If there is one place in the whole of Bengal in which it has been impossible to predict which way the political wind is blowing it would have to be Calcutta. This is because Calcutta, as the capital city, is the melting pot of different economic and social strata and the way the electorate here votes is determined by that.
While there is little doubt about the strong currents of change sweeping the state especially in the rural areas and amongst the poor both in the countryside and in the city the urban middleclass and upper middleclass have been expressing a certain amount of dilemma and uncertainty. “What if it goes from bad to worse?” is a recurrent question. Also creating an impression of a Left resurgence is the robust campaigning by the Left, especially by the Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in his own constituency Jadavpur. After the Parliamentary elections in 2009 when the Left front suffered a crushing defeat, the CM had virtually withdrawn into a shell. Today he is out and about, cajoling the voter to remember that the Left must have done something right to remain in power for 34 years as well as cracking jokes at the opposition. Whether all this is merely campaign rhetoric and a desperate attempt to show a brave front before the city voted or whether it really is a sign of a renewed confidence as the CPIM has been claiming can only be known on May 13, when the results are declared.
Not that the Left campaigning is not drawing flak. The Bengali phrase “Lojjay laal” which means blushing or turning red with shame/embarrassment has been used to describe the plethora of red sickle and hammer CPIM flags that had been put up all across the city a few weeks before Calcutta voted – fluttering atop rooftops, zipping past in autos, cars and buses, being waved by party supporters out in large processions in the streets of the city.
In the last Assembly elections the CM had campaigned in his constituency less than 10 times. This time around he addressed close to 40 meetings, giving rise to remarks that it was an indication of the Left’s apprehensions about retaining even those seats which had been traditionally Left strongholds. The CM has also earned criticism for not moving out of his constituency.
The CM’s campaign manager and former Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharjee explained to Outlook, “Populist measures like door-to-door campaigning is something that the people expect and the opposition is doing it. Unless you meet everyone and speak to as many people as you possibly can in your constituency, they feel that you don’t care. But in the case of the Chief Minister he has to also spend equal time campaigning in other parts of the state.”
Unfortunately for the CPIM, the CM hasn’t been able to do that because he has to concentrate in his own constituency.
But with men like these...
Just a couple days before Calcutta went to the polls, CPIM leader Anil Basu outraged the electorate across Bengal – and possibly across political parties including his own – when he made unprintable derogatory comments about Mamata Banerjee while campaigning. Though it’s definitely not the first time CPIM leaders have used pejorative language against the TMC chief – from calling her crazy to a liar, little has been left unsaid – Basu got so carried away he just wouldn’t stop. Finally he compared her to the sex workers of Calcutta’s famous red light area, which enraged the public so much that they demanded an apology from Basu both to Mamata and to the women of the red light area. So furious were people that many of whom were in a dilemma about whom to vote for made Basu’s comments the decisive factor to vote against the CPIM. “I was not sure whom to vote for,” said a Calcutta trader Abdul Haq, “After this (Anil Basu’s comments) the CPIM has lost me forever.”
Even though the CPIM swung into damage-control mode with the CM and the Left Front chairman Biman Basu issuing statements of apology as well as barring Basu from further campaigning, the electorate is not convinced. “This apologizing has become a bad habit of the CPIM,” said Runu Das, a Calcutta teacher, “they keep doing horrible things and then saying sorry.”
Looks like Mamata Banerjee shouldn’t worry too much about campaigning…with men like Anil Basu in their fold the CPIM is doing more good for TMC than they would imagine.
The polling booths across the city were guarded by heavily armed police and paramilitary and that is what set the 2011 elections apart from any other in the past. “This time it was more like Kashmir,” said Santa Munshi, a tailor from Kashmir who married a Bengali and is now settled in Calcutta. It was also interesting to note the presence of gangs of men standing around the booths, looking helplessly on at the BSF and other jawans patrolling the area. “These are the riggers,” pointed out a party worker on condition of anonymity. Earlier they would wait till about 3 pm when most of the voting would be done. They would then enter the booths, go down the list of voters and press the button in favour of their party.”
Comments overheard in a crowded Calcutta train, made by commuter talking about politicians: “Eto deen lok gulo shob coma-y chhilo…hotath jege uthechhy.” (All this time they’ve been a coma…suddenly they’ve all woken up.) A reference to the politicians who have descended on the city to campaign but are rarely to be seen otherwise.
"Bin Laden Alive and Kicking in a Calcutta Jail?"
This is the headline that will accompany a short snippet in the next issue of the Bengal prisons newsletter Metamorphosis, brought out by the West Bengal prison directorate and edited by B.D. Sharma, Additional Director General of Prisons.
"What?" you might be thinking.
Well, if not quite the Osama Bin Laden who was killed by American forces in Pakistan this week, lodged in Calcutta's Alipore Central Jail, there indeed is a look-alike, whose resemblance to the Al Qaida leader is so striking that it has earned him the nick-name "Bin Laden."
"No one refers to him by his original name anymore," explains B.D. Sharma. "In fact, not many even remember his original name."
So much so that the man - who has been languishing in jail for several decades after being convicted of murder - had made it to an earlier issue of the prison newsletter - shortly after Osama Bin Laden achieved world notoriety post September 11 - as an item in the "special interests" column accompanied with the headline, "Osama Bin Laden in a Calcutta Jail?"
Bin Laden's death has brought a temporary respite to Bengal's newspapers and television channels from the seemingly endless election coverage - which started early last month ever since the six-phase polls were announced - and both print and electronic media are trying to out-do each other in bringing out Bin Laden's "Bong connections". One vernacular channel's news flashes, supers and tickers carried as breaking news the item that the Al Qaida leader loved Bengali food, especially 'maach-bhaat' and had employed a Bengali cook who would accompany him in his hideouts.