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Why Did Babul Supriyo Cite His 2004 Show In Pakistan Ahead Of His Bengal Bypoll Test?

Babul Supriyo, now a TMC candidate. is facing a strong campaign dubbing him as 'communal' for his past remarks when he was with the BJP.

Why Did Babul Supriyo Cite His 2004 Show In Pakistan Ahead Of His Bengal Bypoll Test?
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“I am among very few Indian singers who have performed in Pakistan. I went to Lahore in 2004 to perform and stayed in the same hotel where the touring Indian cricket team was,” singer-turned-politician Babul Supriyo told journalists in Kolkata last week after attending an Iftaar party.  

This was quite a contrasting approach from him with regard to Pakistan. In February 2018, then a junior minister in the first Narendra Modi government at the Centre, Supriyo demanded that artists of Pakistan nationality, such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam, be banned in Bollywood movies because of their silence against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India’s Jammu and Kashmir regions.

The volte-face, however, does not intrigue political pundits or the commoners in West Bengal, as the singer had switched parties last year – from Modi-ji’s team to Didi’s team – to “stay in the playing eleven.” He was dropped from the second Modi government. As he resigned from Asansol Lok Sabha in southwestern Bengal, which he had won in 2014 and 2019 on a BJP ticket, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has fielded him from a bypoll in Kolkata’s Ballygunge assembly constituency. The election is on April 12.

Ideally, West Bengal’s ruling party should have had nothing to worry about winning Ballygunge – party veteran Subrata Mukherjee, whose death necessitated the bypoll, won it in the 2021 assembly general elections with a massive margin of 75,359 votes, bagging 70.6% of the polled votes.

And here comes what prompted Supriyo’s change of stance over Pakistan: Ballygunge has Muslims making up nearly half its electorate and Mukherjee’s 2021 winning margin was attributed to a near-complete polarisation of Muslim votes in favour of the TMC, but now Supriyo’s very candidature has got the local Muslim community divided due to his role during the 2018 Asansol riots.

Facing a sustained campaign on social media calling upon Ballygunge’s electorate to vote against “communal” Babul and also a whispering campaign on the ground, Supriyo last week tried to explain his side of the story.

“Since long time ago, I used to drive myself to Ajmer Sharif seeking blessings before the release of any major movie. There is a video on Facebook of my mother and myself visiting the main mosque in Dubai. As a dedicated worker of a party, I did not oppose what the party’s top leader said (when in BJP). But then I used to get to meet only 70% (of the electorate), whereas now I am getting to meet and work for 100%. Shouldn’t I be happy about it?” Supriyo told journalists.

“I never thought that being part of that party would bring a communal stamp on me. Now I have got a chance for the singer (in me) to remove the communal stamp,” he said. “Had I lacked honesty, I would have told Didi not to field me from Ballygunge.”

The confidence that Supriyo tried to display is, however, not visible in the party. Last week, the chief minister’s nephew and the TMC all-India general secretary Abhishek Banerjee told an election rally, “The name of the candidate is Mamata Banerjee, not Babul Supriyo. Voting for the twin flower symbol means voting for Mamata Banerjee.”

He said this even after certifying Supriyo as one who had abandoned the BJP’s ‘politics of communalism’.

“Some people are saying that voting for Supriyo is akin to voting for BJP. I would like to remind them that he has abandoned the politics of Jay Shree Ram and embraced the politics of Joy Bangla and Jai Hind,” the Banerjee junior said.

He also invoked the memories of the late Mukherjee, who won from the seat three times on the trot, and urged people to vote to get Mukherjee’s unfinished task finished. The party has covered the Ballygunge assembly constituency area with banners and hoardings carrying photos of Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek. Supriyo’s visual presence has been minimal, as the party decided to focus the campaign on the party symbol and the chief minister’s name.

According to psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, the electoral arithmetic shows no reason why Supriyo should lose, but an erosion in the TMC’s base among the Muslims is expected.

“Of the about 300 polling booths, the BJP is in no position to field polling agents in about 80 booths and in 20 booths even the Left would not be able to field polling agents. The TMC’s leads from these areas should neutralise deficits that they may record elsewhere,” Chakraborty said.

Supriyo’s contest is against the Left’s Saira Shah Halim and the BJP’s Keya Ghosh. Halim is the wife of Fuad Halim, a leftist doctor who enjoys significant respect among the local people for his charitable work but not electoral fortune. The doctor, son of the late CPI(M) stalwart Hashim Abdul Halim, contested from Ballygunge assembly in 2011 and 2021 and from Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha in 2019 but lost every time.

Saira is an educator, rights activist and motivational speaker. She is a niece to actor Naseeruddin Shah, who recently released a video message calling upon Ballygunge’s electorate to vote for Saira. She alleged on April 9, the last day for the April 12 election, that the local administration denied permission to as many as seven electoral rallies they had planned.

Notably, the ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign had played an important role in shaping public opinion ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, with the TMC becoming its principal beneficiary. However, a section of those behind the campaign are now also seeking votes against Supriyo. A number of social activists have also urged people to ensure Supriyo’s defeat. Among them, noted mental health activist Ratnaboli Roy’s Facebook post calling for votes against Supriyo had gone viral.  

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“Going by public perception, the candidature of Babul Supriyo has weakened the TMC’s politics of championing communal harmony because the memories of Supriyo’s communal and sexist remarks are still fresh in public memory. The way the local administration tried to foil Halim’s campaign events, despite the Left getting only about 5% vote in Ballygunge in 2021, reflects the ruling party’s nervousness regarding Ballygunge,” said columnist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata.

According to him, the Ballygunge battle has gone beyond being any usual byelection. “A pro-Babul and anti-Babul division among voters is visible. Many are considering him to be a BJP candidate. It remains to be seen if Supriyo manages to draw a section of the BJP’s vote share towards himself,” he added.

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During the campaign, political activist Prasenjit Bose was among some others who were arrested for taking out a rally with the slogan ‘No Vote to Babul Supriyo and the BJP.’ They later urged people to vote for Halim. “The administration even couldn’t allow a peaceful rally. They are resorting to every undemocratic way to manipulate people’s mandate because they know the voters are not accepting a communal person as the candidate,” Bose said.

A bypoll in Asansol Lok Sabha will also take place on the same day. There, the TMC has fielded actor-turned-former BJP MP from Bihar, Shatrughan Sinha, and the BJP’s hopeful is the party’s MLA, fashion designer-turned-politician Agnimitra Paul. 

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