Muzaffar Ahmad Bhawan on Alimuddin Street is a sturdy building. Despite the worn out patches on its facade, it looks like a structure that has stood the test of time. And yet, as Kolkata voted with a record turnout, Muzaffar Ahmad Bhawan had the distinct air of a haunted house.
It isn’t the dynamic rhetoric of Trinamool Congress workers predicting victory that is making the end of 34 years of Left rule in West Bengal a tantalising possibility. It isn’t the news of people coming out in droves to cast their vote that makes a Left defeat in palpable. The very real chance of the CPM-Left being toppled is driven home most convincingly when one sees this iconic headquarters of the CPM on Alimuddin Street. There is no party flag fluttering; a hammer and sickle flag is half hidden in the bougainvillaea at the gatefront. The few folks in the courtyard sit desultorily.
A car drives in bearing a stern-looking ex-CPM MP Dipen Ghosh. The guard asks the driver as he backs the car, “You’re being made to work even on election day?” Ghosh’s driver tells him with a nervous look: “Work for us will only be starting from today.”
Going by the very visible mood in CPM circles, he could be ominously right.
Upstairs, a row of framed portraits look down from the walls. Looking at the faces of Mohammad Ismail, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Subhas Chakraborty, Dinesh Majumdar, Jyoti Basu and all those others, you can’t but wonder whether they have any inkling of what the mood of their living comrades are now. Even the two oil paintings of CPM stalwarts Saraj Mukherjee and Promode Dasgupta have the air of pictures of Dorian Gray about them today.
It’s a very different picture across town in Kalighat at the Trinamool Congress headquarters. A contingent of journalists are waiting outside Mamata Banerjee’s house-cum-party headquarters before she sets off to vote. Trinamool’s media manager Derek O’Brien talks about the “energy that’s evident out there” in polling booths. In his quiz master avatar, he tells the gathered that the turnout in the first half of the day has been “9% per hour”.
Experts are in agreement that a high turnout would suggest that this is a ‘mandate election’: for Left supporters to ensure that a CPM government rules for a record eighth tenure; for anti-Left supporters to ensure that the Front’s monopoly is broken.
One star contest is between CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Trinamool’s Manish Gupta at the Jadavpur constituency.
Gupta, a former Bengal chief secretary and an ex-armed forces man, is comfortable in his English and sports shoes as he sits in the spare party office near the Baghajatin market complex. Quoting Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, Gupta tells me that the Trinamool is not anti-industry.
He says the Left’s industrial policy started in 1994 wasn’t tied to employment or human development. “We want to generate employment,” he says.
And is there a danger of not being able to repair the damaged goods handed to the Trinamool government, if it wins, by the Left? “We have to show signs of progress in the first two-three years,” he says matter of factly.
Trinamool worker Tarak is less nuanced. “Jangal Mahal and Jadavpur Mahal are the same. Look at the people. Such is their fear,” says the 38-year-old, as he rattles out the CPM’s terror tactics and names of tacticians. “All those guys you see there in white kurtas?” he says pointing to a group outside a polling station, “They’re all harmad.”
But if there’s one reason for the big change in election day atmosphere as well as the big turnout, it is the presence of the BSF. Gun-toting men in camouflages are there inside and outside all polling booths.
The lack of fear — of intimidation, of violence, of plain fear of being seen voting the ‘wrong party’ — has played a big role in people coming out to vote.
Back on Alimuddin Street, 66-year-old Mohammad Kalim, who says the namaaz at the local Alimuddin masjid, is reading the CPM paper Ganashakti pasted on the wall. I ask him what he thinks will happen. “I don’t understand politics. I deal in a very different world,” he says pointing at the mosque. “But change is necessary and it is wrong to fear it.”
Something that perhaps, two buildings down the road in Muzaffar Ahmad Bhawan, some people will finally come to terms with like the rest of Bengal.