The Telegraph
Sunday , May 11 , 2014
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One to show, one to chew

Alimuddin Street witnessed a rare sight on Saturday morning. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy was stuck for around 10 minutes, a few metres from the party headquarters, as Sudip Bandyopadhyay, the Trinamul candidate from Calcutta North, was holding a roadshow in the area.

As walkie-talkie-wielding security officers tried desperately to clear a passage for the car, the former chief minister waited. He also caught sight of Trinamul supporters carrying party flags passing by, marching on behind a jeep from where sitting MP Bandyopadhyay was waving.

Rahul Sinha (right), the BJP’s candidate in Calcutta North, is taken for a campaign zip by Babul Supriyo, the party’s candidate in Asansol, on Friday at Sealdah. Picture by Pabitra Das

The scene that played out in front of Alimuddin Street residents has been termed rare not because the former chief minister’s car got stuck. It is rare because few other scenes capture the reality with such precision.

Bhattacharjee’s helplessness mirrors the CPM’s situation in Calcutta North, where it has fielded Rupa Bagchi, a councillor from Ward 32, in a battle of heavyweights, including veteran Congress leader Somen Mitra and BJP state president Rahul Sinha.

“We have nothing to lose in Calcutta North,” said a CPM state committee member, acknowledging that the party was pinning its hopes on the split in votes because of the four-cornered contest.

The battle for Calcutta North, which covers 60 of the 141 wards in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), is significant as the outcome will have an impact on next year’s polls for the civic body. At present, Trinamul has 38 councillors out of the 60 in the constituency.

“Trinamul is facing an element of anti-incumbency in the constituency because Calcutta North is represented by Trinamul and the civic body also belongs to them…. It is helping me as I am focusing on their failure,” said Rupa, who, according to sources, was the choice of Bhattacharjee. She is also the leader of the Opposition in CMC.

CPM candidate Rupa Bagchi delivers a campaign speech. Picture by Mayukh Sengupta

As the former chief minister wanted women candidates in both the Calcutta seats, the party fielded Nandini Mukherjee, a professor in Jadavpur University, from Calcutta South.

Fielding a woman candidate cannot be faulted as an idea at a time crime against women in the state has gone up, but polls are not only about candidates. More so when it is a four-cornered contest in a constituency characterised by a unique demographic diversity.

Out of over 14 lakh voters in Calcutta North, nearly 25 per cent are Urdu-speaking Muslims, around 30 per cent are Hindi-speaking people from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and 45 per cent speak in Bengali.

Mitra, a veteran of many poll battles, has set his eyes on the Urdu-speaking population that is expected to play a key role in determining the outcome.

Hum sab punja ke sath hain (We are all with Congress’s hand),” said a man in his early fifties, known for his abilities to read out shayari (Urdu poetry) in local programmes, after attending Bandyopadhyay’s road show.

Asked what he was doing at Bandyopadhyay’s rally if he is supporting the Congress, he said: “Hathi ke dant dekhane ke, aur khane ke (the elephant has two sets of teeth, one to show off and the other to chew with).”

The same sentiment got reflected in large parts of Ward 62 of CMC — represented by Trinamul strongman Iqbal Ahmed — where Bandyopadhyay has been spending time in the last few days as part of his attempts to consolidate Muslim votes.

Bandyopadhyay has competition from Mitra, who has campaigned extensively in Rajabazar, Narkeldanga, Belgachia, Kolutola, Zakaria Street, Phears Lane and Topsia.

Earlier this week, 70-year-old Sadik Muhammad was waiting with flowers at the entrance of Bengachia bustee for Mitra. “Bahoot sukoon mila ki koi Congress wala aya iis baar… Aap hi jitoge (Its relaxing that a Congress candidate has come this time… You will win),” Muhammad said, before Mitra embraced him.

Soon, thousands surrounded Mitra, and he looked pleased. “I am confident of winning,” said Mitra.

