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Bengal Votes: In Krishnanagar, voters want jobs, not Ram Mandir; campaigns aren't about real issues, say youths, it's about Modi vs Mamata

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

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"Sit straight. Put your mobiles away for a bit. Don’t yawn. Ask questions. Only first-time voters, please. I am here to interact with first-time voters."

Mahua Moitra, a former JP-Morgan-investment-banker-turned-Trinamool-MLA, who is currently the party candidate for Krishnanagar, is all brisk business on the last day of campaigning. It’s a meet-and-greet with young voters, mostly Trinamool loyalists, overwhelmingly young men, brought in for a pre-election pep talk. They are clicking selfies, posing with shades inside the auditorium. Moitra has a no-bullshit, tough-love school teacher persona, sometimes scolding, sometimes coaxing, armed with an array of facts and figures about everything from the state of roads in remote villages to college politics and plastic pollution.

It’s an “interaction” but schooled in a politics of sycophancy, many in the audience just launch into fulsome eulogies about the candidate, the party and of course their ultimate leader, Mamata Banerjee. Moitra interrupts them.

"Yes, yes. But what’s your question. This is an interaction. Ask me a question."

The banner behind her proclaims New Generation: New Thinking and targets first-time voters with some high-minded pronouncements:

1st Vote: Development
1st Vote: Demoeracy (sic)
1st Vote: Secularism
1st Vote : Empowering youth.

Right before the interaction, someone notices the typo and strategically puts a piece of tape to turn 'demoeracy' into Democracy. But that change is cosmetic. The bigger problem is young voters increasingly feel their real issues are not reflected in a campaign that in Bengal has largely become about Narendra Modi versus Mamata Banerjee.

Arindam Ghosh has been looking for a job for six years. He’s tried thrice to sit for civil service examinations. For a while he was so depressed he was at the point of giving up. Raised by a single mother, he'd been feeling the pressure acutely especially after his mother retired from her job.

This year he’s finally landed a job through the West Bengal Civil Services. The verification will come once the elections are over. He’s keeping his fingers crossed. “I still feel like I missed my peak spot. I think that was somewhere between 2012 and 2014."

 Bengal Votes: In Krishnanagar, voters want jobs, not Ram Mandir; campaigns arent about real issues, say youths, its about Modi vs Mamata

The bigger problem is young voters increasingly feel their real issues are not reflected in a campaign that in Bengal has largely become about Narendra Modi versus Mamata Banerjee. Image by Sandip Roy

Ghosh is 28 now.

He feels all young people in Krishnanagar seem to aspire to is a bike. Motorbikes vroom through town, dodging toto-cars and long-distance buses. The poet and lyricist Dwijendra Lal Roy was born here and streets and auditoriums are named after him. Roy’s most famous song Dhana Dhanye Pushpey Bhora is all about the motherland, the greatest of all lands. "Where else will you get such love from mothers and brothers? Mother, I clasp your feet to my breast. I was born in this land. I hope I die here."

But Roy’s birthplace has little to offer its people, especially the young. Ghosh and I meet on the grassy field behind the government college. It's hot but we find some shade. Ghosh apologetically says there aren’t Café Coffee Days and Baristas to meet in. Later that day, I meet Ritwick Pramanick, a 2017 graduate. We walk up and down a street named after the same Dwijendra Lal Roy, lined with old-style barbershops, mobile repair stores and general provisions stores like Ma Sarada Stationery and Confectionery. Totos trundle up and down blaring election propaganda. There's a brightly lit Trends shop but there’s no teashop to be found.

Eventually, Pramanick gives up apologetically and we settle down on an empty dusty patch of grass behind some houses. He is working as a tax preparer but dreams of being a poet and short filmmaker. His friend Avijit Das has done a course in GST hoping it will open up opportunities but now he's back in town helping run the family’s fertilizer business. They called themselves the Backbenchers in college. A couple of the Backbenchers are studying for competitive examinations. Some are working in stores. Some get by doing tuitions.

Their friend, Ratul Bose, who is a little older than them, spent some time working for Tata Consultancy Services but got tired of the peripatetic grind and now works as a medical representative in Krishnanagar. He complains there are too many medical reps. “People think if they can ride a bike they can become a medical rep," he says.

First time voters mostly Trinamool loyalists, overwhelmingly young men, were brought in for a pre-election pep talk. Image by Sandip Roy

First-time voters, who are mostly Trinamool Congress loyalists and overwhelmingly young men, were brought in for a pre-election pep talk. Image by Sandip Roy

All of them agree that the town has improved. The district hospital is far better now. You can get a full body CT scan done there. The Krishnanagar maidan has got lights which has scared drug peddlers and anti-socials away. The annual Jagatdhatri puja is bigger and better than ever. And Adhar, the sweet shop famous for its sarpuria sweets is still maintaining its quality. “Don’t go to the fancy Adhar down the street,” Pramanick tells me. “The shabby one is the original one.”

