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September 29, 1999


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Constituency/Dum Dum

It's do-or-die for the CPI-M

Tara Shankar Sahay in Calcutta

The recent powwow between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu has had a palpable chain reaction. In the prestigious Dum Dum parliamentary constituency, where the Bharatiya Janata Party's Tapan Sikdar, the outgoing MP, is locked in a do-or-die fight with his Communist Party of India (Marxist) rival Professor Anil Bhattacharya, the stakes have multiplied.

The arch-rivals know that defeat means being shunted to the political wilderness. Consequently, both are mobilising every resource at their command to deliver the knockout blow. Considering the stakes, widespread violence is being anticipated in this constituency. The situation right now, as physicists would say, is fast reaching critical mass.

The CPI-M candidate wants to forget what happened last year when his party colleague, Prof Nirmal Chatterjee, the vocal former Lok Sabha member, got a drubbing at the hands of Sikdar, the state BJP chief. Sikdar got 625,436 votes (50.69 per cent) while Chatterjee got only 39.65 per cent.

"Don't talk about last year, talk about now. We have taken care of our shortcomings and red will blackout saffron this time," says Bhattacharya at the party's headquarters, where he has come for consultations, and impatiently dismisses any suggestion of dissidence which, as is well known, resulted in Chatterjee's defeat.

Why did the CPI-M lose in Dum Dum last year? "The BJP spent tens of millions of rupees to buy votes," comes Bhattacharya's pat reply. Which begs the question: why did the CPI-M workers not prevent it? It is common knowledge in all assembly segments of this constituency that vicious infighting in the CPI-M was the main cause of the BJP's victory.

The needle of suspicion then pointed to West Bengal Transport Minister Subhash Chakrabarty. This time Basu has warned Chakrabarty to get his act together or be damned. Aware that the warning is no idle threat, Chakrabarty has mended fences with the rival faction's Amitava Nandy and both claim that it will be smooth sailing for Bhattacharya.

But Basu's threat to Chakrabarty itself shows that despite the CPI-M's fašade of unity, all is not well in the party in Dum Dum. Senior CPI-M leader Anil Biswas tends to dismiss Sikdar's win last year as a "fluke". He explains that "there has been introspection among us. The party stands united as the BJP will discover."

CPI-M activist Ramu Sen, speaking to near the office of party mouthpiece Ganashakti on Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Road, hints that more than 6,000 party workers have been deployed in Dum Dum to woo the voters back. These workers have fanned out in the Kamarhati, Belgachia East, Panibati and Khardah segments.

But Sen shies away from talking about the reported truce between Chakrabarty and Nandy. "Jyotibabu himself is taking personal interest in Dum Dum and every party leader in the constituency will have to abide by whatever he orders."

In the Salt Lake area, the recent PM-CM war of words has inspired the CPI-M to put up several banners and posters warning the voters of the perils of communalism. "Vote for the CPI-M to maintain communal harmony and prevent the dividers of the nation from coming back to power," the posters proclaim.

The public meetings addressed by rival candidates have drawn only sparse gatherings never exceeding more than 500, reveals Mantu Ghosh, a college student. According to Chanchal Roy, a BJP activist, the CPI-M's efforts to woo voters settled along the Bagjola Canal -- mainly refugees from Bangladesh, said to comprise almost 50 per cent of the electorate in Dum Dum -- has largely been unsuccessful because of Sikdar's promise to organise a Rs 5,000 million package for the canal's upkeep.

Sikdar, reacting to his rival's claim that he has not been fulfilling his earlier promises, said, "You know about how the CPI-M, the Congress and others did not allow the Vajpayee government to last. That is why I could not finish my tasks. Give me another chance and I will live up to my promise."

Nitai Das, a vegetable vendor near the Kamarhati Jute Mill, says he no longer trusts the CPI-M. "I voted with my wife for the party in the last three elections. Earlier, the CPI-M cadres came and enquired about our welfare. Now nobody comes," he points out. So for whom will he vote? "Let's see. But not the CPI-M," he says.

Buying vegetables from Das is Ganesh, who works in the jute mill. He feels that "the CPI-M has lost much of its influence because the comrades are looking after themselves, not voters like us". He says the general trend in the Kamarhati segment is that "the comrades ought to be taught a lesson for not delivering the goods".

Ganesh refers to the CPI-M's unfulfilled promise to desilt the Bagjola Canal, which overflowed after the torrential rains on Friday, leaving many areas waterlogged. With the Calcutta Municipal Corporation unable to pump out the waters, resentment against the ruling Left Front is increasing.

The residents of Salt Lake, most of whom voted for the CPI-M in the past, have warned local party leaders that the CMC and other civic bodies' negligence during the recent flooding might be reflected in en masse voting for the BJP. Badal Bagchi and his spouse Mona, both residents of Salt Lake, testify that "we are fed up with the CMC's excuses. First they blamed others, then they said pumping of the water could not be done as there was no electricity, and our telephone is yet to be repaired. We will decide on polling day where our votes will go."

That the BJP has opened its purse strings to ensure Sikdar's victory is obvious. Local residents still talk in awe of the 500-car convoy in which Sikdar went to file his nomination. "Oder kacche prachoor paisha acche (They have a lot of money)" is the frequent refrain among local residents.

Observers of the constituency, however, point out that one factor which might affect the BJP's chances is Sikdar's reported animosity with Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. "Vajpayeeji has requested Mamata to campaign for me in Dum Dum and I have already requested the Trinamul workers to help out. I am confident that I will win by a bigger margin, considering the added force of the Trinamul," Sikdar says.

But the Trinamul workers are yet come to the BJP candidate's aid. Until that happens, Sikdar is keeping his fingers crossed, because the indications are that his victory margin is likely to be reduced by the stiff Marxist challenge.


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