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Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | BJP pins hope on 'Bahadur Beti' of Sandeshkhali to dent TMC's ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ vote-bank

Sandeshkhali – one of the seven assembly segments of the Basirhat LS constituency – hit the headlines when a team of Enforcement Directorate officials raided the residence of the local TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan in connection with a probe into alleged irregularities in the public distribution system and came under attack from a mob.
nirban Bhaumik
Last Updated : 31 May 2024, 01:14 IST
Last Updated : 31 May 2024, 01:14 IST

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Basirhat: The deafening cheers of ‘Jai Sriram’ greet Rekha Patra as she starts addressing the crowd at the Basirhat Subdivisional Sports Association’s ground in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. “I am contesting to make sure that what happened in Sandeshkhali cannot happen anywhere else in West Bengal. Will you not vote for me?” she asks. “Yes”, the crowd replies pat and loud.

She had little to do with politics till a few months back. But the whirlwind that engulfed Sandeshkhali, a tiny island village in Sundarbans in West Bengal, since January 5 threw her into the vortex of politics, or, to be precise, into the core of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in the State.

“I seek your votes so that Mamata Banerjee’s goons can no longer grab the land of anyone else,” the BJP’s candidate for the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency adds, before the party heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, takes the microphone and assures the audience about the arrangements he has made to ensure the security of the voters if the ‘goons’ of Trinamool Congress try to intimidate them or stop them from casting votes on Saturday, the day Basirhat will go to polls along with eight other Lok Sabha constituencies of the state. “Haji Nurul Islam (the TMC candidate in Basirhat) is a ‘dangabaaz (rioter)’… If he wins, he will just expand his illegal business empire, without doing anything for common people,” warns Adhikari.

Sandeshkhali – one of the seven assembly segments of the Basirhat LS constituency – hit the headlines when a team of Enforcement Directorate officials raided the residence of the local TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan in connection with a probe into alleged irregularities in the public distribution system and came under attack from a mob. This followed an agitation by local people against illegal land-grabbing by Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides. The women took the lead as the allegations of sexual harassment against the gang surfaced. The BJP moved fast to take the political advantage out of it and picked up Rekha, who had by then come to be known as the face of the protest, as its candidate for Basirhat.

Sheikh Shahjahan remained elusive for almost two months before being arrested by the state police on February 28 and handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

“I felt as if I was talking to Sri Ramchandra himself,” Rekha says recalling when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called her just days after she was declared a candidate of the BJP. “We will gift Basirhat to Modiji and do our bit to make him the prime minister again”.

The allegation that the illegal business empire and the reign of atrocities Sheikh Shahjahan ran in Sandeshkhali was not unknown to the TMC supremo and the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, and that she chose to turn a blind eye fit perfectly into the BJP’s campaign narrative that she and her party were pursuing a policy of appeasement and encouraging corruption. The saffron party also sought to use the allegation of sexual harassment against him and his aides to erode the TMC’s support base among the women, whom Banerjee managed to turn into the second most dependable vote bank – after the religious minority community – for her party, thanks to her government’s welfare schemes, like ‘Kanyashree’ and ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’.

The BJP also sent delegations of women from Sandeshkhali to different constituencies across the state to campaign against the TMC.

Modi and the other BJP heavyweights continued to harp on the issue of the atrocities of women of Sandeshkhali all through the saffron party’s two-and-half-month-long campaign for the parliamentary polls in West Bengal. The prime minister even hailed Rekha as “Shakti Swarupa” and “Bahadur Beti” while seeking votes for her in a rally on Tuesday.

“You can trust this sister of yours, this daughter of yours. My honesty is not for sale for Rs 2000,” Rekha tells the cheering audience at the rally in Basirhat – dismissing the TMC’s bid to cite some videos, which surfaced online earlier this month, to claim that the protest by the women had been stage-managed by the BJP and the complainants had been bribed to accuse Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides of sexual harassment.

The TMC sought to turn the table on the BJP alleging that the saffron party insulted the women of West Bengal by creating a “false narrative” about sexual harassment in Sandeshkhali. The BJP, on the other hand, alleged that the TMC had circulated fake videos to dilute allegations against Sheikh Shahjahan’s gang.

A few weeks before the Election Commission announced the schedule of Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee resorted to some damage control measures in Sandeshkhali. Her government set up camps to return the land Sheikh Shahjahan had allegedly grabbed from local farmers for large-scale fish farming. But, in many cases, the swathes of land the farmers got back are not yet suitable for cultivation, as they remained under saline water while being used for shrimp farming. The government also started helping the farmers block the inlets to stop the flow of saline water into the land and start the process of reconverting fish farms into farmland.

The TMC had in 2019 fielded film actress Nusrat Jahan Ruhi as its candidate in Basirhat, where Muslims constitute 25.8% of the electorate and the people of the Scheduled Castes 21.7%. She had won, scoring 54% of the votes and beating the BJP’s Sayantan Basu with a margin of over 350,000 votes and substantial leads in each of the seven assembly segments, including Sandeshkali. Banerjee’s candidates had also won in all the seven assembly segments within the Basirhat LS constituency in the state elections in 2021. That is why Haji Nurul Islam, the TMC’s bet in the parliamentary constituency, is confident to win, notwithstanding the BJP’s campaign about Sandeshkhali.

Islam says that if anyone has done anything wrong in Sandeshkhali, the law of the land will take the necessary course of action. He also underlines that people are getting back their land. “The security of women will be our topmost priority. We will build a new Sandeshkhali,” says Islam, who, like all other TMC candidates across West Bengal, is relying on the welfare schemes launched by the state government to retain the support of the women.

The monthly payout rate under the ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ scheme has been increased to Rs 1,000 from Rs 500 for women in the general category and to Rs 1,200 from Rs 1,000 for the women of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

“Didi is giving us so much. Why should we go against her only because some rotten apples sullied her name?” says Sushmita Das, who sells snacks from her small roadside shop in Haroa, another assembly segment of the Basirhat LS constituency.

The BJP leaders initially mocked the ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ and other such welfare schemes, criticising the TMC government for trying to cover up its failure in bringing in investments for setting up industries and creating employment opportunities in the state with freebies and dole programmes. But the popularity of such schemes and the TMC’s accusation that the BJP would suspend the programmes if elected to power in the state prompted the saffron party to change its tack and promise an ‘Annapurna’s Bhandar’ scheme with a monthly payout at the rate of Rs 3000.

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Published 31 May 2024, 01:14 IST

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