Monday, 30th October 2017

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The battle for Kalighat

If only Didi were home when Deepa dropped by

By Devadeep Purohit
  • Published 29.04.16
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Mamata Banerjee, Deepa Das Munshi and Chandra Bose. Pictures by Bibhash Lodh

The candidate paused before the fortified premises and enquired whether the voter was home. She wasn't - and the vote-seeker moved on from 30B Harish Chatterjee Street, home to the most famous voter in Bengal.

When you take on Mamata Banerjee, no stone can be left unturned and every vote counts, including that of Mamata Banerjee.

No one knows this better than Deepa Das Munshi, the Congress-Left alliance candidate in Bhowanipore, who recounted the audacious mission she had undertaken two weeks ago.

"She (Mamata) is a voter from Bhowanipore.... During my campaign, I am trying to visit all the homes and reach out to all the voters. So, I went to her home but I could not meet her," Deepa said.

The chief minister was in the districts then, clocking miles on the campaign trail.

The canvassing that never was would remain one of the most enduring "what-ifs" of this campaign - an encounter between two of the feistiest figures in Bengal politics in the unlikeliest of places for the unlikeliest of purposes.

Comparisons have been made time and again between the Boudi with the oversize bindi and the Didi in white cotton sari and Hawaii slippers. Their mutual dislike is part of political lore in Bengal. Among the several theories behind the testy ties, most cite the chasm between Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the ailing husband of Deepa, and Mamata after she bagged the Congress ticket for the South Calcutta seat in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections.

"Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the state Congress chief then and he preferred Mamata over Priyada though he was nursing the constituency for years. Priyada then shifted to Raiganj and the distance between the Das Munshis and Mamata has only grown since then," said a Congress veteran.

This summer, the "distance" has somewhat narrowed - so to speak. Deepa, who was born in Bhowanipore and eventually divided her time between Delhi and Raiganj in north Bengal, has been camping in the family's rented home near Tollygunge police station, around a kilometre from Mamata's home.

For Deepa, who lost to the CPM's Mohammad Salim in Raiganj in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Assembly election is a chance to stage a comeback. Whatever the outcome of such elections, history has been kind to those who mess with so-called giants. The career graphs of Smriti Irani, who lost to Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, and Sushma Swaraj, who went down fighting Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, stand testimony to losers' luck.

Not that Deepa is playing to lose. She has been walking the extra mile, a journey that took her to 30B Harish Chatterjee Street.

Going by the response of the Trinamul rank and file in the initial days, it would not have made much of a difference even if Deepa had somehow convinced Mamata to vote for the alliance candidate. Mamata herself had said that she didn't need any extra effort to retain the seat she had won by around 54,000 votes.

But Deepa's door-to-door visits, especially in the poor neighbourhoods of the constituency, did prompt the chief minister's poll managers to sit up and take note.

"The response that I am getting is very positive and I can sense that people want a change," said Deepa, before stepping out of her home on a sultry April afternoon with her son, who studies in a Delhi school.

Realising that the chief minister must be "seen" in her backyard, Trinamul planned a massive show of strength in Bhowanipore last Sunday. Surrounded by a posse of security guards, Mamata walked for over two hours, waving at people standing along the lanes and bylanes of Bhowanipore and Chetla.

"I would have been happier if I could visit all the homes.... I could not as I was busy campaigning for all the 294 seats. But I am from this area and I know you are all with me," Mamata said wherever she stopped during the 8km walkathon around what has come to be known as "Kalighat", not the temple but the power centre of the state that shifted south from Alimuddin Street five years ago.

Urban development minister Firhad Hakim, one of the organisers of the rally, seemed relieved. "Did you see the crowd? This is the charm of Didi," he said, referring to the shower of flower petals and the trumpeting sound of conch shells as Mamata moved around.

But elections in a melting-pot constituency like Bhowanipore - Gujaratis, Marwaris, Punjabis and those tracing their roots to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh add up to over 90,000 of the total electorate of 2.4 lakh - need not be predictable affairs. Income disparities are also stark here - exemplified by the nightclubs on Park Street and the slums along Collin Street.

The moment the diversity enters the picture, so does Chandra Kumar Bose, Netaji's great-nephew and the BJP candidate. Compared to Mamata and Deepa, Bose may be a minnow politically but the demography and the poll arithmetic of Bhowanipore do lend him some heft.

The 2014 Lok Sabha voting figures show the BJP was ahead in the constituency by around 200 votes and Trinamul was trailing in four of the eight wards of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation that make up the Bhowanipore Assembly segment.

Several Trinamul functionaries conceded that the focus of the party's campaign was to ensure that the "non-Bengali voters" do not swing towards the BJP this time - a mission that seems easier said than done for several reasons.

The mother of all problems is the perception about the Trinamul government's performance on industry - the mainstay of the Marwari and Gujarati communities - and allegations of syndicate-driven extortion.

On April 26, industrialist Harsh Goenka had tweeted: "In private conversations, all businessmen in Bengal tell me that they will vote for BJP or CPM. TMC has not been conducive for industry."

In subsequent tweets, Goenka clarified that the first tweet was other businessmen's views and Trinamul was certain to win the elections.

Earlier this week, Mamata met some of the prominent members of these communities in a last-ditch effort to woo them ahead of Saturday's polls. Some industrialists close to her followed it up by sending messages to their brethren.

But sources in the Gujarati and Marwari communities said they were not sure whether the pitch - industries and finance minister Amit Mitra also hit the campaign trail for Mamata - had worked. The absence of Trinamul MP Dinesh Trivedi, who has wide contacts among the business communities, is also making it difficult for Trinamul to read the mood.

Although Bose's campaign was muted initially, the BJP central leadership put its shoulder to wheel eventually. "We have tried our best to dislodge Mamata.... Can the same be said about the Congress and the Left? Did their top leaders come to campaign for the alliance candidate?" asked Sidharth Nath Singh, the BJP's central co-minder for Bengal.

CPM leader Poltu Roy Chowdhury, convener of the Left-Congress co-ordination team working for Deepa, contested the BJP's charge. "There is no big enough ground in the constituency to hold a rally by Soniaji or Rahulji. When our candidate wanted a roadshow with Rahulji, police didn't give permission. We are putting up a fight by co-ordinating among ourselves," he said.

What had started as a duel between the Didi and the Boudi need not be so any longer. On polling day, if the contest ends up being triangular, any split in the anti-Trinamul votes might help Mamata retain the edge.