If he wins the assembly election from Bhangar, Abdur Rezzak Molla will be close to becoming an MLA for 50 consecutive years, a record that even his political guru Jyoti Basu could not achieve. But Molla is today in the company of Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who was once his enemy. “If the CPI(M) can hold hands with the Congress, why can't I hold Mamata's hands?” asked Molla, referring to the CPI(M)-Congress electoral understanding. He said there was no difference between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.
As a minister, Molla had opposed Marxist chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's plan to acquire farmland for industrialising West Bengal. While Mamata fought it on the street, Molla fought it within the party and the cabinet. “That’s why Buddhadeb kicked me out of the party,” said Molla, who has won in all assembly elections since 1972. He won even in 2011 when most CPI(M) leaders lost in the Mamata wave. “That is because I have always remained with the people and the poor farmers,” said Molla.
Molla was expelled from the CPI(M) in 2014 for openly criticising the party, and he seemed to be in political wilderness since then. So, it was a surprise when he walked into Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s office in the state secretariat in February. “I went there to talk about some problem in my constituency and suddenly some political talk also came up,” he said. Molla's entry into the Trinamool Congress, however, has not been smooth. Among Trinamool leaders from the Sunderbans and other areas of the South 24 Parganas district, Molla is known as “demon”. So, Trinamool has not given him the Canning East seat, which he has won since 1977 except in 1987. Instead, he has been given the Bhangar seat, which he won in 1972 and 1987. “Not everyone is happy with me,” he said. “I had expected this. But Mamata has the last word. Once she asks the workers to stand by me, they are bound to do so.”
Bhangar, which is on the outskirts of eastern Kolkata, is a Muslim-dominated constituency. Buddhadeb wanted to turn the area into a big industrial hub, but Molla was against it. “I have spent my life with the farmers' wing of the CPI(M). When land survey was conducted in Singur, I was kept in the dark, although I was the minister for land reforms. My officers went for the survey without telling me. When I asked them, they told me they went at the instruction of the chief minister,” said Molla. “I lodged a complaint with the party. But nothing happened.”
So, when files related to land acquisition came to him, he refused to sign. “The government then got the acquisition done by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, misusing the provisions of the law, and I found myself cornered,” said Molla.
Then, one day, Jyoti Basu called Molla. “I told Jyoti babu that the government was making a grave mistake. But he said he was told that the idea of bringing the Nano car factory to Bengal was to let even a school teacher buy a car. I was surprised,” he said.
Molla said Buddhadeb was in a hurry to industrialise West Bengal. After he became chief minister for a second full term in 2006, his priority was setting up factories, which required vast tracts of land. Molla objected to Buddhadeb's land acquisition spree, even before Mamata hit the street. And not just in Singur—Molla said he opposed the government's plan to acquire 60,000 acres for a big roadways project by the Salim group in Nandigram as well. He refused to sign land acquisition deals for Bata and Birla, too.
“Ultimately, the matter went to the cabinet where it got passed. While Bata got 264 acres for Rs 12 crore, Birla received 300 acres for Rs 19 crore,” said Molla. Most CPI(M) leaders THE WEEK spoke to refused to comment on Molla's charges. But one of the senior members of the Buddhadeb cabinet said, “If the cabinet took the decision, Molla was also part of it. Then why is he raising it now?”
Molla said he had raised his voice in the cabinet, but nobody listened to him. He said he had even gone to Delhi to talk to the party general secretary, Prakash Karat. “Karat said my views would be taken into consideration. But he asked me not to talk to the media on this. I told him that if I didn’t talk then a bad notion would prevail in the minds of the people and I would lose my credibility. I also told him that the party was being finished in West Bengal. Karat said he had written to the state unit not to go ahead with the Salim project in Nandigram,” said Molla. The government subsequently scrapped the Nandigram project, but it stuck to Singur, which gave Mamata an opening.
But did he not hurt West Bengal's industrialisation? “What industrialisation are you talking about? Nothing can happen by hurting the poor farmers. I will oppose that in future as well,” he said.
The CPI(M) has fielded former Molla aide Rashid Ghazi against him. But Molla hopes his identity as a peasant leader will help him. Mamata, in fact, grabbed the opportunity to bring Molla into her party. Being a strong peasant leader and a Bengali Muslim, Molla can be an asset for the Trinamool in South Parganas where the party is in a bad shape because of internal strife. Mamata has asked Arabul Islam, former MLA and her party’s local chief in Bhangar, who had hit and injured Molla during the panchayat elections, to help him win. Molla, however, is not sure about Arabul’s commitment.
But, can a long-time communist leader serve as an obedient soldier of Mamata Banerjee? Molla laughed out loud. “I know that is the problem,” he said. “I cannot take anyone’s diktat. Let’s see what happens. I am only eyeing a stint as MLA for 50 years. That would be a record in Bengal.”