Bhawanipore resident Anirban Sarkar’s (42) mornings were routine: he would go for a walk for an hour, and then have “Punjabi chai” at Balwant Singh’s Eating House. But ever since West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her challenger, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Priyanka Tibrewal, started campaigning here for the forthcoming bypoll on September 30, the routine has become special for this sales executive.
“The popular eatery on Harish Mukherjee Road seems to be on every politician’s radar because they get to interact with voters from all backgrounds,” said Sarkar.
Tibrewal has been there several times. So have Trinamool Congress leaders. “On September 22, Union petroleum minister Hardeep Singh Puri came to offer prayers at Gurdwara Sant Kutiya located next door. Bhawanipore is often referred to as ‘mini-India’ because of its population. The constituency is home to Kolkata’s oldest Sikh families as well as Gujaratis, Marwaris, Odiyas and Biharis,” said Sarkar.
The sales executive said he felt bad when Banerjee did not contest from here, her old constituency, during the assembly election in March-April. “After she was defeated by the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram, I somehow knew that she would contest again from Bhawanipore. Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, who won the seat, resigned from the assembly to make way for her. Somehow, the campaigning is far more intense this time than what we saw when Chattopadhyay was fielded,” Sarkar added.
Kuldip Singh (55), whose family has been running a car tyre business for 40 years near the century-old Jadu Babu Bazar on Asutosh Mukherjee Road, concurred. “Not a single day has passed when politicians from both sides have not knocked on the doors of voters. The agitation in Punjab and Haryana against the Centre’s farm laws is being highlighted by the TMC. Many national issues are figuring in the local election,” Singh said.
Spread over a part of the constituency, Odiyapara — a neighbourhood that came up decades ago when plumbers and car mechanics from Odisha settled here — has seen BJP leaders making multiple trips since last week.
“Sambit Patra (BJP national spokesperson) distributed leaflets and said as an Odiya he closely relates to Bengali culture,” said Ramesh Behera (51), who works at a garage on Dr Rajendra Road.
Campaigning has been vitriolic, with the BJP attacking Banerjee for being pro-minorities and corrupt, and the chief minister seeking every single vote to show the BJP its place in West Bengal. Although bypolls will be held in two other constituencies of the state — Samserganj and Jangipur — it is Bhawanipore where all the action is happening.
The state Congress has decided not to field anyone in Bhawanipore following instructions from the national leadership as an acknowledgement of Banerjee’s efforts to unite national and regional forces against the BJP. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has fielded Srijib Biswas, a low-profile candidate.
But both BJP and TMC said the possibility of a low turnout, a regular feature of bypolls, is not ruled out. Of the 2,06,389 voters in the constituency, only 1,26,592 visited polling stations on April 26 in the state assembly elections and 784 exercised their franchise through postal ballots. TMC’s Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay won by a margin of 28,719 votes, securing 57.71% of all votes polled, while the BJP candidate, actor Rudranil Ghosh, a debutant in politics, came second with 35.16%. With 5,211 votes, Congress came third, while there were 1,570 NOTA (none of the above) votes.
According to TMC and BJP leaders, more than 20% of the people in Bhawanipore are Muslims, while Sikhs and non-Bengali speaking Hindus comprise around 34% of the local population. Of the eight civic body wards in this assembly segment, non-Bengali speaking Hindus comprise almost half the population in three wards.
Calcutta high court lawyer Tibrewal, who has been tirelessly walking from door to door, said, “It is wrong to assume that BJP is concentrating only on areas that have more non-Bengali voters. We are reaching out to all. I was born and brought up in Kolkata. I am a Bengali like anybody else.”
Though Tibrewal speaks Bengali, albeit with an accent, the leader of the opposition in the assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, and the BJP’s new state president Sukanta Majumdar are shuttling in and around Bhawanipore every day.
To draw public sympathy, the BJP is highlighting the post-poll violence, which, it claims, has taken the lives of 52 of its workers till September 22. On Saturday, the BJP held a demonstration with 40 of these families near Hazra Park where Mamata Banerjee was assaulted by a Left worker in 1990 when she was a Youth Congress leader. The incident catapulted her to national politics.
Adhikari has held back-to-back meetings at civic ward No 79 in the Chetla area, where Hindu Bengalis comprise the largest chunk of the population. “A cat doesn’t climb a tree unless compelled,” he said at a meeting, taking a dig at the TMC’s hectic campaigning.
Though Banerjee won the Bhawanipore assembly seat in 2011 and 2016, TMC trailed the BJP in two civic wards in these polls. Although the margins were wafer-thin, the ruling party has kept history in mind.
“We have to ensure that Mamata Banerjee wins by a margin of at least one lakh votes,” the chief minister’s nephew and TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee said at a public meeting on Sunday evening when the two campaigned together for the first time.
Banerjee has entrusted eight senior party leaders and ministers to monitor the campaign in the eight municipality wards. Among them, transport and housing minister Firhad Hakim, a trusted lieutenant of the chief minister, is the most visible.
“All voters want Mamata Banerjee because she is the only formidable force against the BJP,” said Hakim.
Union minister Smriti Irani, who speaks Bengali and even played the lead in a Bengali movie during her acting career, campaigned on Saturday in civic ward No 72 where Bengalis are in majority.
With security and Covid-19 protocols stopping her from campaigning on the streets, the chief minister is addressing at least one public meeting in the afternoon or evening after leaving Nabanna, the state secretariat.
With Durga Puja, Bengal’s biggest festival, less than a month away and pandals being set up on the streets, Banerjee is reminding voters that before the assembly polls the BJP’s national leadership accused her of not allowing Hindus to organise Durga Puja.
“You (BJP) come and see how people from all religions observe their festivals in Bengal. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains live as equals here,” Banerjee said on Friday at a meeting in civic ward No 71 where Bengali Hindus outnumber others.
On Saturday, while addressing a meeting in ward No 63 where Muslims live in large numbers, she said, “Our state ranks first when it comes to awarding scholarships to minority students. People used to think they only study in madrassas. More than one lakh Muslim students have opted for higher education. They are becoming doctors, engineers, and Indian Administrative Service officers. This makes the country proud.”
Doonited Affiliated: Syndicate News Hunt