinamool and the CPI(M). “With the BJP becoming strong, all Muslims should have ideally voted for the Trinamool to defeat the BJP. But due to the high-handedness of Trinamool functionaries, the extortions by criminals owing allegiance to the Trinamool, and the poor performance of Abhishek Banerjee as an MP, many

Muslims will vote for the CPI(M). Fuad Halim is a decent, well-liked person and many Muslims hold him in high esteem. He belongs to a renowned family and does good work here. He will make a good MP,” says Sheikh Mokhtar Alam, a mahajan (major dealer) in the wholesale fish market in Diamond Harbour town.

What has also alienated large sections of the electorate, especially in the urban belts of Maheshtala, Satgachia and Budge Budge, are relentless attacks on the Opposition by Trinamool goons. “Our entire family has been voting for the Trinamool for many years now. Earlier, we used to support the Congress, but the Trinamool has turned out to be worse than the CPI(M).

The Trinamool functionaries are arrogant, high-handed, corrupt and totally undemocratic. This Trinamool regime is a fascist one and must be uprooted. It does not allow dissent and any opposition. The Trinamool now represents a direct threat to democracy,” said Subir Haldar, a resident of Maheshtala.

Haldar runs a popular eatery in Maheshtala and says that this time, his family will vote for the BJP. “Along with democracy, Hindus are also under threat now. Only the BJP can save democracy and the Hindus,” he adds. Haldar’s childhood friend Madan Ghosh, a retired school teacher, says that the people of Diamond Harbour have tried the Congress, the CPI(M) and the Trinamool.

“All three failed us, and so the BJP is our only hope now. We want to give the BJP a chance. Let us see how the BJP performs. Also, with the BJP poised to form the government at the Centre once again, a BJP MP will have a better chance of ensuring the development of this constituency,” he said.

Realising that people are pinning their hopes on the party, BJP campaigners have been promising a lot of development and extension of central schemes to Diamond Harbour.

“I will work with chambers of commerce, Union ministries and industrialists to get fresh investments. I will also facilitate the introduction of new technology to reclaim the sea water-affected land (made uncultivable by Cyclone Aila) and make them arable once again. I also have plans to help modernise the deep-sea fishing industry. All this will revive the local economy and provide employment. I vow to put an end to criminal gangs and syndicates,” says BJP candidate Nilanjan Roy.

Abhishek Banerjee does not speak about all this. His speeches are devoted to demonising (Prime Minister) Modi and the BJP, and extolling the ‘virtues’ of his aunt Mamata Banerjee.

“Abhishek is not a seasoned politician. He is learning, his intentions are good and he can get a lot of things done for Diamond Harbour. In the past five years, as an Opposition MP, he could do little. But now, with the prospect of the Trinamool playing the role of king-maker in Delhi, Abhishek Banerjee will definitely do whatever is required for Diamond Harbour,” said Madhusudhan Das, a Trinamool leader. However, there are few takers for this highly unlikely prospect of the Trinamool occupying the treasury benches in seventeenth Lok Sabha.

The BJP has made impressive inroads in Diamond Harbour over the past decade. While the saffron party had a marginal presence here for many decades, it tested the political waters from Diamond Harbour for the first time in 1996 and bagged a 6.38 per cent vote share, finishing in third position.

In the next few elections, its vote share declined and in the 2009 elections, the party could manage only 2.88 per cent of votes. But in the 2014 elections, the BJP’s vote share was 15.92 per cent, a 12.36 per cent increase. Simultaneously, the Trinamool’s vote share fell by 13.25 per cent from a high 53.56 per cent in 2009 to 40.31 per cent in 2014. The CPI(M)’s vote share has also been declining.

But winning Diamond is not likely to be a cake walk for either the BJP or the Trinamool. The contest will be a close one. But the fact that a close contest is taking place at all represents a moral defeat for the Trinamool in this prestigious seat. Given the fact that Abhishek Banerjee had won this seat in 2014, Diamond Harbour should have been a safe seat for the party. But the many failings of the party and its incumbent MP have put it on the backfoot here.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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