A party campaigning on its development record should have little to worry about. But there is nervousness in the air. Mamata Banerjee has been here several times to pep up the campaign. Amit Shah flew in to address a rally. The BJP had done well in local panchayat elections and claims they would have done better if the TMC machinery had not put the screws on them. “Of course TMC is worried. This is the same way they came to power. Take the panchayat first and then the Assembly. The BJP is following the TMC’s playbook,” says Aniket Mitra, a part-time teacher in a local college.

Bose says that the neighbourhoods around Krishnanagar are changing. "It’s not about Muslims," he says quickly. "It’s about people here illegally from Bangladesh." Krishnanagar is in Nadia, a border district. “When violence happens like in Kaliachak (where a Muslim protest got violent in 2016) our channels don’t talk about it,” complains Das. "A Muslim boy in my batch for through the WBCS when we didn’t. He had a lower score. People got resentful about that," says Ghosh.

Amit Shah hoped to tap into this undercurrent of resentment when he came to Krishnanagar and floated the idea of a National Citizenship Register all over India. Not everyone buys Shah’s rhetoric but Ghosh says, "What used to be talked about behind closed doors has now come out onto the streets." He adds, "I see friends and neighbours talking more and more about sanatan dharma these days.” Mitra says after Pulwama his students started posting Facebook messages saying No More Gandhiniti, time for Subhasniti (after Netaji Subhas Bose). "I can’t say too much. I fear being targeted," he says.

Ghosh went to a Ramakrishna Mission boarding school. “We learned to share even one guava. We wore each other’s clothes. But here we are forgetting how to live together.” He says in cities like Krishnanagar the goal is a job, not a Ram Mandir. But lack of opportunities sting. “I know some familiar faces who are now driving totos,” says Das. “The puchkawalla in my neighbourhood told me he was a Bengali honours graduate from Krishnanagar Government College. He has an MA.”

Pramanick’s family urged him to fill in the form for a government job even though he has little interest in it. “I dropped off a form but then I realised it was fixed. Some councillors control the few vacancies. And the seats have price tags in several lakhs.”

While they see the city around them improving when it comes to infrastructure, they chafe at the power of young men, some of whom they studied with, who have spent their lives cultivating party leaders. Mitra says at his college, he is always under pressure to allow cheating. "We pray that we don’t get exam duty. If we catch someone cheating we are told let them go, he’s from the union or she knows this MLA. If we don’t we could get humiliated on the street."

While a wall opposite the Kali temple shows graffiti for all three parties in companionable proximity, the campaign has not been as decorous. Image by Sandip Roy

While a wall opposite the Kali temple shows graffiti for all three parties in companionable proximity, the campaign has not been as decorous. Image by Sandip Roy

Ghosh remembers a neighbourhood dada who had joined Trinamool. One day on his way to tuition Ghosh saw red stains on the street. When he came home he realized that the dada had been hacked to death. Party infighting, he was told. A few years ago a young boy going to his grandfather’s funeral died when he was struck by a stray bullet. A man protesting someone making obscene remarks at a woman was beaten by hoodlums. “Within six months they were out on bail and driving cars,” says Ghosh. “But no one is talking about security. I would say 7 of the top 10 issues here are about security.”

The fight for Krishnanagar has been fierce. Amit Shah called TMC a party of tushtikaran (appeasement), mafia and chitfund scam. Tapas Paul, the incumbent MP was mired in the Rose Valley scam.

While a wall opposite the Kali temple shows graffiti for all three parties in companionable proximity, the campaign has not been as decorous. BJP district president, Mahadev Sarkar was barred from campaigning for 48 hours for offensive personal remarks about Moitra at a meeting. At the end of the campaign, the BJP candidate former footballer Kalyan Chaubey’s team puts out a WhatsApp message complaining about Trinamool’s "campaign of terror”. "After being liberated from the Red scourge, Bengalis must fight and give a befitting reply to the blue-white terror and light the spark of the revolution." Chaubey whose posters say he is blessed by former union minister Satyabrata Mookherjee or Jolubabu as the locals call him is hoping to wrest the seat from Trinamool.

The CPM says their candidate Santanu Jha is an award-winning doctor and the most deserving. Moitra wants to improve on Tapas Paul’s margin. Avijit Das is not unhappy about the rise of the BJP. “Competition is good,” he says. “If you are the only runner in the field you won’t put in your best.”

At the TMC interaction, Shreya Chatterjee and Ataur Hossain are sitting in the first row. Hossain, a student politics leader who came to TMC via the Congress’ Chhatra Parishad, waxes eloquent about Mamata Banerjee’s leadership. “See how many colleges have been opened here,” he says. "From one in Plassey to a polytechnic in Tehatta to a Kanyashree University sanctioned for Krishnanagar."

Chatterjee has been chosen to give the mandatory bouquet and stole to Maitra.

But when the computer science student at the local Polytechnic is asked by the candidate what her concerns are she hesitantly circles back to the one thing on every young person’s mind in these parts.

Will I get a job?

Whoever wins in towns like Krishnanagar will ultimately have to grapple with that question.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 15:25:58 IST