Bengal Votes: In Basirhat, TMC banks on novice Nusrat Jahan, a Muslim without hardcore communal baggage, but lacks real connect with voters
In reality, Nusrat is every inch a star. She knows Basirhat but as a place where she's done stage shows. She knows how to wave to the crowds like a princess. She refers to them rather regally as 'my people'.
Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process. Read more articles from the series here
"Would you like me to sing?" she asks the crowd. There is a murmur of approval but the crowd mostly gapes. It's Ramzan and the clock is ticking towards Roza hour in this Muslim-dominated area of West Bengal.
"If I don't hear it louder, I'll just end this sabha right now," she says with a mischievous smile. This time the applause is louder. Nusrat Jahan, leading lady of crowd-pleasing Bengali blockbusters like Shotru, Khoka 420 and Love Express bursts into a few lines of a song.
At first sight, Nusrat seems a rather unusual candidate (Trinamool Congress) to be fielded from a sensitive seat like Basirhat. In 2017, an incendiary Facebook post about the Prophet Muhammad triggered riots in this area close to the Bangladesh border. Some say the riots were purposely instigated with outsiders brought in to fan the flames and lead to political polarization. Others say the real issue is anger over cattle smuggling across the border.
Either way, it seems surprising that a political novice like 29-year-old Nusrat has been sent to hold the fortress for Trinamool. The BJP is targeting the seat heavily. Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Basirhat and said that Bengal will help the BJP win more than 300 seats. They hope Basirhat will be one of them.
"BJP has been pouring money into this area," says Ranjit Talukdar, a local businessman, born and brought up in Basirhat. "They are trying to communalise Basirhat."
Nusrat, as an outsider, is presenting herself as an antidote to all this, the bridge over troubled waters. "I'm a speed breaker to this polarisation," she says. "Both my people have liked me irrespective of whatever religion you are, they've liked me as Nusrat Jahan because they like my films. So I'm blessed."
While the Lok Sabha election gets more toxic in the long hot summer, Nusrat remains as cool as her linen sari, adroitly deflecting all inconvenient questions and staying firmly on her peace-and-love-for-all script. Asked how as an artist she deals with police arresting BJP activist Priyanka Sharma for sharing a meme making fun of Didi, she merely says, "The law is doing the needful. The law must take its course." She dismisses the trolling, misogyny and mockery that greeted her own candidature as the work of people desperately craving her attention.
On the campaign trail, she leaves the fire and brimstone to the politicians. Trinamool minister Suvendu Adhikari warn the crowd that the Congress candidate, a local Muslim, Abdur Rahil Quazi aka Dilu-babu is getting support from the BJP. But Nusrat will not publicly badmouth him.
Instead, she says once the Congress conducted a rally close to where she was. When her convoy passed, she says she wished him and did salaam dua. "He said Nusrat bhalo theko (be well). I wished him well and we gave space to each other. It's for people to decide who wins."
"I like her, she smiles and is pleasant," says Sadhana Haldar who has come to see Nusrat. "She's not starry at all," says Chhaya Ghosh standing with a cluster of her friends. "I don't think we will be cheated if we vote for her." The slogans raised by her supporters reinforce the girl-next-door image — "Tomar aamaar ghorer meye, Nusrat Jahan zindabad (All hail Nusrat Jahan, our very own daughter)"
In reality, Nusrat is every inch a star. She knows Basirhat but as a place where she's done stage shows. She knows how to wave to the crowds like a princess. She refers to them rather regally as "my people". Her roadshow moves through the shop-lined main road of Basirhat like a royal wedding procession, complete with tribal dancers in green-and-white saris and sneakers, balancing pots of fake flowers on their heads. At periodic intervals, volunteers hand out water and sweet batashas. Men and women hang out on balconies and rooftops to get a quick glimpse of her. Nusrat's smile and hand-wave never falters.
Even those who don't support her come out for a look. A woman stands in front of the local temple watching impassively and shaking her head. When I ask her if she is impressed, she shrugs and says cryptically, "Wait for 23rd. Then it will be clear what's what." When I ask her name, she shakes her head and says "Just assume something. It doesn't matter. But wait and see."
Sayantan Basu, BJP state general secretary, is hoping for a quiet BJP undercurrent. He already had an FIR lodged against him for saying central forces will be asked to shoot troublemakers in the chest, not in the leg on polling day, and women will hack goondas with the hatchets that are used to chop coconuts. "Let Mamata Banerjee's administration arrest me," Basu said defiantly. The BJP and the RSS allege that Trinamool has been terrorising their supporters and there will be a backlash against the ruling party.
But the hotter Basu blows, the cooler Jahan stays, refusing to go off script. "I want us to celebrate all festivals here with joy," she tells the crowd. "Remember there is only one candidate and that is Mamata Banerjee."
While initially many raised eyebrows at an untested Tollywood star being thrown into the fray, now Ranjit Talukar says she was a wise choice. She's Muslim but without any hardcore communal baggage. A more conservative minority candidate could have raked up old tensions that erupted around Durga Puja a few years ago. In fact her Tollywood charms, her earlier stated views on issues like triple talaq could drive some more conservative Muslims towards Congress' Dilu-babu but clearly Mamata thought that worth the risk.
Mamata is banking on Trinamool's impressive development record here. "All the concrete roads you drive on is thanks to Trinamool," says Ranjit Talukdar. "This used to be a Congress belt. The CPM did nothing for it." He says the spoils of development have become a point of envy, infighting and "chokher bish" (poison to the eye) for some. A "neutral and external" candidate can keep the peace.
He dismisses the stories of cattle smuggling. "Look, this is a border area, some underhand business happens. I won't deny it. Even if you assume Trinamool is involved, how are these cows coming from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan? How are they getting through BSF across the border? If it is happening, everyone is involved."
But the aftermath violence of 2017 still does linger. Nusrat wants to waft past it. "It was a stupid and silly thing that was given a push," she says. "People remember those hard times for sure but they would not like something like that to repeat again. They are living in peace right now."
The main road remains lined with biryani restaurants, many proudly proclaiming themselves as "beef biryani specialists". The same road also has the Hargouri Bastralaya and Gita Basanalaya. Basirhat seems to be back to business.
However, the scars remain. Shaon Sorkar stands watching the Nusrat cavalcade go past. He runs a dance troupe called Madhuchhanda Nritya Goshti. He is a Hindu. He introduces me to a Muslim man he calls his uncle. He says his dance troupe has been performing here for years. They have performed Shiva dance at Good Friday programmes and Krishna Leela during Eid. "An artist has no religion," he says. "But now people are nervous. We are being told don't do a Hindu dance at a minority programme for example. A division has been created."
As I walk away, he shouts after me. "The BJP has managed to do here what even Pakistan could not — bhedabhed (divisions)." Then he quotes a poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam — "Mora eki brintey duti kusum, Hindu Musalman." We are two flowers on the same stalk - Hindu and Muslim. Reporter dada, remind people of that."
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