The East Mall Club in Dumdum, around 20 km from Kolkata’s central business district, is like any of those you’d see in a hick town of West Bengal.
People playing carrom after nine in the evening with a Sandhya Mukherjee (renowned playback singer of the 1950s and 60s) song in the background lends the atmosphere a sort of changelessness. Yet change is taking place, political change at that, since 2006, the year Mamata Banerjee came back to centre stage with the anti-land acquisition movement in Singur.
The club has been a Communist Party of India (Marxist) stronghold. The “party office” stands a few hundred metres away and has been appointing handpicked committees for over 20 years.
Now 35-year-old Abhijit Bhattacharya, a member of the club since he was 15, is one of those who broke with convention and refused to accept the list of “chosen ones” in November last year.
“We wanted a change and for the first time we got it. This became possible because the party was busy with other things. The Trinamool wave in West Bengal is also responsible,” says Bhattacharya, who along with a few like-minded friends, will be managing this year’s community Durga Puja the club organises every year.
Same is the story of hundreds of such clubs in the state, particularly in areas with a sizeable migrant population, who came as refugees after creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Sambhunath Banerjee, 62, was president of a club in Tollygunge in south Kolkata till a Trinamool Congress-backed committee pushed him and fellow committee members out in July. Banerjee had been one of the chosen ones of the CPI(M) for seven consecutive years in various positions. It was men like Banerjee who made the CPI(M) a force in the elections.
Political insiders say that the Left started looking for support in local clubs during the early 1970s, when the Congress maintained a large network of such organisations. Local Congress leaders of the time used this clubs not just as centres of “social service” but also as a refuge for their “action squads”. It’s now the Trinamool Congress’ turn to tread the same path, a senior Left leader said.
“The state apparatus became completely intertwined with the party structure. The CPI(M) controlled everything — from the local club, which oversaw social activities, to the party office, which passed binding informal laws on divisions of property and divorce,” sociologist Bula Bhadra says.
An enduring feature in Jyoti Basu’s political career was his elite social circles. On another plane his party negotiated with society through such clubs that dot West Bengal’s urban landscape. While Basu handed over the baton to his successor, his party overlooked the gradual slipping away of a vital social link.