Known as one of West Bengal's most porous border areas with Bangladesh and a hub of illegal migration, Basirhat is set to witness a high octane electoral battle between Nusrat Jahan, Bengali screen actress and Trinamool Congress candidate, and Sayanta Basu, state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary, in the final phase of the Lok Sabha polls on May 19.
Situated around 70 km northeast of state capital Kolkata, Basirhat town is dotted with sugar mills, metalware manufacturing units and is a major trade depot for rice, jute, mustard, dates and potatoes produced in the surrounding areas.
In the semi-urban and rural parliamentary constituency, comprising seven Assembly seats of Baduria, Haroa, Minakhan, Sandeshkhali, Basirhat Dakshin, Basirhat Uttar and Hingalgunj, Muslims dominate by accounting for over 50 per cent of the population.
In July 2017, Basirhat, located on the southern bank of the river Icchamati, shimmered with communal tensions following a derogatory social media post on Prophet Mohammad. The trouble begun in Baduria and spilled over to rest of the constituency, turning the area into a no-go zone for almost a week.
Mobs attacked local police station in Baduria, and temples and houses of Hindus in Basirhat. Though the tension was contained after a week, it seems to have created a strong undercurrent of communal polarisation.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Trinamool’s Idris Ali defeated Communist Party of India’s (CPI) Nurool Hooda by over one lakh votes. While Ali secured around 38 per cent votes, his nearest rival Hooda received around 30 per cent. BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya, though a distant third, had secured over 18 per cent votes, increasing the party’s vote share by 11.81 per cent compared with 2009 elections.
In 2019, Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee replaced sitting MP Idris Ali, who played a key role in organising Muslim protests against controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, with a political greenhorn Nusrat Jahan.
The Congress nominee is a veteran local leader Abdur Rahim Kazi, while the CPI has fielded Pallab Sengupta.
The choice of Trinamool candidate is being seen as its attempt to dilute, if not completely undo, the communal polarisation that now characterises Bashirhat.
But a section of conservative Muslims in Basirhat has been upset with the Trinamool candidate, particularly after videos of Jahan speaking against triple talaq, an Islamic practice banned by the apex court, went viral on social media.
During her election rally in the constituency, Banerjee termed Jahan as “a young girl who does not have deep understanding of politics” and appealed people not to take her (Jahan’s) statements to heart.
The BJP candidate, banking upon “rashtravaad and vikaas” (nationalism and development), is hoping that conservative Muslim backlash against Jahan will damage the TMC’s prospects. He himself has, however, courted controversies by asking the central force to shoot potential miscreants in the chest.
“If Trinamool goons come to loot votes on polling day, I will ask the central forces to shoot them in the chest and not feet. The state police work for the Trinamool Congress. We will make sure that they are confined within the police stations, and only CRPF does the poll duty,” Basu said during his campaign.
This statement drew sharp criticism and led the Election Commission to issue a show cause notice against him.
Basu, however, is upbeat and believes the BJP promise to implement National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal and drive away infiltrators will give his party major traction among Hindu voters of Basirhat, many of whom are directly affected by infiltration.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a rally in Taki on Wednesday, wooed locals by promising action against infiltrators, besides stopping crimes, like cow smuggling and human trafficking.
On the other hand, Banerjee’s decision to oppose both NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill should make her party a clear favourite among Muslims.
Jahan, campaigning nearly 12-hour a day, said she was confident that her message of love would win over people across communities as nobody liked violence. “It is not about me. The people know voting for any other party will not cause them any good. I am representing the party that has worked for their good for years,” she remarked. (IANS)