Before she was one of Bengal’s rising political stars, Chatterjee was a familiar face with roles in some of the state’s most-watched daily soaps and telefilms.(HT Photo)
Before she was one of Bengal’s rising political stars, Chatterjee was a familiar face with roles in some of the state’s most-watched daily soaps and telefilms.(HT Photo)

‘Will give my 100% to bring industry’: Former actor Locket Chatterjee

Months later, Jyoti was whisked away for training as a mechanical worker by Tata Motors, which was setting up a plant for its newest offering, the Nano, the fabled Rs 1 lakh car.
By Dhrubo Jyoti | Hindustan Times, Singur/Kolkata
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2019 08:29 AM IST

In 2006, Susanta Kumar Jyoti thought his life was about to turn a corner. A marginal farmer in southern Bengal’s Singur, the 44-year-old signed up for one of the hundreds of jobs promised to locals at a car factory coming up in his neighbourhood.

Months later, Jyoti was whisked away for training as a mechanical worker by Tata Motors, which was setting up a plant for its newest offering, the Nano, the fabled Rs1 lakh car.

But by the time he finished his practice stints in Jamshedpur and Pune, the then Left Front government acquired the 997.1 acres of land required for the factory under a British-era law, allegedly through local strongmen, with scant compensation.

The agitation by farmers and activist groups gave way to a mass protest headlined by Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, who sat on a 26-day-long hunger strike that pitched the issue to the national stage, forcing the Tatas to move the project out of Singur. At the time, the TMC was reeling from its disastrous show in the 2004 general and 2006 assembly polls— one out of 42 seats and 30 out of 294, respectively — and the agitation gave Banerjee the boost she needed to uproot 34 years of Left rule in 2011.

“All I got was an ID card for a job that never happened,” said Jyoti.

Almost a decade later, Jyoti is hopeful again, after actor-turned-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Locket Chatterjee defeated two-time TMC parliamentarian Ratna De Nag by over 70,000 votes in the Hooghly parliamentary constituency, in which Singur lies.

“During her campaign, Didi [Chatterjee] only spoke of bringing industry back to Singur. She is close to Modi. Maybe she can bring back the factory. I have faith in Didi; that is why I voted BJP for the first time in my life,” said Jyoti, using the sobriquet usually reserved for Banerjee.

CAREER SHIFT

Before she was one of Bengal’s rising political stars, Chatterjee was a familiar face with roles in some of the state’s most-watched daily soaps and telefilms.

Born in a Brahmin family in December 1970, Chatterjee describes her upbringing as conservative. Her father was a priest at the Dakshineswar temple, and a descendant of Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, better known as the influential 19th century ascetic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. When she was three, her mother took her to a dance school. “We were not very well off, but my mother would take me to dance class every day,” she said.

She soon joined a dance troupe led by famous dancer-choreographer-artist Mamata Shankar, and travelled abroad frequently —hampering her undergraduate degree in Zoology from Kolkata’s Jogamaya Devi College, also the alma mater of the CM. “For 10 years, I danced and taught dance. That was the first phase of my life,” she said. Married as a teenager, Chatterjee entered the television industry in the late 1990s. “I was a professional, a director’s actor. But I don’t think I can go back [to acting].”

In 2012, Chatterjee joined the TMC, and was given a position in the state women’s commission. But the stint was “suffocating,” said Chatterjee. “They wanted to use me as an actor, a prop,” she said.

In 2015, she joined the BJP — the then state unit chief Rahul Sinha at the time introduced her to the media as “Didi’s locket”, signalling the reportedly close ties between the two. Two years later, Chatterjee began to lead the BJP’s women’s wing in the state.

“It is during this stint that I really learnt what politics in Bengal was. I went to every part of the state. Wherever there was a rape or crime or complaint, I would rush there — in a jeep, on a bike. I felt like I had it inside me,” she said.

In the 2016 state polls, she fought from the TMC citadel of Birbhum, but lost.

“Fighting elections never felt like a challenge to me. Wherever I would go, I would help the women rise in protest against Trinamool oppression. I would tell them, ‘if I can fight, you can too’. The people accepted me as a leader – as a netri [woman leader], not abhinetri [actor],” she said.

NEW CHALLENGE

For a place that has simmered at the heart of Bengal’s politics for over a decade, Singur appears to be singularly unremarkable. A 45-minute drive from Kolkata, the place is a semi-urban clot of settlements and hutments on either side of the national highway. Held by the Left Front since 1957, with the exception of 1984, the region was considered a stronghold of farmers owing to its fertile land that often yielded three crops a year.

When Banerjee came to power in 2011, she had said within 24 hours, her government would start the process of returning land to the farmers. Five days after she took oath, the state government passed a law to take possession of the land, and in 2016, the Supreme Court termed the original land acquisition by the Left Front illegal, vindicating Banerjee.

Little remains of the Tata project now except withering walls and construction debris. But for local farmers Murari Panja and Pralhad Guchait, the problems are elsewhere.

The stone chips, sand and construction material spread across the 997 acres have turned the once-fertile soil fallow, and now, many farmers say it is impossible to grow crops and make a livelihood.

“The only hope is if a factory opens here,” said Kanika Das, a local resident.

In her 44-day campaign, Chatterjee made industrialisation a central theme. “Across Hooghly, more than 100 factories have shut down. There are no jobs. Yes, farming is important, but so is industry. The votes of Singur made Mamata the chief minister but she never looked back at them,” she said.

While Banerjee’s government did deliver on its promises, by returning land to the farmers, announcing subsidised wheat and rice, and offering government jobs, the recent Lok Sabha loss here can be attributed to the lack of formal jobs, infighting in the party, and a mass shift of the Opposition base — people like Guchait who chose the BJP because they knew the Left was losing.

Despite Chatterjee’s confidence, Bengal’s industrial woes are long-drawn. It lags behind Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu in industrial infrastructure. Political muscle-flexing in local industrial units is widespread, and though Bengal leads in small and micro-level industries, this is not enough to fill the employment gap. Add to that a ballooning public debt (at Rs4.31 lakh crore among the largest in the country) and a rapidly ageing workforce, it is clear why the biggest chunk of the state’s workforce is caught in low-paying, small-scale labour market.

Another leg of Chatterjee’s campaign rested on bringing the National Register of Citizenship — an exercise undertaken in Assam to root out so-called illegal immigrants — to Bengal, to remove “outsiders”.

On a scorching hot day in Singur, next to the fields that would have been the Nano factory, Chatterjee announces her plan for the constituency. “I will go to Delhi, I will collect your testimonials and give it to Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi; I will speak to all industrial leaders, take meetings with the Tatas, bring back industry here and get jobs for everyone.” She sits down next to Jyoti on a tarpaulin sheet, asks her aides to collect photos of his certificates, and waves at the crowd, before being mobbed for selfies.

“I will give my 100% to bring industry. There should be only one word in Hooghly. Development.”

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