The heat of the battle is behind him, but Manoranjan Byapari says now is not the time to let go of the momentum. “There is no time to rest. Bangla bibhajoner rajniti ke pratyakhan korechhe. Ekhankar manush bojhen ashol poribortoner jonye unnayon-er proyojon, bibhajoner noy (Bengal has rejected the politics of divisiveness. People here know that real change comes from development, not division). The battle is over, the work is just about to begin,” says the well-known Dalit writer, 70, who was the Trinamool Congress candidate from the Balagarh constituency in West Bengal’s Hooghly district.
In his political debut, the chairperson of the Dalit Sahitya Academy in West Bengal won 45.65 per cent votes and defeated BJP’s Subhas Chandra Haldar and CPI(M)’s Mahamaya Mondal in the state Assembly elections, the results of which were declared on May 2. The Trinamool Congress has registered an emphatic victory in a bitterly-fought eight-phase elections in the state, that ended on April 29.
In his constituency Balagarh, a seat reserved for Scheduled Castes, Byapari replaced the incumbent MLA, Asim Majhi, as the party’s candidate. Over the last couple of months of campaigning across the 30-odd villages that make up the constituency, Byapari has drawn upon his writerly instinct to observe and to listen. “When I came to Balagarh for the first time, I wasn’t Manoranjan the writer. I was a representative of Didi (TMC party head and chief minister Mamata Banerjee) but I was also one of the people. That’s how I see my role in the days ahead,” he says.
On his agenda of reforms, once the COVID-19 situation has improved in the state, are three things — to strengthen embankments and work on anti-erosion measures along the river Ganga for protection against floods, the availability of potable water, and, to create a robust educational infrastructure in his constituency. “I strongly believe education can change lives. Many young people here move to Malda (district further north from Hooghly) for better educational opportunities. I’d like to ensure that they have the same opportunities here,” he says.
For someone who has had to fight his way up in the world, Byapari, author of noted Bengali novels such as Itibrittey Chandal Jibon (2012, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit), Batashe Baruder Gondho (2013, There’s Gunpowder in the Air), has been an observant student of politics since the time he was a teenager living in refugee colonies across the state. His disillusionment with the Naxalite Movement had made him steer clear of active political participation till the time Banerjee reached out to him earlier this year. “I am a Namasudra, my father was a Matua. All my life, I have had to fight for my rights. But I have seen how Didi has fought for people like me and I thought it was time for me to do my bit for my people.
Besides, the BJP was playing a toxic political game. It stirred something in the street fighter in me. Pratibad noy, protirodh chai (Protest alone isn’t enough, a pushback is required),” he says. The intensity of the BJP’s campaign and their targeted attack on the chief minister show how desperate they were to win the elections, says the writer, and while TMC’s resounding win is a reinforcement of Bengal’s multiculturalism, every seat won by the BJP is one too many. “The kind of politics that they believe in has no place in Bengal. It needs to be fought at every level,” he says.
While he waits for the swearing-in ceremony, set to be held in small batches between May 5 and May 9 because of the ongoing pandemic, Byapari says he is a little overwhelmed by people’s faith in him. “Like many others, for a greater part of my life, I have believed that politicians are corrupt, power-hungry people. Now that I am in the fray and people have invested their trust in me, I have to prove that it’s possible to serve them in all honesty,” he says.
His writing, that captures a lifetime of pushback against discrimination, might have to take a back seat in the process. It’s a sacrifice the writer is willing to make, even though long years of juggling a day job as a cook and writing at night has taught him how to multitask. Would he be tempted to fictionalise these days and nights of high-octane campaign drama or the political journey that awaits him? “People often tell me there’s too much violence, pain and anger in my books. Now, when I write, I am going to work on a sweet love story,” he says with a laugh.