Both candidates are doctors, yet represent culturally polar opposites.
While Debnath, a riot victim, fled East Pakistan for Bengal and represents the Modi-esque brand of success-through-struggle, Dastidar, from an affluent background, is loud, voluble and politically controversial.
The Barasat Lok Sabha constituency in Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district adjoining Kolkata is a peculiar one in more ways than one. On one hand, it comprises the upper middle class and middle-class residential areas of Bidhannagar (Salt Lake), the Rajarhat New Town dotted with glitzy and upscale residential high-rises, and IT hubs and companies engaged in futuristic technologies and cutting-edge research. And on the other, vast swathes of farmlands and bheris (fish farms) interspersed with villages wallowing in poverty and neglect, unemployment and despair, and filth and crime, make up this constituency.
It is this unique mix that is posing a tough challenge to the two principal candidates, both medical practitioners, in the fray: the BJP’s Mrinal Kanti Debnath and the Trinamool’s Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar. The two candidates are, in keeping with Barasat’s profile, a study in stark contrasts. Dastidar belongs to an affluent family which has been actively involved in politics since the Independence movement. She is loud and voluble, and often wades into controversies (like this).
Debnath, born in East Pakistan, came into India as a penniless child in 1964 after he got separated from his parents during a communal riot there. He grew up in grinding poverty, but was a brilliant student and got through the Calcutta National Medical College on a scholarship. He went off to practice in the Carribeans for 32 years and returned to Bengal in 2011 after the Left was routed from power in the state. He has been practising silently in Bengal over the last eight years, runs free clinics and is involved with many charities. Debnath, unlike Dastidar, is soft-spoken, discreet and comes across as the quintessential bhadralok.
Barasat Lok Sabha seat’s showcase achievements are the investments that have come in the IT sector, creating thousands of jobs. The developments in Rajarhat-New Town with its broad and smooth avenues, expansive parks, street architecture and the steel and glass towers housing upscale apartments and offices, and the enhanced civic amenities in Bidhananagar, are also bandied about by the Trinamool as signs of unnayan (progress).
But none of these will translate into many votes for Mamata Banerjee’s party. That is because very few locals have benefited from the jobs created in the IT sector. Most of those residing in Rajarhat-New Town are non-locals who are not registered voters here. And upper-middle class Bengalis and Hindi-speaking people who form a large percentage of the population of Bidhannagar are highly unlikely to vote for the Trinamool.
One of the biggest factors working against Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, who is seeking a third term from this constituency, is her party colleague and Bidhannagar Mayor Sabysaschi Dutta. The two have a long history of rivalry, primarily over control of the thriving ‘syndicates’ in Rajarhat-New Town and other areas that are witnessing a construction boom.
“Dastidar and Dutta have been at loggerheads over control of this highly lucrative syndicate business and their supporters and aides have clashed often, very violently at times. Some have even died in the clashes. Even our party supremo Mamata Banerjee has been unable to broker an agreement between them,” said Utpal Karmakar, a Trinamool functionary in Bidhannagar.
‘Syndicates’ are cartels of building materials suppliers, labour contractors and small-time builders who force companies and individuals building houses, commercial and housing complexes and other structures to buy construction materials at inflated prices or use their services. These ‘syndicates’, which enjoy the patronage of local politicians, have a lot of clout and no construction can take place without their consent.
They even force builders and contractors to give them sub-contracts and employ masons and labourers supplied by them. Aware that the Trinamool’s close association with these syndicates is harming her party’s image, Mamata Banerjee had openly asked her party functionaries to stop patronising them, but to no avail.
At the very beginning of the poll campaign period in end-March, Dutta was rumoured to have been in touch with BJP leaders and, according to some reports, was even planning to join the saffron party along with his followers. While that did not happen, he is not campaigning for Dastidar either.
“He (Dutta) did not campaign for me one single day and is covertly helping the BJP,” alleges Dastidar. Dutta said he was never asked to campaign for Dastidar, and points out that he had campaigned for the party candidate from neighbouring Dum Dum. But it is widely rumoured that many of Dutta’s supporters and aides are working actively for Debnath, the BJP candidate.
Another major factor working against Dastidar in Barasat is the involvement of her party colleagues in crime gangs and extortion rackets. “Unemployment is rife and that has given rise to criminal activities. Trinamool leaders either head or are closely linked to the crime syndicates here.
Bheris yield a lot of money and Trinamool leaders control this business by force. Large sums of money are extorted by Trinamool functionaries from all businesses, big and small. This has led to a lot of resentment and anger against the Trinamool,” said Forward Bloc candidate Haripada Biswas.
Barasat witnessed a string of rapes and molestations of women by criminals allegedly patronised by the Trinamool over the last few years. These incidents have severely dented the image of the ruling party in the state.
