Is Congress On The Road To Perdition In Bengal?

Is Congress On The Road To Perdition In Bengal?

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, April 28, 2024, 08:23 AM IST
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West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury | File Photo

A sea of tricolour and hammer and sickle flags replete with crowds of men and women dancing to the sound of drum beats, progressed from this trading city's Textile More (crossing) to the Collectorate office, carrying with it the veteran Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury on his way to file his nomination papers for a sixth time.

Berhampore, a sprawling old town which has gobbled up earlier settlements of Cossimbazar, Gora and Khagra bazaar, has been Chowdhury's bastion and one of Congress' last two citadels (the other being Maldah South) in a state which in 1951 sent 24 Congress MPs out of a total of 34 MPs that West Bengal then had in the Lok Sabha.

Chowdhury in a white Panama hat to beat the scorching central Bengal heat, looked relaxed as he strode into the District Magistrate’s office to submit his papers. However, the surface calm could not hide the fact that the Congress and its leader in Bengal were a worried lot. At stake is not only Adhir Chowdhury's Lok Sabha seat but also the grand old party's very existence in Bengal.

The Congress' Leader of the Opposition in the lower house, won the last 2019 election to the seat which comprises the city of Berhampore and a few adjoining towns and rural pockets with 45.5 per cent of the popular vote. Yet, this marked a decline of over 11 per cent of the votes he got a 10 years earlier when the Manmohan Singh government was in power. At the same time the combined vote of the TMC and the BJP was more than his vote, a sure sign that the politician with a 'Robin Hood' image was losing his touch.

What made it worse, was that in the 2023 state assembly elections, six of the seven assembly segments in the constituency went to TMC while the assembly seat for Berhampore town proper went to BJP. For the first time the saffron and green flags flew in the town where Chowdhury was supposed to be an undisputed 'king.' The rest of the Murshidabad district of which Berhampore is the headquarters had already switched allegiance to TMC.

This time its a tough fight for him. He is up against former cricketer Yusuf Khan Pathan an import from Gujarat by Trinamool Congress and BJP's Dr Nirmal Saha, a popular figure in the trading town.

His anger against TMC's decision against any electoral understanding with Congress and CPI (M) is palpable. Before filing his nomination, Chowdhury told reporters, Just as Nitish Kumar has become 'Paltu' (turncoat), didi (Mamata Banerjee) has become Palti kumari (lady turncoat).

Pathan though an outsider will garner votes from cricket fans and a section of the Muslim community who number nearly 60 per cent of the voter base here. "BJP will give a tough fight in the Berhampore city areas where Hindus dominate. Dada (Adhir Chowdhury) remains personally popular and may win but the margins will come down," said Soumitra (Babun) Sen, a scion of the Sen Zamindar family which owns much of Khagra Bazaar and a trustee of the Radha-Gobinda Mandir in the city. When India was partitioned in 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe gave two Muslim-dominated neighbouring districts Malda and Murshidabad in central Bengal to India so that it could have the Farakka headwaters of the Hooghly-Bhagirathi river, as well as the National highway which connects Calcutta with the tea gardens of north Bengal and thence on to the northeast.

The two districts which earlier had strong Muslim League presence overnight became Congress fiefdoms. At one time all the five Lok Sabha seats in the twin districts were held by the grand old party. Community relations between Hindus and Muslims in these two districts were largely amiable and Congress preferred it that way.

The last two decades have seen a religious revival among Hindus and Muslims fuelled by trading wealth and remittances from migrant workers which helped strengthen polarisation. Commuity relations took a sharper edge with competition over char land (silt-land formed by the river), and trade including smuggling, increasing over time.

"Polarisation in border districts has been on the rise... the front organisations of many outfits have been active in border districts. Religio-social and economic rivalry are being channelised into political rivalry," said Prof Kingshuk Chatterjee of Calcutta University, whose Chambers Book of Indian Election Facts, has just been published.

Not only in these two districts but overall in the state, the Congress has been on the decline, notwithstanding the fact that it all started here, when Allan Octavian Hume, a pro-Indian retired British civil servant, sent an open letter in 1883 to all graduates of Calcutta University outlining his plan for a body representing Indian interests.

The party which had its first session in Bombay, gave India leaders like Surendra Nath Banerjee, Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal, Subhas Bose and Dr B C Roy. Three strangely related events occurred in the late 1960s that catalysed the decline the party split spawning the short-lived Bangla Congress, Bengal’s tea and jute industries slumped, and Marxism became fashionable amongst Calcutta’s youth. From 22 MPs in 1962, the Congress had just 14 in 1967 which kept going down but for a brief revival in 1984 when it won 16 seats. Since then the story has been downhill. In 2004 it had six MPs, in 2009 it had three and in 2019 only two.

"Communal polarisation is not good for the Congress which is like a ‘big tent’ holding all kinds of views but converging on key issues like secularism, economic progress and social welfare. We have seen that whenever these areas take a back seat, Congress’s prospects declined, notes," Abhijit Mukherjee, former MP from Jangipur, one of the three constituencies in Murshidabad which Congress held sway upon at one time. We will soon know whether Adhir Chowdhury’s fightback at age 68 will help stave off the unsecular challenge to his and the Congress party’s very existence in the state.

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