Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process. Read more articles from the series here
“Rodey poorey jhaama hoye jaachhi. I tell you these elections are burning me to a crisp.”
A group of women in flaming orange saris are fanning themselves with whatever is handy – pallus, handkerchiefs, scarves. An elderly man is sporting a baby pink sun hat that would have done a church lady proud but with a bit of Parmeshwar Godrej panache in its black and white spotted sash. Another man is shielding himself with an Amit Shah cutout.
Amit Shah is scheduled to come to this field in the town of Chinsurah, a couple of hours outside Kolkata. The orange and green pandal is ready. The stage has BJP written slightly crookedly with flowers. There are so many brightly coloured flowers — pink, purple, yellow — all over the stage it looks like a garish wedding hall.
But it’s going to be awhile before his helicopter lands. As the sun beats down relentlessly, one woman sighs, “My family says you are going out in the sun again. We will all be dark by the time this election ends.”
But party duty comes before Fair and Lovely. Going to a rally outside metropolitan Kolkata is part mela and part revival meeting. A big political rally becomes big business in these parts.
Bablu Das has set up his cart selling nimboo pani (lemonade), ghol (the Bengali lassi) and green mango outside the rally venue next to a man selling sliced cucumbers and green mangos. He has been doing it for years but usually not in Chinsurah. He heard about the rally and decided to try his luck on a hot day. Inside the rally ground, there are some more local delights instead of the usual Pepsis and lemon teas.
A woman carries a crate on her head selling Bimal’s Lassis. The sign warns us to beware of imitators. Bimal Lassi from Bimal Ch.Samaddar is authentic – made with dahi, sugar and small elaichi. Bhola is selling aam pora, charred green mango pulped and made into a drink. “Cool in the heat,” he says as he works the crowds. He says he buys the mangoes and makes it himself at home. This was a great favourite of our childhood but now, few houses have coal stoves anymore – that smoky smell of unripe mangos charred amidst burning coals is hard to replicate on a gas stove.
It’s tempting in the heat but my big city stomach quails at the prospect of getting Chinsurah-belly. I just sip my bottle of water. Volunteers run around, tossing small plastic packets of water from an old sack that once had kilos of cumin powder. For those looking for something a little more solid, a man carries a basket of crispy deep fried spirals of besan and puffed rice while another sells kulfi, Rs 5 a pop, change for Rs 50 available.
Periodically, a man appears at the microphone and, in deafening Bengali elocution crescendo, announces that this will be a historic gathering on historic May Day in historic Chinsurah. Chinsurah is a town with a storied history. It is on the river and used to be a Dutch colony, part of what is now nicknamed Little Europe on the Hooghly. Little remains of the Dutch presence except for an old graveyard where boys play cricket amidst the graves. A few buildings from colonial times, the Mohsin college, the courthouse, a clock in the town centre still survive amidst the higgledy-piggledy growth that passes for urban planning.
BJP’s push into West Bengal means that a party once dismissed as “non-Bengali”, despite its Shyama Prasad Mookerjee roots, is holding dozens of rallies in small and mid-sized towns all over the state. When Narendra Modi came to Asansol, he even tried a few lines of Bengali. All the leaders have been taught to make the usual references to Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore as a way to win Bengali hearts and minds.
But this rally is preaching to the converted anyway. Sourav Das, a kitchen chimney salesman from Nopara, says he likes BJP because of the “surgical strikes”. He once had faith in Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee but now, he thinks they do no work. Sujan Haldar, from nearby Pandua, works in Mumbai because there are no jobs here. “If Trinamool has done anything, it’s for Muslims, not for Bengalis like us,” he says bluntly.
Even Ajit Dutta, who is working the crowd selling lozenges, is punctuating his spiel “Chutney, lebu (lemon), orange, aada (ginger), tok jhaal mishti (sour, spicy, sweet)” with a Jai Shri Ram. He insists he’s not tailoring his devotion to his audience. “We’ll buy it from you anyway, even if you don’t say Jai Shri Ram,” says a jovial woman in an orange and green sari.
“No, no," says Dutta. “It’s true. When Didi has a program, they don’t even let me come to this side where the women sit. This is better.” He has been doing this for 34 years and he hopes this meeting will be good for his business, whether it does anything or not for the prospects of the local candidate Locket Chatterjee.
Chatterjee, a Tollywood film star from the 2000s, is one of the few stars the BJP has managed to get into its camp here since Mamata Banerjee has pretty much vacuumed up the rest for TMC. "Locket di is not just a star, she is the leader of our women’s morcha who has awakened the women into a saffron storm,” thunders local leader Ishani Ghosh Roy Chowdhury. Chatterjee asks CPM and Congress supporters to vote for her this once, just so TMC can be tossed into the sea.
“When we restore democracy, you can go back to your party work,” she says reassuringly. There’s little applause for the bipartisanship. She changes tack. “We remember everything. We must take revenge for everything. The world is round. What goes around comes around,” she proclaims. The audience roars.
Mukul Roy, once Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand man and now a BJP convert, draws cheers for calling Didi a “joker”. He says the Mahagathbandhan should just have seven prime ministers, Monday for Rahul Gandhi, Tuesday for Akhilesh Yadav, Wednesday for Mayawati and so on. “On Sunday, there is no work, so we should give that to Mamata Banerjee,” says Roy to great cheers.
Emboldened by the applause, he predicts TMC will win less than 20 seats in the stage, that they will pay the price of chit fund scams, something he himself was interrogated about before his party switch. “I am repenting for my sins,” he says. “I traveled all over Bengal to make Mamata chief minister once because I wanted to scare away the (Communist) thieves but I realise I invited a dacoit instead.”
Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta is ushered up to the microphone as an important buddhijivi to speak but he has barely revved up and the all-important helicopter is spotted. Everyone starts cheering as clouds of dust fill the air and Dasgupta hastily winds up, replaced by chants of “Swagatam swagatam Amit Shahji suswagatam”.
Shah knows what buttons to press. He adopts a bit of Modi’s folksy style, bantering with the audience, raising the temperature bit by bit. He promises that in 90 days of the BJP coming to power, the chit fund scamsters will be punished. Mukul Roy, sitting on the stage, is expressionless. In a nod to his Bengali audience, Shah says, “What Bengal is this where you cannot celebrate Durga Puja? Where you are arrested for a Ram Navami procession?”
“We will bring a citizenship amendment bill and Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists should not fear,” he says. “We will only remove the ghushpetiyo (infiltrators) chun chun ke. Tell me, don’t you want them removed?”
“Yes,” the crowd roars back. The old man next to me, struggling with the Hindi, asks, “Did he say anything about Mamata saying namaaz?”
And just like that, it’s over. Shah has more rallies to go to. “I’ve seen him before. I liked it because he speaks from the heart,” says theatre actor Swarnendu Dey Sarkar as the crowds stream out. “But I was really attracted to BJP because of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”
At a tea shop outside, a man tells another, “Oh, I came to see Narendra Modi.” “But there was no Modi today,” replies his friend. “His younger brother,” laughs the man. “There are two brothers in a way.”
Bablu Das is still squeezing limes to make nimboo pani for two policewomen. "How was business?" I ask. "Not bad, but it could have been better," he says with a smile.
As I leave, I notice the name of his cart. Bhai Bhai, it’s called. Brothers, a humble nod to brotherhood amidst the toxic midsummer election rhetoric.
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Updated Date: May 02, 2019 19:29:34 IST