If one drives north on National Highway 12 through district Nadia, Panighata would be a blip. One among many villages that spring up amid an expanse of the typical rural Bengal green of paddy fields and mango groves.

Such a grove was the theatre for a battle more than two-and-a-half centuries ago that changed the course of world history. A young Robert Clive, funded by House of Jagat Seth (literally Bankers to the World, a well-heeled Jain business family) and aided by defector Mir Jafar, overthrew Siraj-ud-Daulah as the last independent Nawab of Bengal; East India Company thus gained control of the powerhouse of the then world economy in the 1757 Battle of Plassey.

Today’s Panighata lies just a few miles south of Plassey (locally, Palashi), with nothing much to write home about except a high school. It was the ground next to this school that had become the centre of excitement the Sunday before the campaign was to draw to a close for the fourth phase of Lok Sabha Elections 2024.

Crowds swelled out of a tent that could fit in about 5,000 even as more poured onto the ground, accompanied by musicians, sound boxes, festoons and banners in support of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). On stage, a suave Mahua Moitra—seeking re-election from Krishnanagar constituency—shouted out instructions into the microphone, urging volunteers to bring in some order.

Rather than speaking for herself, she egged on local leaders to canvas for her. Krishnanagar has often been discussed by the Bengali news media for discrepancies within the ruling party. Some were also reportedly miffed with Moitra not spending as much time in the constituency as they would have liked.

Only recently Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had to hold a meeting in nearby Tehatta to get the party wheels moving. She had held the hand of Moitra high and asked voters to choose her as a befitting reply to the BJP getting her disqualified as a parliamentarian.

On this sweltering Sunday, however, party workers presented a picture of unity. Some were direct: “Our government has started so many schemes for you so that you vote for this candidate,” local legislator Naseeruddin Ahmed said. He promised that his Kaliganj constituency will deliver Moitra a lead of 50,000 votes.

Some others, on the other hand, raised larger issues: “You must dislodge this (Narendra Modi) government to protect your right to say, eat and wear whatever you like,” Tarannum Sultana Mir, who heads the Nadia zilla parishad said.

Muslims, who have increasingly complained about being driven into a corner during the Modi regime, form more than a quarter of the district’s population.

“Mahua is the one who can take this government head on in Parliament,” Mir said, reminding the voters gathered about Moitra’s reputation as a stormy petrel who has repeatedly blown holes into sarkari narratives.

So much so that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was motivated enough to get her out of Lok Sabha on accusations of ‘impropriety’ — sharing her passwords with others for posting House questions. This had prompted a strong show of united support by Opposition parties, establishing that Moitra, who was a banker at JPMorganChase in the cut-throat world of finance in New York and London, was no pushover. Back in Bengal, Banerjee put her seal of approval by re-nominating her, putting to rest talks of a growing distance between the candidate and her party.

The saffron brass has betrayed a sense of unease. A Moitra win can be embarrassing for the BJP given how its big guns had come out to deride her. The biggest of them, Modi himself and his trusted lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, has made repeated trips to Krishnanagar to ensure that the local party unit works to defeat Moitra.

In Panighata, Banerjee was quick to pick on this soon after descending from his chopper amid a loud cheer from young Trinamool supporters waving ‘We love AB’ placards. “The PM doesn’t want Mahua Moitra to win. She has exposed the BJP for what it really is,” he told the crowd; “They have removed the representative you elected.”

He played the card that was bound to resonate near the battleground of 1757, the card that was the focal point of TMC’s charge against the BJP this time. “Outsiders have to be pushed back,” he said as the crowd roared in approval.

The imagery of external forces aiming to take over Bengal and destabilise its harmony has been put forward repeatedly in TMC’s campaign material: “‘Jonogoner Gorjon, Bangla Birodhider Bisorjon’ (The roar of the people, immersion of those who oppose Bengal)” has become one of the party’s main slogan.

“What have they done in 10 years?” Abhishek asked. He alleged that the Union government has denied Bengal its dues from the central pool. He also rattled out numbers to showcase how many people her aunt’s government has benefitted via welfare programmes like Lakshmir Bhandar (cash for all women) and Kanyashree as well by clearing dues under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that the Centre as refused to release citing impropriety.

