At Bhawanipore, campaign is multifaceted in Banerjee vs Tibrewal contest
A daily routine for Anirban Sarkar, a sales executive, having Punjab-style tea at Balwant Singh’s Eating House after a morning walk has become quite a different experience ever since Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee and her challenger, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) youth leader Priyanka Tibrewal, started campaigning for the September 30 Bhawanipore assembly bypoll.
“The popular eatery on Harish Mukherjee Road seems to be on every politician’s radar because they get to interact with voters from all backgrounds. Union petroleum minister Hardeep Singh Puri came to offer prayers at Gurdwara Sant Kutiya located next door. Bhawanipore is often referred to as mini India because of its population. The constituency is home to Kolkata’s oldest Sikh families as well as Gujaratis, Marwaris, Odiyas and Biharis,” said Sarkar.
“As a voter, I felt bad when the chief minister did not contest her old seat during the March-April polls. After she was defeated by the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari in Nandirgram, I somehow knew that she would contest again from Bhawanipore. Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, who won the seat, resigned from the assembly to make way for her. Somehow, the campaigning is far more intense than what we saw when Chattopadhyay was fielded,” Sarkar added.
Kuldip Singh, whose family has been running a business for 40 years near the century-old Jadu Babu Bazar on Asutosh Mukherjee Road, said, “Not a single day has passed when politicians from both sides have not knocked on the doors of voters. The agitation in Punjab and Haryana against the Centre’s farm laws is being highlighted by the TMC. Many national issues are figuring in the local election.”
Spread over a part of the constituency, Odiya para - a neighbourhood named so decades ago when plumbers and car mechanics from Odisha permanently settled down - has witnessed BJP leaders making multiple trips since last week.
“Sambit Patra (BJP national spokesperson) distributed leaflets and said as an Odiya he closely relates to Bengali culture,” said Ramesh Behera, who works at a garage on Dr Rajendra Road.
Campaign in the constituency has been vitriolic and passionate with the BJP attacking Banerjee of being pro-minority and riddled in corruption. The CM has sought every single vote and claimed these votes would show the BJP’s its place in West Bengal. Although two other assembly constituencies are going to polls in the state, the most ferocious campaign is happening in Bhawanipore. Vote for Bhawanipore will take place on September 30 along with Samserganj and Jangipur assembly seats in Murshidabad district.
The state Congress has not fielded anyone following instructions from the national leadership that apparently wanted to offer a good gesture to Mamata Banerjee in the wake of her efforts to unite national and regional forces against the BJP. The CPI(M) has fielded Srijib Biswas, a low-profile candidate.
BJP and TMC leaders said the possibility of a low turnout, a regular feature of bypolls, is not ruled out. Of the 2,06,389 voters in the constituency, only 1,26,592 visited polling stations on April 26 when the state assembly polls happened and 784 exercised their franchise through postal ballot. Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay won and later resigned to vacate the seat for Banerjee.
Chattopadhyay won the seat by securing 57.71% votes while BJP candidate, actor Rudranil Ghosh, a debutant in politics, came second with 35.16%. With 5211 votes, the Congress came third while people who did not want to vote for any party and pressed the NOTA (none of the above) button accounted for 1570 votes, the fourth largest in the final tally.
According to TMC and BJP leaders, more than 20% of people in Bhawanipore are Muslims while Sikhs and non-Bengali speaking Hindus comprise around 34% of the local population. Of the eight civic body wards in this assembly segment, non-Bengali speaking Hindus comprise almost half the population in three wards.
Calcutta high court lawyer Tibrewal, who has been tirelessly walking from door to door, said, “It is wrong to assume that BJP is concentrating only on areas that have more non-Bengali speaking voters. We are reaching out to all. I was born and brought up in Kolkata. I am a Bengali like anybody else.”
Though Tibrewal speaks Bengali, albeit with an accent, leader of the opposition in the assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, and the BJP’s new state president Sukanta Majumdar are shuttling in and around Bhawanipore every day.
To draw public sympathy, the BJP is highlighting the post-poll violence which, it claims, has taken the lives of 52 workers and leaders till September 22. On Saturday, the BJP held a demonstration with 40 of these families near Hazra Park where the chief minister was assaulted by a Left worker in 1990 when she was a youth Congress leader. The incident catapulted her image.
Adhikari has held back-to-back meetings at civic ward No 79 in the Chetla area where Hindu Bengalis comprise the largest chunk of the population.
“A cat doesn’t climb a tree unless compelled,” he quipped at a meeting, taking a dig at the TMC’s hectic campaigning.
Though Banerjee won the Bhawanipore assembly seat in 2011 and 2016, TMC trailed the BJP in two civic wards in these polls. Although the margins were wafer-thin, the ruling party has kept history in mind.
“We have to ensure that Mamata Banerjee wins by a margin of at least 0.1 million votes,” the chief minister’s nephew and TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee said at a public meeting on Sunday evening when the two campaigned together for the first time.
Banerjee has entrusted eight senior party leaders and ministers to monitor the campaign in the eight civic wards. Among them, transport and housing minister Firhad Hakim, a trusted lieutenant of the chief minister, is the most visible.
“All voters want Mamata Banerjee because she is the only formidable force against the BJP,” said Hakim.
Union minister Smriti Irani, who speaks Bengali and even played the lead in a Tollywood movie during her acting career, campaigned on Saturday in civic ward No 72 where Bengalis are in the majority.
With security and Covid protocols stopping her from campaigning on the streets, the chief minister is addressing at least one public meeting in the afternoon or evening after leaving Nabanna, the state secretariat.
With Durga Puja, Bengal’s biggest festival, less than a month away and pandals being set up on the streets, Banerjee is reminding voters that before the assembly polls the BJP’s national leadership accused her of not allowing Hindus to organize Durga Puja.
“You (BJP) come and see how people from all religions observe their festivals in Bengal. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains live as equals here,” Banerjee said on Friday at a meeting in civic ward No 71 where Bengali Hindus outnumber others.
On Saturday, while addressing a meeting in ward No 63 where Muslims live in large numbers, she said, “Our state ranks first when it comes to awarding scholarships to minority students. People used to think they only study in madrasas. More than 0.1 million Muslim students have opted for higher education. They are becoming doctors, engineers and Indian Administrative Service officers. This makes the country proud.”