Other States

For most voters in Bhabanipur, byelection only a formality

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

There was a time was when it was easy to slip into a lengthy conversation about politics with even rank strangers in Kolkata — and this was not a very long time ago. But today, when you ask people about the September 30 byelection in the city’s Bhabanipur constituency, where West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is contesting to seek entry to the State Assembly, many of them excuse themselves saying they are “non-political”.

Their hesitance is understandable: the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion and it is redundant to express an opinion, that too at a time when it is wise not to publicly take sides unless you belong to a political party.

Bhabanipur — or Bhowanipore — is as diverse as an Assembly seat can get. It may lie in the heart of Kolkata but it could pass off as mini-India. A large chunk of its population comprises non-Bengalis: Sikhs, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Marathis and Biharis. Many say this was why Ms. Banerjee, after registering successive victories from Bhabanipur in 2011 and 2016, chose to contest the 2021 election from Nandigram instead: she feared the non-Bengali votes would all go to the BJP following the aggressive campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Her party, the Trinamool Congress, insists that she stood from Nandigram only as an assurance to the electorate there, after local party heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari switched over to the BJP. She, however, lost to Mr. Adhikari by a slender margin and is now once again seeking re-election from Bhabanipur, which has been vacated for her by the 2021 victor, her party’s Sovandeb Chattopadhyay.

“I stick to my business, I am not interested in politics,” says a Sikh vendor outside the Bhabanipur gurdwara, selling knick-knacks related to his religion, such as steel bangles and headscarves. Across the road from his stall is a hoarding, in Gurmukhi, appealing to Sikh voters to vote for Bangal di beti — Bengal’s daughter. Ms. Banerjee paid a visit to the gurdwara earlier this week.

While her opponents are politically lightweight — the BJP’s Priyanka Tibrewal and the CPI(M)’s Srijib Biswas — and her victory may be certain, the TMC is not taking chances. Hoardings, in different languages, have mushroomed all over Bhabanipur, asking people to vote for their ‘own daughter’. Campaign meetings have begun, and party workers are already going door to door.

“Mamatadi faces no challenge. Her BJP opponent lost the 2021 election from Entally and her CPI(M) opponent had failed to win even the councillor election in 2015. If anything, she is more popular than ever,” says Shubhankar Roychoudhury, general secretary of the Bhowanipore Durgotsab Samity — a prominent Durga Puja committee. “And you know what’s going to be our theme for this year’s puja? It will be ‘Khela Hobe’ [the TMC’s war cry during the Assembly election] — only that ours is intended to promote sports after India’s [impressive] performance at the Tokyo Olympics.”

Hitesh Doshi (name changed), a Kolkata-born Gujarati who runs a boutique in Chakraberia, a part of the constituency, also agrees that Ms. Banerjee’s popularity has only soared in the past few months. “Earlier, she was in people’s minds, now she seems to be in their hearts. Her welfare schemes, especially Duare Sarkar [government at the doorstep], are turning out to be a big hit. This election is just a formality,” he says.

In the nearby Jadu Babu Bazaar, fruit-seller Suman Mahato, who has spread out her wares on the pavement, is also rooting for the Chief Minister. “She has increased the MNREGA salaries from ₹3,700 per month to ₹5,400. Plus, a bonus for Durga Puja has already been credited to my account. I recently applied for the widow pension and should be receiving that too soon. I am all for didi,” says Ms. Mahato, who sprinkles bleaching powder in neighbourhoods in the mornings and sells fruits during the rest of the day.

Adds tea-seller Sailen Gupta, whose ancestors hail from Kanpur and who runs a stall nearby: “The BJP has no presence in this area. The local TMC men know each of us by our names and faces. They stand by us in times of need. The BJP has no such people here.”

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 7:27:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/for-most-voters-in-bhabanipur-byelection-only-a-formality/article36531819.ece

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