Saumitra Khan vs Sujata Mondal: It's battle of the exes in Bengal's Bishnupur

Local issues brushed under the carpet as fight gets personal

30-Sujata-Mandal-with-Mamata-Banerjee Joint effort: Sujata Mandal with Mamata Banerjee during a public meeting in Bishnupur | Salil Bera

On the banks of the once-untamed Damodar lies the Bishnupur Lok Sabha constituency, encompassing six assembly seats in Bankura district and one in Purba Bardhaman district.

The constituency, named after the historic temple town, is rich with Archaeological Survey of India sites. Today, however, it is in the news because of the fascinating electoral contest between two former spouses, Saumitra Khan and Sujata Mondal. The BJP has renominated Khan, the 43-year-old incumbent who has won twice from this constituency reserved for scheduled castes. Mondal, 38, is the Trinamool Congress candidate.

Bishnupur, which goes to the polls in the sixth phase on May 25, has emerged as a key constituency for both parties. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bishnupur to campaign for their own candidates, recognising the importance of the constituency.

Khan and Mondal’s love story began during the days of the left rule in West Bengal. Their paths crossed for the first time in 2010 when Khan was with the Congress. A year later, he was elected to the assembly from Katulpur in Bankura district when the Trinamool dethroned the left with the help of the Congress. As the Congress-Trinamool alliance broke up in 2012, he switched sides and joined Mamata’s party.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool fielded Khan from Bishnupur, which was a CPI(M) stronghold for more than four decades. Despite the left losing 20 seats across West Bengal in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, signalling a major political shift, Bishnupur had remained a red zone. But Khan ended the CPI(M)’s dominance, winning the seat by more than a lakh votes.

Despite his meteoric rise in the Trinamool, Khan felt sidelined in the party. Alleging favouritism and corruption, he quit months before the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 and joined the BJP, which fielded him from Bishnupur. Soon came allegations that he had taken bribes, promising people government jobs. The Calcutta High Court banned him from entering Bankura district.

32-BJP-candidate-Saumitra-Khan-campaigning Changing colours: BJP candidate Saumitra Khan campaigning at Khandaghosh in Bishnupur | Salil Bera

But it did not affect his electoral prospects as his wife had taken care of everything. A primary school teacher, Mondal believed that she was performing her dharma as a woman. She went door to door, seeking “justice” as a wife who had been forced to live apart from her husband. Bishnupur listened to her pleas, and Khan won by more than 75,000 votes.

A year and a half later, Mondal upset the political dynamics of Bishnupur by joining the Trinamool ahead of the 2021 assembly polls. Khan filed for divorce and the couple officially separated in February 2023.

“He has cheated me and the people of Bishnupur,” Mondal told THE WEEK on the sidelines of a roadshow. “He has not done anything for the constituency. He never visits Bishnupur and leads a luxurious life in Delhi. He is a liar and a womaniser. Getting him elected was the biggest sin I committed and I believe people will give me the chance to atone for my sin by defeating him.” She accused him of lacking in integrity and alleged that with him as their representative, the women of Bishnupur did not feel safe. “He is a characterless MP. I just want my mothers and sisters to be safe,” she said.

Khan, however, is confident about his hat-trick win. “Elections are not contested over trivial and baseless issues, but over developmental issues. It is not our personal battle,” Khan told THE WEEK in his hotel room in Bishnupur after a long day of campaigning. But he could not avoid discussing Mondal. “I was in shock for a few days [when she joined the Trinamool]. But the past is past and I have moved on,” he said. “My life has been full of struggles and diverse experiences. My [old] relationship [with Mondal] was also an experience. I am over it now. I am newly married and life does not stop for anyone.”

On his campaign trail, Khan’s focus is on attacking the Trinamool over allegations such as corruption and the sexual exploitation in Sandeshkhali. Hindutva is another significant theme. “We had to leave our homeland in Bangladesh for one reason. The same is happening in Sandeshkhali now. Hindu sanatanis have to unite to save the temple town of Bishnupur,” Khan said at a small gathering outside a temple in Khandaghosh, one of the seven assembly segments in Bishnupur.

More than outlining his own work as a two-time MP, Khan highlights the achievements of the prime minister. “Modi ji is the god whom we worship. Like Swami Vivekananda promoted Hinduism worldwide, he is promoting India,” said Khan. “We want him as prime minister for development and for ending corruption. See how many Trinamool leaders he has put in jail. We have to remove Mamata Banerjee. She has finished everyone, including Hindus and Muslims. Now she is destroying the lives of women in Sandeshkhali.”

Khan also highlighted the violence BJP workers faced in West Bengal in the aftermath of the 2021 assembly elections. Of seven assembly seats in Bishnupur, the BJP won five. In the two seats which the Trinamool won, Khan said his supporters were beaten up and were evicted from their homes.

“Our motto is chup chap kamal-e chhap (press the lotus symbol silently). Since 2021, we have not been able to identify ourselves as BJP workers. All our activities have stopped,” said Snehasis Hajra, a BJP worker in Khandaghosh.

Mondal, meanwhile, is seeking votes in the name of her local roots, Mamata’s popularity and the state government’s welfare schemes, especially those aimed at women. “I am the only woman candidate in this constituency. Didi has fielded me so that I can be the voice of women in Parliament for the entire Bankura district. Every single woman has benefited from Lakshmir Bhandar, Kanyashree and other programmes of didi,” she said.

Both candidates have brushed local issues under the carpet. Bishnupur has always faced water scarcity. Poor irrigation facilities have forced farmers to use submersible pumps, resulting in further depletion of groundwater. Khan conceded that water scarcity was a major issue, but blamed the state government. “Despite receiving funds from the Centre for supplying piped water to every household, the state government has failed. This project has to be done entirely by the Centre. Otherwise, there will be pipes, but no water,” said Khan.

Mondal, however, underplayed the crisis and said the Trinamool government had almost solved it. “The Mamata Banerjee administration is supplying water to the region from the Damodar. In some pockets there is a water crisis and we are arranging for more submersible pumps,” she said.

But the Damodar itself is facing an existential crisis. Water pollution and the growing sand mafia menace have devastated the river ecosystem. Khan said the mafia operated under the Trinamool’s patronage. “I plan to undertake at least two projects to build water storage capacity,” he said.

Lack of employment opportunities is another major concern. Ganesh Bairagi, who was stuck in a traffic jam―caused by one of Mondal’s rallies―with his grandson said the child was likely to follow in the footsteps of his father, a migrant worker in Noida. “When the Bishnupur industrial park was set up in 1987, we thought there would be jobs. But the truth is there for everyone to see,” said a disappointed Bairagi. The industrial park is in a dilapidated state with only a handful of factories working. Both candidates said they would revive the park.

“I will bring more companies and rebuild the industrial park,” said Mondal, while her former husband said he would see that Bishnupur became an IT hub like Hyderabad and Bengaluru.