Bolpur, the land associated with Rabindranath Tagore and his Shantiniketan, is at political crossroads. It is home to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, has sent former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee to Parliament, and is linked to several Bengali intellectuals including painters and sculptors of international repute such as Somnath Hore. The place is in Birbhum district, which houses the ancestral village of former President Pranab Mukherjee.
Birbhum, which means land of the brave, is now associated with Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman Anubrata Mondal, and is infamous for political violence. Though Mondal is not a party candidate in any of the 11 seats here, his shadow looms large across the district.
On the other side, there is Anirban Ganguly, the director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (a think tank in New Delhi) and an urban suave face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ganguly is his party’s candidate for the Bolpur seat in the ongoing assembly elections.
“People here were used to…Somnath Chatterjee, the seven-time MP from Bolpur…he was more erudite, suave and educated than I am. Among some of the first leaders to be elected from Bolpur was Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s secretary, Anil Chanda (who became a Lok Sabha MP). In me, people see a link to a bygone era when there were eminent and erudite people who represented Bolpur,” Ganguly told News18 in an interview at Bolpur lodge, which has been his home for a month now.
On April 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to hold his final rally this election season in Bolpur, in what could be a big boost for Ganguly.
The area outside the lodge is splattered with TMC hoardings that feature mainly Mondal’s face. Chandranath Sinha, the TMC legislator from Bolpur and a minister, and other party leaders dismiss Ganguly as an “outsider”.
The BJP’s campaign here revolves around political killings, alleged corruption at the panchayat level, poor roads and drinking water problem (which is a major issue). But the focus remains on highlighting the contrast between Ganguly and Mondal.
The land of Tagore
Bolpur’s Shantiniketan houses the Visva-Bharati University that Rabindranath Tagore founded here. A large part of what the Nobel laureate did in terms of contributing to our national life was from here, Ganguly said. Some also believe Birbhum to be the birthplace of 12th century poet Jaidev, the creator of Gita Govindam.
“But Mondal-led TMC represents all that is antithetical to Tagore’s legacy and collective mindset of the people of Bolpur. For the last 10 years, Birbhum has been associated with political violence, a culture of political vendetta, and a mindset that is anti-democratic and that has no place in a constitutional India. The sitting TMC MLA simply has no character or personality of his own,” Ganguly told News18.
In his campaign, Ganguly does not fail to highlight how Bolpur has its own cultural and spiritual legacy due Visva-Bharati and how it used to attract the best minds from across the world. “But the TMC has introduced a very negative atmosphere, which has trapped Bolpur’s essential potential to grow as a city and as an identity,” Ganguly said.
Going around Bolpur, one realises that political tensions and concerns over law and order are simmering in what used to be a cultural and tourism hub.
“It is the BJP that is instigating people and painting the TMC as (a party of)…goons. The fact is the TMC has done a lot for Birbhum,” a ruling party leader said.
In 2016, the TMC won the Bolpur seat comfortably; candidates of the ruling party and the Left bloc cornered nearly 82% of all votes. They are both in the fray again, throwing a challenge at Ganguly.
“2016 is now a long way back, and after that there was 2019 (when the BJP fared well across Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls)…in Bolpur…the margin was very less. So the atmosphere since 2019, the pent-up anger people have against exploitation and neglect, and the support for the PM’s governance agenda will make things much different this time,” Ganguly said. There is clear disgust and people want to get out of this entire atmosphere of fear and oppression, he told News18.
He said the people of West Bengal have directly connected with the PM. “Modi…connects to them and says and does what they want and aspire for,” Ganguly added.
The seat has 27% Muslims, who the TMC says are solidly behind the party. But Ganguly said Muslims realise that they have been taken for a ride by the TMC.
“They (Muslims) have been used as a vote bank, promised many things but…(nothing was) delivered. Many of our workers are Muslims and were targeted because of being BJP workers. A minority community worker of the TMC has got a pucca house, while a house next door of a minority BJP worker has a thatched roof – the contrast is clear in Bolpur,” Ganguly said.
Asked if he was a CM contender if the BJP won, Ganguly said: “There are 294 candidates and I believe we will have 200+ candidates who will win. So there will be many of them with political and administrative experience.”