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Why TMC's 89-year-old MLA joined BJP

By SWARUPA DUTT
March 26, 2021 10:25 IST
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'The TMC did not bother telling me, a sitting MLA for 20 years, why I was not being given a ticket.'

IMAGE: Trinamool Congress MLA Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, second from right, receives the Bharatiya Janata Party party flag from Bengal's BJP president Dilip Ghosh, left, BJP national vice president Mukul Roy, centre, and BJP MP Locket Chatterjee, right, on joining the party. Photograph: PTI Photo

In the do-or-die, bitterly fought, Vidhan Sabha election in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress's oft-repeated argument fed to voters is that the Bharatiya Janata Party is a party of outsiders who cannot assimilate or hope to imbibe Bangalianna, the essence of being a Bengali.

One aspect of Bangalianna is the love of abritti -- elocution -- where poetry or prose, is read with the right intonation, diction and voice modulation.

Rabindranath Bhattacharya, below, the 89-year-old MLA from Singur, worships his namesake, but writes neither prose nor poetry.

But his is the voice of an elocutionist blessed with an edifying and cavernous vocabulary.

A voice that is clear and firm and does not, at any moment during the interview, betray an age-induced quiver.

"Really? Nobody has told me this. I guess it comes from speaking to people or holding rallies," Bhattacharya laughs. "But I do love listening to abritti too."

In Singur, where he has been MLA for the last 20 years, 10 with the Congress and then with the TMC, Bhattacharya, is called Mastermoshai (teacher) as he taught Bengali.

Unfortunately, the brilliance of his Bengali will be lost in translation.

In Bengal, where the standing of a teacher is next to divinity, Bhattacharya is held with reverence and respect in Singur.

And so it was that when he defected from the TMC to the BJP and thereby earned a candidature, it was his other identity, that of an MLA, that led to mass protests by the BJP in this constituency in the Hooghly district of Bengal.

BJP cadres believe Bhattacharya was instrumental in targeting and even arresting them.

"I understand their sentiments, I have reached out to them and now, three weeks after I joined the BJP, all is well. Time is the best healer. They have been working with the BJP for years now, and naturally they expect that one among them will be an MLA. The protests were a reflection of their disappointment," he tells Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com.

"But I did not join the BJP demanding a nomination. The party thought it fit, that I, an 89-year-old man, instrumental in the Singur land acquisition movement, is their candidate."

Changing a party doesn't mean the person, the candidate, has changed, he says, and raising his voice to a crescendo adds, "I have always been of the belief that if your politics is honourable and if you observe due diligence in satisfying your electorate's needs, you can never go wrong whatever the politics of the party may be."

Bhattacharya hasn't held a rally yet, but he has been out in heat and dust of Singur meeting people. "My health thankfully has not let me down. But this will be my last stint in politics if I win. And I do hope to win, who doesn't, tell me?"

He says he has been holding alochana sabhaS or forums for discussion where heads of the zilla parishad, block development heads, election commission observers, decide the way ahead for the polls.

"We discussed how the election will be carried out here, how rallies and public discourses will take place and the locations, who will man the voting booths etc."

His opponent, Becharam Manna, began his campaign three weeks ago, reports say, with posters and flags visible all over the town where the potato crop has just been harvested.

Bhattacharya admits he hasn't got around to rallying the troops like his opponent.

He also admits to feeling hurt and betrayed by the TMC.

He says he was shunted out of all the three levels within the party -- the block, zilla and positions at the state level.

p>"The TMC did not bother telling me, a sitting MLA for 20 years, why I was not being given a ticket. I crossed that age limit nine years ago. I was 84 during the last elections. Now, I am told 'You are too old, you are out'."

In a similar refrain as Sisir Adhikari, a senior TMC leader who was intrinsic to the Nandigram land acquisition movement, Bhattacharya says he was excluded from meetings.

"They didn't even pronounce my name at meetings. The zilla parishad head was appointed. I wasn't informed. I C-A-N-N-O-T accept such a man in my party in Singur.

"At a Zoom meet I was promised the moon, but I am a seasoned politician and I knew the promises were unconstitutional. They told me if Mamata wanted to make it happen, it would.

"In my 20 years in politics, none of the parties, CPI-M, Congress, TMC or BJP can point a finger at me and say I was ever a part of dishonourable politics. I have never been tainted by corruption. I do not want to be party to these underhanded promises.

