If you don’t want to be identified as a sympathiser of a particular political party, do what the people of Asansol do. They attend meetings called by every political party and say it is the surest way to keep away from being aligned to any one of them ahead of polls marred by violence.
Residents are wary of discussing their political preference openly in Asansol, a metropolitan city and important coal-trading centre in West Bengal. They say the atmosphere is not conducive for such a discussion.
Asansol has seen sporadic violence this election season, not new to West Bengal where panchayat polls in May last year too were bloodied.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election on April 29, the worst incident in Asansol happened in March when violence erupted during Ram Navami processions. Stones were pelted, bombs were hurled, vehicles and houses were set ablaze.
“I go and sit in the front (during a political meeting) and ensure the local guy sees me. Then I leave. That’s how it is,” said a resident, a Left supporter who is unsure if he will vote in this situation.
“There is violence almost everyday and harassment by party workers, specially from the ruling party (Trinamool Congress),” he said, requesting anonymity, fearing he would be identified by the party leaders.
Aged around 30, he works in the city’s fire department. He said his father is a retired government employee.
The last meeting he and his father attended was at his doorstep on April 20. They followed the protocol he described above sat in the front and returned before the meeting concluded.
“We had to show our faces. Otherwise they would have noticed that no one from the family attended the meeting,” he told PTI, quietly stepping out of his home.
He said he did the same during a meeting held by the BJP a few days ago.
Several others supported his statements. Many said they too follow the protocol and withdraw from political meetings at the opportune moment.
“The city is tense; there is no doubt about it. Every night there are raids, our workers are being picked up by police, their homes are being damaged. It is creating havoc. TMC is using the state machinery to do this,” alleged sitting MP Babul Supriyo of the BJP.
Supriyo had defeated his nearest rival, Dola Sen, a trade Union leader, by over 70,000 votes in 2014. This time, he is contesting against actor Moon Moon Sen, fielded by TMC.
Both Supriyo and Gourango Chatterjee, the CPI(M) candidate, make sure they speak about the presence of central forces during their campaign meetings and assure people it is safe to come out and vote.
TMC leader and state Law Minister Malay Ghatak rubbished the allegations against the state government, saying the people of Asansol know who are creating the “tense” situation in the city.
“Asansol is calm, the chief minister is trying her best to ensure free and fair polls. People know that. The issue is that since no party, except the TMC, has any political existence here, so the Congress, the Left and the BJP have come together and making these allegations in desperation,” he told PTI.
However, Ghatak had no answer when he was asked about the unprecedented presence of central forces in the state and if that was an indication of the failure of the TMC government to ensure security during polls.
Not far from BJP candidate Supriyo’s home in Mohishila in the heart of the city, a group of men were whispering among themselves at a tea-stall. When they were asked questions on politics, they signalled towards a covered area, away from the roadside.
“Politics here can no longer be discussed in public. Who knows who is listening,” said Swapan Roy, 70, a BJP party worker.
Gone are the times when one could have animated debates over cups of tea at tea stalls. I have been in politics for long, but never have I ever had so many cases registered against me. I am an old man and I have been charged with an arms case. Ironically, I don’t even know how to hold a gun.
These TMC workers are goons and they are doing everything that they can to intimidate voters. Even the CPI(M) candidate, a simple man, was beaten up badly recently and was left bleeding on the street,” he said.
On April 9, in a complaint filed with Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said Chatterjee was attacked by Trinamool Congress “hoodlums” in Madanpur village.
Barely 23km from Kolkata, Asansol is one of the two seats the BJP had won in 2014. It has perhaps seen the most number of violent incidents between the workers of the saffron party and the ruling TMC.
A lawyer, who refused to divulge his political preference or his name, said no party is innocent.
“Here, TMC is in power, so they have more clout, more people and the BJP is on the backfoot. However, I am sure where the BJP is in power, they would also exercise it (muscle power). The problem is people suffer. Most people here, especially in rural areas, would not come out and vote in absence of central forces,” he said.
“You have to just read the local papers to know how much violence is happening daily in rural areas. Is this the democracy we fought for?”