That the cash-in-hand schemes have been good political investments was clear. They have been particularly a hit with women. “I have received Rs 500 from Lakshmir Bhandar regularly; it has really been helpful,” a local who did not wish to be named, said.

A TMC worker close by reminded her that the amount had doubled in April and she should check her bank account. Many women were using the funds to become financially independent and eventually, she claimed.

Such schemes have caught the BJP off guard. The party had earlier opposed ‘handouts’ but was later forced to change its line. Bengal Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari reportedly promised to triple the amount once BJP was voted into power.

Based on the popularity of such schemes and the ‘outsiders’ plank, TMC hopes to repeat its 2021 ‘Khela Hobe’ performance. The party comfortably emerged victorious in that Assembly elections, staving off a growing challenge from the BJP even though it managed almost a quarter of the seats to claim the Opposition space.

‘Khela Hobe’ was a popular campaign song that resonated across the state and it is back now. Soundboxes piled up on a motorised cart blared out a remixed version even as a local ‘bandparty’ played popular Hindi numbers as Moitra embarked on a roadshow a few hours after the public meeting.

Accompanied by local legislator Rukbanur Rahman, Moitra crisscrossed villages of the Chapra assembly constituency, followed by a nearly-mile-long entourage of motorbikes, through the evening to connect to as many voters as she could.

The theme of women’s empowerment resonated throughout — they came out of homes and awaited her in large numbers by village lanes and crossings. The candidate was visibly excited. “Look at the young girls, they are so free here. This is Bengal,” she said and charged the BJP for trying to tarnish the image of the state by backing false rape charges in Sandeshkhali.

Rekha Patra, the BJP candidate from Basirhat, is among those who have filed police complaints of sexual harassment at the hands of Trinamool workers in North 24 Parganas district. But a series of videos in which BJP workers, including some of the women, claim that the charges were trumped up, have left the saffron side red-faced.

“This is terrible. With every fake rape complaint you harm those facing real violence,” Moitra said while turning the guns on the BJP. “What about Governor Bose? What about Prajwal Revanna? What about Karan Bhushan Singh?” she asked, cheered on by a bevy of supporters.

Revanna is the grandson of former PM H. D. Deve Gowda, a BJP ally in Karnataka, who faces charges of sexual harassment. Singh’s father Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a BJP strongman who headed the Wrestling Federation of India, faces similar charges levelled by women wrestlers. The party has not re-nominated the father from Kaiserganj, but has given the ticket to the son.

There, however, is still no consensus whether these episodes will hurt BJP electorally. In Krishnanagar town, unlike the rural parts, there were signs that the party is putting up a strong fight. In 2019, it won neighbouring Ranaghat, which is also going to polls in the fourth phase.

Krishnanagar itself was one of the first seats from where the party had tasted success. Barrister Satyabrata Mukherjee won from here in 1999 and went on to become a minister of state under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. After a dip in performance since 2009, it regained its base there with a 40% vote share in 2019 when Kalyan Chaubey, the current president of All India Football Federation, lost to Moitra.

The party’s current choice ‘Rajmata’ Amrita Ray, however, has raised eyebrows. She is married into the erstwhile royal family of Krishnanagar but had shown no political inclination in the past.

The TMC has been quick to latch onto such a “royal” candidate in democracy, a practice that has been common in the Hindi belt, but never in Bengal. It has also not shied away from pointing out how Krishnachandra Ray, the most illustrious erstwhile royal of the family, was in cahoots with Clive against Siraj.

According to Moitra: “We are here to save the soul of India, ‘eta baanchaar lodai’ (this is a fight for survival).”

What will happen after the elections? Will the tide turn against the BJP? While Moitra sounded confident about her victory, she was not as sure about the national scene. “None of us are soothsayers.” But when asked whether TMC will join the government in case of a Trinamool win she said, “Mamata Banerjee’s party is in I.N.D.I.A. So if the alliance comes to power, we are part of it, are we not?”