“We are tired of these criminal gangs. The police don’t act against them since they enjoy the patronage of ruling politicians. Trinamool leaders use these criminals for political purposes, mainly to suppress dissent and the opposition. This Trinamool-criminal nexus has become a big issue here,” says Sayantan Adhikari, a dealer in furniture who has a showroom near the district magistrate’s office in Barasat town. He says all businesses have to pay about 20 per cent of their earnings to criminals and Trinamool functionaries.
Lawlessness also prevails in the rural areas. “The bheris (fish farms) generate handsome profits and ever since the days of Left rule, ruling politicians have a finger in this lucrative pie. A lot of clashes also take place over control of these bheris and to retain their control over them, politicians employ criminals who indulge in a lot of other crimes too against common people. That is why the police also don’t act against them, but we common people have to suffer,” said Tapan Bhowmick, a science teacher at a government school in Madhyamgram.
Apart from Bidhananagar and Rajarhat-New Town, the only development that other parts of this constituency has witnessed is the improvement of roads and other public infrastructure and beautification of public places.
“But what will we do with all that? Our children need jobs and with no investments coming in, there are no jobs available. Our MP (Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar) had promised in 2009 to bring in investors who would set up industrial units, but nothing happened. Many small and medium-scale industries that existed have either shut down or are ailing,” said Ratan Lal Majumder, a retired railway employee whose two sons survive on odd jobs.
The construction boom that large parts of Barasat constituency is witnessing has benefited only a small section of the people. “The small group of contractors and suppliers who are profiting are closely linked or belong to the Trinamool. Many local unemployed graduates and postgraduates have been forced to work as labourers at these construction sites for want of better opportunities,” says Shyamoli Mondal, co-owner of a salon in Barasat. Many, she said, also find work as security guards, maids and other service staff in their residential estates, but those are hardly ‘respectable’ jobs.
Lack of employment opportunities has resulted in an exodus of literate, semi-literate and illiterate youngsters from Barasat to other parts of the country. Thus, a significant portion of the local economy runs on remittances. But that has its flip side for the Trinamool. Shamik Bagui, 28, a graduate in agriculture from the state-run Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and a resident of Ashoknagar (an Assembly segment within the Barasat Lok Sabha constituency), could not find any job in Bengal after passing out.
“I got a good job with a rural bank in Gujarat and have been staying there for more than three years now. Bengal looks like an extremely poor cousin of Gujarat. The progress made by Gujarat is mind-boggling. I travel to Maharashtra also and there too conditions are so vastly different from Bengal. Here, our Trinamool politicians dupe the people and are only interested in staying on in power. They have no vision and are not bothered about the welfare of Bengal and the people. But in Gujarat and Maharashtra, things are so different. If Bengal has to be saved and rejuvenated, the Trinamool must go. I have told my family and friends here to vote the Trinamool out of power,” said Barui, who has taken five days’ leave and is now in his hometown to cast his vote on Sunday (May 19). There are many others all over Barasat constituency like Shamik and they have influenced their families and friends as well.
Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar suffers from pretty strong anti-incumbency. Apart from the infrastructure development work carried out by the state government, she has done precious little for the constituency. Her performance as an MP has been below average (see this): her attendance at 60 per cent is below the national average of 80 per cent, she has participated in 17 debates (national average is more than 67), asked 10 questions (national average 293) and the two private member’s bills she introduced had nothing to do with her constituency. In fact, the debates she participated in or the questions she asked in the Lok Sabha also had no connection with Barasat.
“She is rude and arrogant, and does not interact in a civil manner with lower-level party functionaries and workers. Thus, she doesn’t enjoy a good rapport with most workers. She is always surrounded by a coterie of self-seeking party leaders and due to her rift with Sabyasachi Dutta (the Bidhannagar Mayor), many of her party colleagues and workers are against her. Her association with syndicates has sullied her image. All this is going to cost her in the polls,” said a senior Trinamool North 24 Parganas district office-bearer who maintains equidistance from the Dastidar and Dutta camps “with great difficulty”.
The Trinamool’s election machinery, however, remains very strong and this is what the party is banking on heavily. The BJP is, organisationally, not as strong as the Trinamool and that may work to its disadvantage in a situation where intimidation of and attacks on voters, and rigging of polls, is quite common. “If our agents can resist the Trinamool’s attempts to dislodge them from the polling stations and if the central forces maintain effective vigil, the Trinamool’s rigging machinery will not work,” said a senior district-level BJP functionary.
In the ultimate analysis, what holds the key to success in Barasat is how effectively rigging the polls is countered and stopped by central forces and the Opposition. In case polling is free and fair, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar may not be able to score a hattrick.