Lok Sabha polls: Rewards galore for Bengali migrants returning to vote

A railway official checks migrants for tickets at Nellore
Subrata Naskar watches sullenly as a large number of people jostle to get into the reserved compartment of the train that is to take him home. Having reserved a ticket for the first time in his life, Naskar had thought he would do the 45-hour journey from Thiruvananthapuram to Kolkata in comfort. But that is not to be. The train is filled to the rafters with droves of migrant workers from West Bengal, Bihar and Assam taking the long ride home to cast their votes in the upcoming general elections.

“This is all because of the elections. It cost me more than two days’ pay to get the ticket through a fixer,” grumbles Naskar, who is a mason from a village in Malda district in West Bengal. With Indian Railways phasing off sleeper coaches on long-distance routes, the weekly Gurudev Express, which makes its way from Kerala through Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and on to Kolkata, is one of the only two trains Naskar can take. 

“The train is overbooked at least three times over,” admits K J Thomas, a ticket inspector at Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram station. “But because it’s election time, we will have to allow unreserved passengers on all coaches.” Thomas knows better than to rile up the migrants who are travelling now. A near riot had erupted last week when the railway police stopped a large group from boarding reserved coaches.

Battle for Bengal  

Most of the Bengali migrants on the Gurudev Express are masons. Naskar earns ~950 a day and is currently employed at a shopping complex building site in Kozhikode. That is more than double of what he used to earn back home and it is doubtful if he would have given up the money even for a few days had it not been for the promises of rewards if he went to vote.

"The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has already wired money to the seniors — older men who recruit labourers from the villages — to buy the train tickets. Panchayat leaders have also promised to recommend the names of those who vote for government housing schemes, benefits and the 100 days’ work,” says Tapan Alam who is from Murshidabad district. However, when quizzed on what would happen to the returning migrants who do not vote for the TMC, Alam remains silent. 

Many of them say that while the TMC has adopted the violent tactics of the erstwhile Left regime, it has also brought a slew of development projects in the poor, Muslim-dominated districts of northern Bengal. And that is why people swear by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, they say. "Two weeks before elections in Malda, Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur, there isn't a single BJP or Congress poster anywhere,” says Shahidul Mondal, a plumber from Baharampur in Murshidabad, which is the Lok Sabha seat of veteran Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. 

The communal factor

But there are those who feel that the TMC is under some pressure this time. “TMC is afraid of losing,” pipes up Biplab Dey from Katwa. “The BJP is gaining on them in key seats in South Bengal.” Dey had come to Kochi two decades earlier as an assistant boiler mechanic and now handles the operations of a Kerala-based engineering good firm across eastern India. “Look at Kerala, where Hindus are barely a majority. In Bengal, the issue of Bangladeshi infiltration is an open secret — many of them come down south to seek jobs,” Dey says, gesturing towards some Muslim migrants clearing a space in the corridor of the train to offer namaaz. 

Dey's views are echoed by Bablu Das, who drives an Ola cab in Kochi, and hails from Dhubri district in Assam. “Local leaders made it clear where our votes should go when they updated my family’s name in the National Register of Citizens. I don’t blame them. There are multiple districts in lower Assam where the erstwhile Tarun Gogoi government turned a blind eye to the porous border. So much so that many kids there have never seen a Hindu person in their life,” Das says.

According to the 2011 Census, nine out of Assam’s 32 districts have a majority of Muslims. Most migrants from Assam on this train believe that the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) could improve on its current tally of three MPs. However, BJP, which has promised to reward voters with cold cash if they win, could pose a serious challenge to the AIUDF, says Das. 

The vote goes to…

The Gurudev Express also serves a large number of patients and their relatives who go for treatment to Vellore in Tamil Nadu, which is known for its affordable and reliable medical care.” Swathee Karnati, who is from Rajahmudhry in Andhra Pradesh is returning with her 74-year old father who is being treated for throat cancer at Christian Medical College, Vellore. 
“We have heard of the central government’s Jan Aushadhi stores being opened in every city, but we haven’t seen any so far,” Karnati says. “The Chandrababu Naidu government has a similar scheme in Andhra Pradesh and we get discounts on major drugs if and when they are available,” she says. Add to that his Telugu Desam Party government’s financial help to farmers, and Naidu will surely win, opines Karnati’s brother, who is a rice farmer.  

For some on the train, the journey back home is not a happy one. Jamshed Shah, a mechanic from Bhubaneswar, was fired by his employer in Kollam last week. The reason given was that lakhs of Kerala citizens had returned from the Gulf in the last one year creating redundancy for migrants. According to the Thiruvananthapuram based Centre for Development Studies, 1.3 million Kerala citizens returned in 2018. 

Jamshed sits clutching a photo of his 6-month old son, whom he has not seen yet. When asked which party he would vote for, he shakes his head and says, “I don't care enough.”