"This is not who I am and my people here know that I have remained unchanged; that I am untouched by corruption.

"I know I am praising myself, but the situation in Bengal is such now, that you have to blow your own trumpet."

He believes that his electorate knows him well enough for him to stay off the radar. But he will in a few days reach out to his constituents who may be upset at his defection and tell them that he needed a platform to right the wrongs that are being done in Singur.

"I believe that the gonodebota (the people as god) have their own views. If that wasn't the case, after 34 years in power, the Left Front rule wouldn't have ended in ruin. People sometimes and whenever necessary oppose their leaders and that is the natural course of democracy," he says.

The TMC has been shrill about defectors, equating them with history’s Mir Jaffar, whose betrayal led to the defeat of the Nawab of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey with the British.

Unlike Suvendu Adhikari whose speeches have been rabidly against Mamata Banerjee, Bhattacharya has remained markedly civil while talking about his former leader. And dare we say, nostalgic.

Bhattacharya says the TMC had qualities that he can never forget. "To stand by your people, to work for them, to look after them, that was the TMC I had joined.

"I was attracted to Mamata's party during the Singur land acquisition movement. It would not have been possible for me alone to make the inequities of the 997 acres of land acquired by Tata Motors known to the world.

"Mamata and the TMC is responsible for the movement getting such incredible traction. Amra shuru korechhilam matro. I and the farmers could only begin the protests, she took it ahead and ensured the Tatas moved out."

In 2016, the Supreme Court quashed the West Bengal government's acquisition of 997 acres of agricultural land for Tata Motors and ordered its return to 9,117 landowners.

However, most of the land returned to the farmers, is not arable.

Singur had the distinction of being one of the most fertile agrarian belts in a state that is blessed with land enriched by alluvial soil.

When the Tatas began building their Nano car factory, they first concretised the land.

Their exit means the land remains as they left it.

"Our land movement was not against industry or the Tatas, but against land grab by force.

"The Left front government, acquired land from farmers through the use of force. There were police atrocities, rapes, killings,. We (the TMC) protested against that and we supported land acquisition only where farmers willingly gave their land."

Bhattacharya says he is ashamed to admit that the TMC could do little to make the land arable. "Wherever land has been made arable, it is because the farmer single-handedly enabled it. We will ask the Centre to help the farmer, that's a promise I am making right now."

He says he also wants industry to return to Singur and if the party wins, he will push for the establishment of a factory on the site of the former Tata plant.

The BJP also wants Singur to be a hub for handicrafts. "It is my dream that both shilpakar (craftsmen) and farmers prosper here. You already see so many handicraft shops along the Durgapur-Kolkata Expressway."

Bhattacharya dismisses the TMC's insider-outsider debate. "I am a proud Bengali. I speak, read, teach, write the language with some proficiency. I embrace and imbibe Bangalianna with my whole being. Mamata is wrong."

Bhattacharaya shifts identity to a mastermoshai and explains what the term means.

Bangalianna, he says, is different in different parts of the state. So Sunderban, Birbhum and Darjeeling's definition would be different. It also changes with the person's socio-economic strata. So the educated Bangali would be different from the uneducated, or the grassroots Bengali.

"There is no uniform definition for Bangalianna. If you find a balance in all its differing rhythms, you can hope to find your roots, your ancestry," he says.

But there is uniformity.

Bangalianna is found in the language, the food, the festivals and rituals, the way Bengalis conduct their pujas.

The other factor of commonality is that Bengalis recognise the 'Supreme Being' as being manifest in Chaitanya Mahaprahbhu, Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda.

They have been the great unifiers and inspirations for all Bengalis.

"And you would be wrong to discount Ram. He is symbiotic with Krishna in Bengal. He too is venerated," he points out.

"You asked about my name. I was born a Libran, the Tula rashi. And accordingly had to be named on the letter R or T. Quite naturally, my parents chose Rabindranath," he chuckles.

"You are from Mumbai.

"I want you to know Rabindranath. No, no, him, not me.

"This is how we speak of him here:

"Rabindranath ke chinte gele, ganer bhetor dekhi bhuban khani

"Tokhon tare jani, tokhon tare chini."

To behold the universe through his songs, is to understand Rabindranath

That is when you know him, that is when you recognise him.

Singur goes to the polls on April 10.

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