It was around midday on May 13, 2011. This Gulf News correspondent was still at least half a kilometre away from the doorstep of Mamata Banerjee’s residence in Kalighat, right in the heart of southern Kolkata. And yet, he could feel the pulsating emotions and the sea of humanity sweeping the narrow lane just outside the home of the then Opposition leader of Bengal.
The counting of votes for the assembly elections had started early that morning and since then, there was not a single moment when it did not look like that TMC and Mamata won’t win the elections.
Inching towards Mamata’s house on Harish Chatterjee Street that afternoon, while negotiating that massive crowd bubbling with an unbridled sense of liberation of sorts, was quite an experience! By the time one reached the blue iron grille at the main entrance to Didi’s abode steeped in its minimalist look and feel, the firebrand leader was right at the dorstep with a cordless microphone in hand, thanking her supporters and party workers for making the impossible possible — unseating a behemoth called the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] from power.
As the crowd surged repeatedly like a wave, an old man who was probably in his 70s or 80s, pleaded with this Gulf News correspondent, pointing at a rickety, red plastic chair lying by the wayside: “Son, can you help me climb on that, please? I’ll never ever get a chance to see Mamata from such close quarters. I’ve come all the way from Fulia [in Nadia district, about 92km from Kolkata] just for this.”
That was Mamata. The epitome of a never-say-die gale-force in Bengal politics who never minced her words and who never shied away from looking the enemy in the eye. And such was the appeal of her party as it stormed to power in 2011 that the vast majority of voters in Bengal took ownership of that mandate.
It was as much their victory as it was a victory for Mamata and her party. The unalloyed joy and the limitless enthusiasm that were noticed among the thousands who had gathered in Kalighat to catch a glimpse of their beloved leader that afternoon and even late into the sultry May evening were remarkable to say the least. Mamata had not just won an election, but she had won the hearts of millions in her state.
Bengal had voted for ‘poribartan’ (change) and how! As if stamping out three decades of Left rule from the state was a collective responsibility of the people of Bengal that went above and beyond the mere political matrix of a state election.
Jump cut to the winter of 2020.
Mamata and TMC have now completed nearly two full terms in power, with the next state elections barely 18 weeks away. Once again back in the eastern Indian metropolis on a private visit, this correspondent struck up a conversation with the motorist while being chauffeured around the city in an app-cab.
Sense of frustration
Upon casually quizzing him on the state of affairs in Bengal, pat came the reply: “After picking up lucrative pads at astronomical prices in Kolkata, some of our leaders from the ruling party have invested in property at exotic places abroad. Dada [elder brother], the more things change, the more they remain the same.” While there was no question of going by the cabby’s version as gospel, the unmistakable air of derision and a sense of frustration in his voice were intriguing.
Couple of days later, waiting in queue outside the neighbourhood grocery, one overheard the following conversation between three middle-aged men:
Person 1: “Money talks — always. You don’t know for how long you’ll be in power. So, make hay while the sun shines.”
Person 2: “Yeah, that’s true, but CPM took at least 20 years to reach that mindset. But now ...”
Person 3, cutting him short: “So what’s there to be surprised about this? If money is being spent like water by ‘outsiders’ to win over Bengal, then the others can’t be expected to play mute spectators, can they?”
In 2011, at the fag end of what was the longest-running democratically elected Communist party-led government in the world, the dialogue from street corners to boardrooms in Bengal was centred around just one question: Whether Bengal will vote for change?
It is indeed surprising that within just ten years, the election rhetoric in the state is once again overwhelmingly focused on that same question, all too soon one thought: Will Bengal vote for change! And along with this question of ‘change’ what is also dominating the state’s political narrative is the ‘insider-outsider’ debate, with TMC trying its best to present itself as the repository of the state’s socio-cultural and political ethos, and BJP trying to shrug off the ‘outsider’ tag, given the fact that until the other day, it was seen as a primarily North Indian party with hardly any footprint in Bengal.
And the two principal political rivals are often seen locking horns on the question of who is closer to Bengal’s socio-cultural identity. In that context, ever since BJP won 18 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in the state in 2019, the debate, in a more metaphoric sense, has often been centred around whether the archetypal Bengali’s penchant for the timeless ‘rosogolla’ (cottage-cheese balls dipped in a sugary syrup) will finally make way for the proverbial ‘Dilli ka laddu’ — a staple among the Delhi and primarily North Indian variety of dry sweets.
Just as talk of corruption, nepotism and intra-party feuds have rankled TMC in the run-up to the 2021 polls, the ‘outsider’ jibe has come to sting BJP time and again. It’s a turf war, no doubt, but turf war as much over social identity as it is over political point-counterpoint.
Insider-outsider, rosogolla-laddu, money power-people power ... the debates are endless and so is the political bickering between the two bitter rivals. Come 2021, it will be interesting to lap up every moment of this fascinating contest — preferably over endless cups of steaming hot Darjeeling tea, in case you don’t have a sweet tooth, that is!