Nearest to the Church, farthest from God?
There is a well-crafted banner hanging in an obscure corner of the central gathering place of the non-descript village of Jangipur in Murshidabad. This is the district that bears the dubious tag of housing the country's highest percentage of rural poor. The banner announced the finals of a local carrom championship, the prizes for which would be handed over by the country's finance-cum-external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee. The West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president also happens to be the parliamentary candidate from the region.
A 60-degree turn of vision and it is difficult to miss a similar banner, this one announcing the finals of a local chess championship.
"He has done this with amazing regularity every time he has visited his constituency in the last five years," said Md. Sabiruzzaman, a resident of Lalgola, adding, "his efforts were to consolidate the youth of this region into doing constructive things."
For this Muslim-majority border district where nearly three million people (56 per cent of rural population) live below the poverty line, where basic road infrastructure is still a nightmare, where only 12 per cent of cultivable land receive irrigation in any form, where population density is nearly double the national average for rural areas, where women trafficking is rampant and where bidi-rolling is the most common occupation apart from farming, it is remarkable how an MP could win hearts by promoting indoor games.
Yet Pranab Mukherjee's election punch line is Kachher Manush, Kaajer Manush (I am close to you. And I am a man of action.) The slogan, without a shade of doubt, is now on the lips of all and sundry in Murshidabad.
I asked middle-aged Rehana Bibi in Mukherjee's constituency if she could spell out some of these "deeds" that have benefited her. Her eyes glazed over so I was forced to ask again, rephrasing my question. Pat came her reply: "How come you can't see things for yourself? We are very happy with his governance".
Indeed. The number 2 political executive in the Union government - whose daily chores include tête-à-tête with heads of states of the entire subcontinent and often beyond the domain of diplomatic courtesy in this reign of terror, whose appointments with the powers-that-be in this globe keep us on tenterhooks, whose challenges include holding together the country's economy in these times of meltdown - creates one dominant emotion among his people when he appears on the dusty muddy roads of Jangipur in person...awe.
In fact, Mukherjee's public addresses were replete with his performance list, from building social infrastructure to creation of employment opportunities. But I wonder what is it that has cut ice with the voters - his achievements or it is that sense of awe at having elected someone who is calling the shots, not just for them but for the entire nation? I do not have any other explanation for the behaviour of the hundred-odd villagers who walked all the way from their distant villages, sat on the road outside Pranab babu's party office in Jangipur and had their eyes fixed on him through a distant window, as he held a late-evening meeting with local party leaders. They stayed put through the two-hour meeting, they had no demands to make before him and slowly dispersed after Mukherjee left for his residence.
Mukherjee himself admitted on record a day later that it is one thing to be at the centre of public euphoria and quite another to get that translated into votes.
Efforts to achieve the common touch are very much present in the camp of Mukherjee's present political rivals in Bengal as well. CPI-M's Rabin Deb's attempt to handle a fishing net at the outskirts of Kolkata while campaigning in his South Kolkata constituency or local train rides by his comrade-in-arms Sujan Chakraborty in neighbouring Jadavpur are cases in point. The concerns could be genuine and might have been aimed at spreading the message of commitment to the aam aadmi. But it is one thing to lead a temporary aam aadmi life and quite another to generate trust in the heart of the common man whose share of humiliations in daily life are more than their sense of achievements.
Bengal could indeed become one of the "swing states" of this country post this Lok Sabha poll as far as electoral statistics are concerned. But would that mandate be a result of inclusive participation of the electorate who believe in whom they vote for or his principles, or would it be with the same sense of detachment that has been ruling their hearts for a long time now?
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