The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Malls and Marxists versus Mamata

Calcutta, April 26: Haughty new high-rises and flyovers, widened roads, newly laid parks, glittering multiplexes and malls. Even the Left’s critics cannot deny Calcutta is on a roll.

One may have to look hard to see Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s development caravan rolling in the districts. But not in Calcutta. Seeing truly is believing here.

It is only to be expected that this image makeover of a city that many had given up as irredeemably lost will find an echo in the polls.

What this remaking of Calcutta has done to the city’s politics is as interesting as the new icons. For many years, the conventional wisdom had been that Jyoti Basu lived in Calcutta, but ruled from the villages.

It meant that the communists might have conquered Bengal’s countryside, but the capital city held them at bay. The Left may have ruled the municipal corporation for a period. When the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance wrested it in 2000, the city was said to have rediscovered its anti-Left tradition.

That impression was strengthened when the Trinamul-Congress alliance won 15 of the 24 seats in the city in 2001.

But, as the new apartment blocks were changing the cityscape, its politics too began to change. The signals of its slow transformation from a laid-back town teeming with the unemployed to a metropolis in self-renewal seems to have coincided with an emerging political culture. This culture hated life-stopping bandhs and processions and the old politics they symbolised.

The Left should have borne the brunt of this protest fatigue. They were the original sinners. Instead, Mamata Banerjee was the one who suffered more because of this new anti-politics mood of the city. Bhattacharjee became the face of Calcutta’s long-awaited development. Mamata came to be perceived as anti-development.

The years 2000 and 2001 were the high noon of her popularity in Calcutta. It has been very different since. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, it was a story of reversals ' the Left ahead in 15 of the 24 Assembly segments and the Trinamul-BJP alliance leading in nine.

The parliamentary polls of 2004 also saw the beginning of divisions within Mamata’s camp. Sudip Bandyopadhyay left her and eventually helped the Left win the Calcutta North-West seat. A worse setback followed the year after when Subrata Mukherjee, the mayor of Calcutta, left Trinamul and queered her pitch in the 2005 polls to the Calcutta corporation. The Left secured 75 of the 141 wards, as against 65 in 2000, and Trinamul was down to 42 from 57.

If anything, Mamata’s problems have only worsened since. Failing to strike an alliance with the Congress in these elections could hurt her also in Calcutta, still her strongest base in the state. The Congress may not be a big force by itself, but last year’s civic polls showed Mukherjee may not be a winner himself, but he is enough of a spoiler.

The downslide in Mamata’s fortunes on her home turf is borne out by the vote-swing away from her party almost uniformly across the city. It is as much true in generally low-income Beliaghata and Tollygunge as in mixed Ballygunge and upmarket Alipore.

If the trends of the 2004 parliamentary and the 2005 civic polls are to be repeated this time, this April could prove the cruellest month for Mamata.

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