Ground Report From Bhabanipur: Not A Safe Seat For Trinamool, That’s Why Mamata Banerjee Shifted To Nandigram
Mamata Banerjee can always explain away a defeat in Nandigram to a host of external factors.
But she would be hard-pressed to explain a likely Trinamool defeat from Bhabanipur, her former constituency.
Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee’s on 18 January this year that she would contest from Nandigram took many by surprise.
Many construed it as a ‘masterstroke’ by Banerjee and surmised that by taking the fight to the BJP camp, she is sending out a forceful political message.
But the Trinamool’s chief’s shift from her home base Bhabanipur, which she has won from twice (2011 and 2016), is a classic case of making a virtue out of a necessity.
That’s because Mamata Banerjee rightly sensed that her chances of winning Bhabanipur for the third time in a row were slim.
A number of factors--severe anti-incumbency, sharp erosion in Mamata Banerjee’s image among people of Bhabanipur, civic ills, Trinamool’s mis-governance and Banerjee’s rhetoric against non-Bengalis--have turned the electorate here against the Trinamool chief.
Bhabanipur Assembly seat was earlier known as Kalighat and was represented twice by former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray and once by CPI(M)’s Sadhan Gupta, an eminent lawyer who was also India’s first blind parliamentarian.
Kalighat seat ceased to exist in 1977, but emerged as Bhabanipur constituency after a delimitation exercise in 2011.
Trinamool’s Subrata Bakshi won the seat by securing a 64.77 per cent vote share and defeating Narayan Prasad Jain (CPI-M) in 2011 by a margin of nearly 50,000 votes.
Bakshi vacated the seat for Mamata Banerjee after the Trinamool swept to power that year and in the by-elections held a couple of months later, the Trinamool chief secured 76,637 votes (a 77.46 per cent vote share).
Banerjee had defeated the CPI(M)’s Nandini Mukherjee by a margin of more than 57,000 votes in 2011.
In 2016, Mamata Banerjee polled 65,520 votes (47.67 per cent vote share) while Deepa Dasmunshi (Congress) bagged 40,219 votes (29.26 per cent vote share) and BJP’s Chandra Kumar Bose got 26,299 votes (19.13 per cent vote share).
The decline in Mamata Banerjee’s vote share in 2016 was 29.79 per cent (as compared to her vote share in 2011) while her winning margin also declined by more than 50 per cent from 57,215 (in 2011) to 25,301 in 2016.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s Chandra Kumar Bose got a handsome lead over Trinamool’s Mala Roy from six of the eight wards under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) that form the Bhabanipur Assembly segment.
Two Muslim-majority wards in Bhabanipur Assembly segment (which is part of Uttar Kolkata Lok Sabha seat) saved the day for Mala Roy and gave her a slender lead of 3168 votes from this Assembly segment.
In fact, Mala Roy lost from Mamata Banerjee’s own turf (Ward No 73 where Banerjee stays) and BJP’s Bose got a very good lead from this particular ward.
Bhabanipur constituency profile
This Assembly seat comprises eight wards under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC)--Wards 63, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 77 & 82.
The first six wards have some of the toniest localities in Kolkata--Theatre Road, Elgin Road, Turf Road, Townshend Road, Alipore and Burdwan Road--as well as middle and upper middle class localities like Harish Mukherjee Road and Harish Chatterjee Street.
These six wards are inhabited by middle class, upper-middle class and rich Hindus. Mamata Banerjee resides on Harish Chatterjee Street with her extended family (her brothers and their families), and so does her nephew and heir Abhishek Banerjee.
Muslims, mostly Urdu-speaking, are in a majority in Wards 77 (parts of Ekbalpore and Khidderpore) and 82 (parts of Chetla). Ward 82 also houses the residence of former Kolkata Mayor and state urban development minister Firad Hakim.
Hindus form about 85.5 per cent of the population of Bhabanipur, and 60 per cent of them are non-Bengalis. Bhabanipur was a Bengali Hindu dominated area till the early 1980s, but non-Bengalis (mainly Gujaratis, Marwaris, Punjabis, Marathis, Biharis and people from Uttar Pradesh) started settling down here in large numbers from the mid 1970s.
The total number of voters in Bhabanipur is about 2.5 lakh, and around 36,00 of them are Muslims. Non-Bengali Hindu voters number about 1.5 lakh.
