Bengal: Kolkata will be epicentre of an epic fight

Bengal: Kolkata will be epicentre of an epic fight

Joyanti Sen, an 82-year-old women’s rights activist in south Kolkata, remembers what she calls the last five “dreadful years” of the Left Front rule in West Bengal. “If the first five years were their best, the last five were a total disaster,” she says about the Left reign that lasted from 1977 to 2011, adding that the rule of law gave way to “trader raj” at the end. “Even if you had to get some minor repair done at home, you had to pay a cut (bribe) to party traders.” It is a charge the opposition now levels at the ruling Trinamool Congress.

Sen says that Kolkata, under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, may have had a rough time during her first stint in 2011 as there was a sense that law and order was not so much under her control, “but she was mature in her second term and the city has been largely peaceful despite high incidence of violence in other parts of Bengal. The city is safe. We have quality schools and colleges. Basic amenities reach our doorstep.

What else can one ask from a chief minister?” asks Sen. The ruling parties have changed; and so have the political graffiti. Earlier, bold and bright political slogans were splashed on the walls while larger-than-life pictures of political leaders were rare. For instance, Emergency saw these lines screaming from the walls: “Dilli theke elo gai, sange bachhur CPI (From Delhi comes a cow, carrying calf CPI).” Congress’s election symbol was a cow and a calf, and CPI was its ally. A lot has changed in Kolkata after 2011 when the Trinamool stormed to power with Mamata at the helm. The graffiti gave way to huge posters and cut-outs of leaders, and political messages made way for captions in small fonts alongside photographs. Now, every corner of Kolkata is festooned with huge pictures of Mamata with the caption: Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai (Bengal wants its own daughter), underlining its allegation that BJP is an outsider. City of Joy, where the old meets the new, where centuries intersect and coexist, is in the middle of a frenzied Mamata-versus-Modi faceoff.

Mission Bengal

The city has been TMC’s citadel since 2011. All 11 Vidhan Sabha seats in North and South Kolkata have been won by the TMC. And that is no surprise — for TMC’s support base emerged from urban centres and then spread to the hinterland. As the ruling party that patronises the Kolkata intelligentsia, it has immense visibility and cultural cache in the capital city. In this regard, BJP has a lot of catching up to do. BJP’s voters in the state are predominantly the lower middle class in urban areas and rural population.

This time, it is also targeting the peripheral urban areas of south Bengal. All the parties are concentrating on campaigning outside Kolkata as the 11 seats in the city will not determine the destiny of Bengal where the assembly has 294 seats. From the days of the Left rule, the predominant political ideology of the state has been for the most part anti-Centre. The BJP is highlighting how the TMC has denied the people central government schemes that could have made a difference in their lives.

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“Come what may, this time I will vote for change,” says Rashbehari, who runs a transport business in Salt Lake. Madan Mitra, TMC’s candidate from Kamarhati, says the only thing that has changed in electioneering with the entry of BJP is the rift it is trying to engineer between Bengali and non-Bengali residents. “But they will not succeed,” says Mitra. “Be it Marwaris, Bengalis or Gujaratis, they will all vote for us.”

Agrees TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien “It doesn’t matter if you are a D’Souza or a Roychowdhury or a Haq. We care for all and all vote for us.” There are pockets in Kolkata that have a sizable population of non-Bengali speakers — area adjoining Howrah station, Burrabazar. “Merely addressing the Bengali speakers will do a party no good. If you continuously chant the Bengali mantra, you will be misunderstood there,” says Samir K Das, professor of political science, University of Kolkata. Similarly, chanting Chandi path might create confusion among old loyal groups, he adds. Jamai-shashti observed on the sixth day of the month of Jyestha — the second month of Bengali calendar — is when the son-in-law is indulged by the family of the bride.


BJP supporters during an election rally in Kolkata

BJP supporters during an election rally in Kolkata

Formal invites are sent out and sumptuous meals are prepared for him. Now this festival that adores the man and welcomes the outsider has become a campaign strategy. In Kolkata, a kaleidoscope of several cultures, many Trinamool MLAs are organising jamai-shashti for the less-privileged “sons-in-law” of their constituencies. The ritual remains the same: invites are sent out and meals are prepared at a community level. Huge pandals are set up where people break bread with their leaders. A bite of ilish, they hope, as always, can work wonders. “It’s our special way to connect with our people,” says Madan Mitra. While big rallies and campaigns are always a talking point, such quiet outreach programmes can build crucial connection with the electorate. “These efforts earn loyalty and following. Kolkata sees a lot of such events by local leaders,” says Das.


A wall with Trinamool graffiti in Kashipur

A wall with Trinamool graffiti in Kashipur

Will the BJP, which is a relatively new entrant in Bengal’s political arena, have a disadvantage? “In terms of these local rituals and language, clearly, TMC has an advantage but no single election strategy can pay off in Kolkata which is truly cosmopolitan and where multiple cultures coexist cheek by jowl,” says Das. Some political commentators feel that a chunk of the middle-class now worries about sharing resources and shrinking job opportunities with “outsiders”. “While the TMC has done a lot of good for the poor by offering free schemes, it has also created refugees. We will vote for a party that talks about our rights,” says Nisha Agarwal, a resident of New Town.

