The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Poll pressure test for puff putoff

Managing 200,000 personnel, 50,000 polling booths and reacting to 2,000 complaints everyday from 350 combative candidates. Not to mention 1,000 telephone calls to say “yes, what’s it'” and more than a dozen parties, all skilled at ruining peace, plus a government that must not be rubbed the wrong way.

The numbers are frightening. But not for Basudeb Banerjee, the chief electoral officer.

In the face of tension that can make a non-smoker change habit, Banerjee, 45, quit puffing on assuming office. He knew a tough test lay ahead.

“I think I have been successful in breaking the back of my habit of smoking. Now I do not have to take a mishti paan to overcome the urge to light up,” says Banerjee.

Elders in his family still do not know about his smoking and he is hesitant talking about it. “I never smoked more than three cigarettes a day but my wife was very worried as I had been under medication for blood pressure for the past five years.”

Elections 2004 has not been able to claim Banerjee’s New Year resolution for a victim.

Banerjee geared up to face the sometimes fierce urge to puff in the company of the likes of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Vilayat Khan and Ustad Amir Khan. “I am using both the (poll) pressure and music as a therapy, a counter to smoking.” Listening to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s thumri or Ustad Amir Khan’s Hansadhwani from his collection of 600 cassettes and 60 CDs is a favourite pastime in the precious little leisure he is left with. Then there are the darbaris and bhairavis….

Going through heaps of complaints in his office with two mobile phones and three fixed-line sets ringing incessantly, Banerjee says: “Back home, apart from Indian classical music, I love flipping through channels — 30 seconds for each. My wife finds it irritating.”

There is no respite from phones at home either. They start ringing from around eight in the morning — netas, Writers’ Buildings bosses or journalists mostly being on the other end. “I received a call from a political leader at 12.30 am, asking me nothing urgent…just how many cars he could take out on polling day.”

His family, comprising wife Nandita and daughters Nandini and Debanjali, is putting up a brave front amid the frenzy of the phones.

Debanjali, who studies in Class III, complains because dad is not around even on weekends. Nandini, a Class XII student who was ecstatic when handed her father’s old mobile phone, is now used to getting calls with strangers seeking “Mr Banerjee”. “Basudebbabu key ektu din na….”

The government may be sniffing foul play and the Opposition piling heat. The Election Commission has ordered the transfer of 10 police officers following allegations of bias towards the ruling party. Trinamul Congress has alleged that Banerjee, too, is biased towards the Left Front government. But he has been Mr Cool.

“If the no-smoking resolution survives the “uphill task (elections), it would mean I’ve quit it for good,” says the IAS officer.

But he adds: “There have been tougher times. As subdivisional officer of Kurseong during the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) agitation…. This one is not that bad.

“Some other officials have complained of lack of sleep. But I sleep well. I don’t have to worry about results the way the leaders have to. And I have something to look forward to... I want to start jogging or some other workout.”

He does mention “so much work in so little time” and the pressure “to do it right, because the fates of a lot of people depend on the decisions”. Banerjee says: “It is like being an umpire, where people might not like it but you have to declare Sachin out.”

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