Mitra is banking on Muslim votes to create an impact in Calcutta North, which chose Trinamul nominees from all seven Assembly segments of the constituency in the 2011 state polls and gave Bandyopadhyay — who won in 2009 by 1.10 lakh votes — a cushion of around 2.5 lakh votes.

But signals emanating from minority-dominated areas this time suggest Mitra has managed to steer the conversation more towards him than Bandyopadhyay.

“A majority of Urdu-speaking Muslims are aligning with the Congress as they are sure that the party will not have any deal with the BJP,” said a schoolteacher and a resident of Ward 62.

Local Congress leaders are trying to convince the voters that Bandyopadhyay failed to resolve the controversy over building a club by encroaching upon land belonging to a place of worship in Taltola. The issue has become a talking point.

Bandyopadhyay — with the help of Ahmed — has tried to counter the whisper campaign by holding several meetings in the area in the past few days.

“I was in Ward 62 today, where more than 95 per cent are Urdu-speaking people… I don’t think there is any such issue,” Bandyopadhyay told The Telegraph.

Rebuttal came from Shadab Siddique, a youth Congress leader. “Now, such denials won’t work…. The Urdu-speaking Muslims have already swung towards the Congress,” said the Youth Congress leader, sitting in the party office on Ripon Street.

Sources in Trinamul admitted that they were aware that a split in minority votes was inevitable.

Congress candidate Somen Mitra (face to the camera) hugs a voter. Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

The other worry for the sitting MP is the surge in the BJP’s support base and the uncertainty about the extent to which Sinha will increase the BJP’s vote share from 4.22 per cent in 2009. BJP sources said that the party received a booster shot after Narendra Modi’s final rally at Kankurgachi on May 7.

“I am not thinking about vote shares… I am only thinking about victory,” said Sinha, minutes after wrapping up his campaign with a roadshow through the Assembly segments of Jorasanko, Shyampukur and Maniktala.

Poll managers of all the candidates acknowledged in private that the BJP vote share would witness a significant spike. But they had divergent views on which party would suffer the most in the zero sum game of gain for some and loss for others.

CPM sources said that Trinamul would be the biggest loser because of the BJP surge while acknowledging that a section of its supporters among the Hindi-speaking community would vote for Sinha because of the Modi factor.

But Bandyopadhyay, the sitting MP, said: “I don’t see any contest…. It will be interesting to see who comes second after me.”

The confidence is justified if the 2011 Assembly election results are taken into account. Trinamul bagged more than 55 per cent votes in Calcutta North while the Left’s vote share was around 31 per cent.

The situation, however, is different this time as the BJP vote share is bound to rise, which will affect the margin by at least 15 percentage points. Besides, the Congress votes — which were with Trinamul in 2011 — will go to Mitra, a popular face in North Calcutta.

“Sudipda should not forget that as a Congress-backed Independent candidate in 2004, he got around 1 lakh votes. Somenda, who is the official Congress candidate, is bound to get more votes. Then there is the desertion of the Urdu-speaking Muslims. I think the confidence is nothing but overconfidence,” said a senior Trinamul leader.

According to him, the interplay among the Trinamul, BJP and the Congress will change the poll arithmetic of Calcutta North, making it difficult for Bandyopadhyay to retain the seat.

Sitting on the fence, Rupa’s poll managers are watching this interplay — similar to the manner in which Bhattacharjee was witnessing the Trinamul procession pass by — and hoping for a 2004-like miracle in which CPM nominee Sudhangshu Sil won from Calcutta North, capitalising on a split in the anti-Left votes.

“The fact that we are in the race is enough as our vote share was around 31 per cent in 2011,” said a CPM leader, adding that victory in a closely fought four-cornered contest is possible with even less than 30 per cent vote share.

But the question is whether the CPM can retain its vote share. Equally important is the extent to which the vote share of Mitra and Sinha — the two dark horses — will zoom.

The answers to these questions will be out by the afternoon of May 16 but there is little doubt that only a miracle can ensure a fresh term for Bandyopadhyay.