There are citizens who also feel that none of the parties has done enough for Kolkata per se. Even the ruling party’s Didi ke Bolo outreach did not cut much ice with the electorate. While the BJP struggles to emerge as a party with a strong Bengali identity, the TMC tries to reinforce the image that Didi is the daughter they ought to choose. Will the people vote for BJP’s Sonar Bangla or TMC’s daughter of the soil? The game is on.

TMC Set for a Third-term Win: Derek O’Brien

TMC LeaderAgencies

Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien says the party will return to power in Bengal. Edited excerpts:

As per the Election Commission, there is no proof of a planned attack on Mamata. How did it come to that?

Only I know the facts. From the DGP to the constable, everyone comes under the EC. We asked the EC the same question and the same morning the DGP and then the ADG were transferred. The buck has to stop with the EC. All we are hoping for is a neutral, free and fair election.

How many seats do you think the TMC will win?

That you have to ask a psephologist. All I can tell you is that Mamata Banerjee will be sworn in as the chief minister for a third time in May 2021. Also, many of the last-minute BJP joinees will lose their seats and the Union minister (Babul Supriyo) who has now been relegated to fight an MLA election will also lose.

Why are so many TMC leaders joining the BJP?

Let’s talk about Suvendu Adhikari. He was a minister for nine years and after getting everything he is now against Mamata. These are traitors, so it’s good riddance. The joke is: If you slow down your car near the BJP office at Hastings, they will take you in and make you join the BJP.

What about BJP’s charges that they have lost many karyakartas since 2019?

Who is making these charges? Modi and Shah? Should I start talking about 2002? They have blood on their hands. They are talking about karyakartas when they are the ones heading the most destructive, divisive political party. Someone dies of Covid, they will say he is a BJP worker. Political violence has come down in Bengal. Why don’t they look in the mirror, why don’t they tell Ajay Bisht to run Uttar Pradesh?

What do you have to say to BJP’s charges of appeasement of a particular community?

All this is BJP propaganda. Talk to us about roads, jobs, IT sector, employment, MSMEs, skill development, ease of doing business and employment rate. What did Modi say? Give me 50 days and I will fix the country. But they want to distract as they can’t talk about good governance.

Don’t you think a triangular fight will hurt the TMC?
This time we will get more than 45% votes in Bengal. Modi-Shah are coming here and making big promises but they don’t understand Bengal. They are a tourist gang. All these Union ministers are coming here during poll season asking for votes. Don’t they have work in Delhi?

How do you see the Nandigram fight between Mamata versus Suvendu Adhikari?

It’s very easy to make claims so let’s wait till May 2 then we will have doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani.

How do you see the Nandigram fight between Mamata versus Suvendu Adhikari?

It’s very easy to make claims so let’s wait till May 2 then we will have doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani.


We Will Win 200-220 Seats: Kailash Vijayvargiya

BJP LeaderAgencies

BJP national general secretary and West Bengal in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya speaks about the party’s strategy. Edited excerpts:

Do you think a hurt tigress is more ferocious, as Mamata claims?

There is no doubt that this sherni is more khoonkhar (dreadful) now. I am shocked that a party whose men have killed more than 300 of our karyakarta in the last six years, when I was given the responsibility of West Bengal, is saying this. Since the Lok Sabha elections, we have lost 130 workers. Yeh toh aisi sherni hai jo maarne ke baad paani bhi nahi maangi hai (she is a tigress who doesn’t even ask for water after killing her prey).

TMC says BJP’s hands are stained with the blood of 2002.

The verdict is out on the 2002 episode. Justice has been delivered; all have got a clean chit, so why bring it now? I thought some of the TMC men were wise but they have all lost it. I thought Derek O’Brien had some grey matter but now I know that he is a fool to say all this.

There is a feeling that Mamata in a wheelchair could get the party more votes.

There is a difference between vishvasneeyata and naatkiyata (credibility and theatrics). Maybe she will get some sympathy but the party should first explain the sequence of events: how can the CM be ‘attacked’? At first the chief secretary and the collector said one thing only to backtrack later. They should not hide the truth. Everyone wants to know the truth behind the ‘attack’. Now the party and their ways stand exposed.

Do you feel the BJP is still ahead in Bengal?

How many seats do you think the party is winning? We will easily win 200-220 seats.

What makes you feel so confident?

Because people are fed up with Didi and TMC goondas’ dadagiri, corruption, nepotism, cut-money culture, appeasement and misrule.

TMC leaders are saying Amit Shah did not go to a rally in Jhargram as it didn’t have a good crowd. Your comment.

After the Lok Sabha polls, TMC became comatose and Derek O’Brien’s Twitter account was inactive for 15 days; this time he will have to remain silent for more than a month. They will lose their face and the st ate for sure.

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