Kolkata: It’s posh. It’s connected to everyone who matters, in West Bengal and across the country. It’s not a district, but within Kolkata, it has a distinctive culture and identity. This is South Kolkata; home to chief ministers since 1972, including Mamata Banerjee. Its seven constituencies include Bhowanipore, the chief minister’s home, Ballygunge, Rashbehari, Kasba, Behala East and Behala West and Kolkata Port.
It is also home to an embarrassingly large number of the people captured on the Narada sting video tapes, some of whom, according to Mathew Samuel who was in the city in response to summons from the Kolkata High Court, were not shy about asking for more.
As befits the locals of this posh area, there is a low voiced buzz about corruption in high places; residents, across the seven constituencies that are identified as South Kolkata, have turned fastidious about being represented by people caught with the cash in hand. After all, this is a “bhadralok locality,” as one member of a family that has lived in Rashbehari constituency for generations declaimed. And, the squeamishness is not limited to the top end of residents, who constitute the majority; it includes the bottom end too, who live check by jowl to the affluent, in the overhauled slums that are so characteristic of Kolkata’s tolerant spirit.
Of the seven constituencies of South Kolkata, Bhowanipore is home to Mamata Banerjee’s most stoutly defended caught on video, jailed by CBI in connection with Saradha Chit Fund scandal lieutenant, Madan Mitra; Ballygunge is home to minister Subrata Mukherjee; Kolkata Port is home for minister Firhad Hakim; Behala East is home for Kolkata’s mayor Sovan Chatterjee, all of whom were caught on camera in the Naradasting. While the camera and its footage is now in judicial custody and its authenticity is being verified, the association of corruption and constituencies is difficult to ignore in South Kolkata, an area where Jauguars, Mercs, BMWs, Skodas and venerable vintage cars can crawl past the auto rickshaws and buses laden with proletarian commuters.
Because of its proximity to power, the constituencies of South Kolkata have been a bellwether for political changes in the offing. And, this time, the anticipated cakewalk for the Trinamool Congress has turned into a real fight.
From Bhowanipore, where Deepa Das Munshi has brewed up a storm, to Ballygunge and Behala, the tension is crackling in the air. So much so that even the poshest streets are not immune to the politics of intimidation. On one such street, tiny flags tucked into gates by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been pulled out and thrown into the street; the Trinamool Congress grass and flowers buntings have replaced the opposition’s pennants. Odd looking people are trawling the streets in the evening and checking out the loyalty of voters, especially those who run their businesses at street level.
After one such episode, a working class voter snarled, “I saw the flags being trashed. It’s my right to vote for whoever I choose.” The middle class and the upper middle class are saying much the same thing. Educated, well-off and well connected, the middle class is unhappy and has been so for some time at the way the Trinamool Congress’s promises of Paribartan have played out. There is anger that investment has not happened and jobs have not been created. There is irritation that the “syndicate” has grown bolder and brutal. There is resentment that West Bengal’s image has taken a beating; its famously cultured and civilized people have been overshadowed by men and women tainted by publicly exposed corruption and that lumpen behaviour is protected and forgiven by the chief minister.
South Kolkata is Mamata Banerjee’s home turf. Despite its snootiness, voters of these seven constituencies overwhelmingly supported the Trinamool Congress. It is a place that is both conservative and progressive, therefore at the level of ideas, it thinks Left and at the level of practice, it prefers the Congress or more recently the Trinamool Congress. Here, as nowhere else in West Bengal, the “arithmetic is working against her,” Om Prakash Mishra of the Congress said. As the initiator of the improbable Congress-Left alliance, Mishra has a different interpretation of what is going on in the state and specifically South Kolkata. “Arithmetic and the chemistry of the ‘joat’ have put Mamata Banerjee on the defensive on her home stretch, he explained.
The momentum is moving away from the Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee’s reiteration that the election is in her control, even though the Election Commission has changed her “best men” for their failures and biases, the violence, the intimidation and the four dead is a sign of how the tide is running against her, now, Mishra maintained. The chemistry is more difficult to quantify but the arithmetic is simple; Mishra calculates that the Congress and the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front have 35 per cent of the votes in South Kolkata’s seven constituencies. The BJP which made a stunning inroad, notching up 17-18 per cent votes in 2014 in these seats does not have the same appeal now.
Anti-incumbency is working against Mamata Banerjee as disgruntled and disappointed voters see in the new arithmetic a fresh start. The alliance is neither Congress nor CPIM; it’s a new beginning and there is a chemistry that has happened as the once sworn enemies have found a new lease of life in their partnership. The joint campaigns, the long processions of red flags and the tricolour with the hand, have worked to convince voters that the alliance is indeed workable. The possibility is the hope, as Mishra explained and people are voting for just that.
Trinamool Congress leaders, indeed a candidate in one of South Kolkata’s constituency, indirectly confirmed the possibility. “The party is a platform. It is not a party. It is an idea and a mood. There is no substance; it has no organisation; it has no stable leadership and it has no policy. For as long as the public support us, we will win. The day the voter decides against the Trinamool Congress, it will collapse,” he explained. The Trinamool Congress’s appeal is that it is different; it is unlike any other political party and the difference is in the persona and style of its leader Mamata Banerjee. If South Kolkata’s voters are beginning to feel disenchanted, then time is beginning to run out. For Mamata Banerjee the challenge is to magic up another mood.