|Trinamul’s Howrah candidate Prasun Banerjee and (below) the BJP’s George Baker
Scene 1: The crumbling National Jute Manufacturers Corporation (NJMC) Ltd plant in Sankrail’s Bankipur. One of the largest mills in Asia, it had provided employment to nearly 13,000 workers before closing down in 2003
Scene 2: The factory of Guest Keen Williams on Andul Road is locked and out of bounds. The engineering firm shut shop in 2000 and turned 4,500 employees jobless overnight
Scene 3: The Bauria Cotton Mill with a 4,000-plus workforce shut down since 1995
Howrah, on the western bank of the Hooghly, is Bengal’s new seat of power because of Nabanna.
But somehow, the Trinamul government’s attempt to tom-tom Nabanna in the township is getting lost in the din of the Opposition chorus over closed industrial units in a place that was once called the “Sheffield of the East”.
“Re-opening the NJMC is just one aspect. We are talking about the re-opening of closed units and setting up new ones to generate employment,” said Srideep Bhattacharya, the CPM candidate who lost to Trinamul’s Prasun Banerjee in the June 2013 bypoll by a margin of 26,965 votes.
The NJMC, Guest Keen Williams, Bauria Cotton Mill, Hanuman Mill, Gloster Cable, Anantapur Textile, Indian Machinery are just some of the names in the list of industrial units that have closed down in Howrah, rendering thousands jobless.
The Left nominee’s stress on re-opening closed industrial units is ironical, considering that the CPM’s militant trade unionism during its over-three-decade rule is largely blamed for the industrial sickness and flight of capital from the state.
Incumbent Prasun Banerjee, too, is backing industrial resurgence in Howrah.
“I have already discussed the issue of the closed jute mills with Mamatadi…. We will try to work out a solution like a change of ownership,” said Prasun Banerjee in between rallies in Howrah’s Shibpur.
Industry is at the top of the priority list here as the nearly 5,000 large, medium and small industrial units provide employment to nearly 2.5 lakh people.
The fact remains that the change of guard in Bengal has achieved little in terms of industrialisation and investments as big-ticket investors have stayed away from the state.
This is where the BJP is trying to steal a march over the Left and Trinamul by highlighting the failures of the successive regimes in Bengal to get industry and generate employment.
BJP candidate George Baker, an actor, said: “People of Howrah realise the importance of industry and that is why I am talking about Narendra Modi’s Gujarat model. I want to emulate the model in Howrah.”
In the June bypoll, the BJP stayed away from the poll battle, leaving the field to the ruling Trinamul, the CPM and the Congress. The presence of the BJP in the seat where nearly 43 per cent of the voters are Hindi-speaking and a majority of them from the trading community has thrown up the field wide open in Howrah.
Trinamul’s uninterrupted upward swing in elections since the 2011 Assembly polls was evident in last November’s civic polls when the ruling party decimated the Left. Trinamul made a sweep but BJP got two councillors.
Mamata Banerjee, too, is worried that Hindi-speaking voters may swing in favour of the BJP. She got industries and finance minister Amit Mitra into the act to woo the business community on April 26 at an interactive session. Former MLA Dinesh Bajaj acted as the bridge between the party and the traders.
Apart from the BJP, the nearly 1 lakh votes that the Congress has in Howrah is also a cause for concern for Trinamul. Mamata has spent considerable time in Howrah, addressing rallies on three consecutive days.
“She remains the best bet we have to counter all the charges and counter-campaigns launched by the Opposition…. The bypoll was an acid test. Having made that successful, she doesn’t want to leave anything to chance,” said a Trinamul leader.
The questions causing discomfort to Mamata and the Trinamul leadership such as the Saradha scam, safety of women, factionalism and corruption at different levels of the party leadership have been doing the rounds in Howrah, too.
“We need jobs for our children…. We have not seen any new industry come up in the area. This is not the paribartan we wanted,” said Janardhan Yadav, a resident of Liluah.
The mixed nature of the electorate in Howrah makes the seat one of the most keenly watched ones as the end result could throw up surprises.
Soccer star Prasun Banerjee is expecting a piercing pass from his party supremo to help him score the winning goal this time. And he wants to increase his margin.
“In my playing days, scoring one goal was not enough…. The Mamata wave is still there. I will get my pass,” he said, before heading off to another campaign.
Old-timers in Howrah recalled how Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi had campaigned with a key in his hand, claiming he had brought it to open the closed industrial units.
“Elections have come and gone…. Everybody says they will fight for us. We need another change,” said Miraj Ali, a Sankrail voter.
Howrah votes today