Though most parts of Bhabanipur are middle and upper-middle class or even posh localities, they are dogged by many serious civic issues. Drainage, especially severe water-logging during the monsoons, is a perennial issue.
Many areas in Bhabanipur face a drinking water crisis during the summers and households in pockets of lower middle class localities (or slums) do not have piped water connections.
The in early-March this year served as a grim reminder of the potable water crisis of Bhabanipur.
As many as 70 people were taken ill when toxic sewage water entered KMC’s water mains through leaks in them. The tragedy came as an acute embarrassment to the Trinamool, especially former Mayor Firhad Hakim.
“Though the chief minister and the Mayor of the city reside here, Bhabanipur is beset by civic woes. We have to suffer a lot every year when streets get water logged during the monsoons. Even a smart shower results in the streets going under waist-deep water,” said Nirmal Sethia, a businessman and resident of Elgin Road.
Malati Biswas, a resident of a slum at Chetla, said: “We don’t have individual toilets and have to depend on community toilets which are in a terrible state. We have to spend hours every day in queues to get water and the roads here are in a mess”.
The Adi Ganga, which flows next to Mamata Banerjee’s residence, best exemplifies the civic mess of Kolkata. Toxic and putrid water flows down what was once a major river but is now little more than a drain (and thus also called Tolly’s Nullah (‘nullah’ means drain).
Despite offers of funds from the Narendra Modi government to clean the Adi Ganga, the state government has done nothing.
“Once upon a time, devotees used to take a dip in Adi Ganga before a darshan of Devi at the mandir. Now no one dares to go near it. The stench from the Adi Ganga is unbearable and the water is highly poisonous,” said a priest of the famous Kalighat mandir who did not want to be named.
The priests and sevaits (servitors) of Kalighat mandir have requested Mamata Banerjee many times to clean up the river and ensure that raw sewage and other effluents do not flow into the Adi Ganga.
“We took this up with her many times, and she has promised us many times to ensure that the Adi Ganga is dredged and only clean water flows down the river. But she never kept her promises and we have realised there is no point telling her any more about this,” said another priest of the mandir.
Vitriol against non-Bengalis:
The Trinamool’s, and especially Mamata Banerjee’s, vitriolic campaign against non-Bengali Hindus targeting them as ‘outsiders’ has alienated all the many non-Bengali communities living here.
Many of them are extremely angry with Mamata Banerjee for ranting against non-Bengalis. Though Mamata Banerjee tried to make amends and said all those staying in Bengal are Bengalis, her placatory gestures did not cut any ice.
“We Gujaratis have been living here for three generations and we have contributed a lot to the economy of the state. We run businesses and provide employment to local people. But Mamata Banerjee calls us outsiders. This is completely unacceptable,” said Arvind Dholakia, a businessman who runs garments stores in Kolkata.
Suman Kothari, who runs an interior designing firm, says that the Gujarati community is very hurt and angry by Mamata Banerjee’s “illogical and hate-filled outbursts” against Modi-Amit Shah.
“People will vote against the Trinamool. Had she (Mamata Banerjee) contested from here this time, she would have surely lost,” said Kothari.
Members of the other non-Bengali communities are also furious with Mamata Banerjee’s continuous tirade against non-Bengalis and her appeal to narrow parochial sentiments for her narrow political ends.
“To campaign on a parochial plank by inciting sentiments against non-Bengalis who she labels as ‘outsiders’ is pathetic and condemnable. People will punish the Trinamool,” said Shailendra Kanoi, a businessman with interests in jute.
Menace of cut-money:
Since most of the non-Bengali Hindus here are traders and businessmen, they have been bearing the brunt of Trinamool-run syndicates and extortion rackets.
“Businesses in Bengal are being held hostage by extortion rackets and syndicates run or patronised by Trinamool netas. The business environment has deteriorated sharply under the Trinamool and it is getting increasingly difficult to run businesses and enterprises. Extortionists are getting a free run,” said Santosh Agarwal, a builder.
Businessmen and traders have to pay ‘protection money’ to multiple Trinamool factions. “A major part of the money we make goes to Trinamool functionaries. The police are in their pockets and there is no use complaining. Even the top leadership of the Trinamool knows this but does nothing about it,” said Sudhangshu Mittal, a resident of Turf Road who runs a food supply business.
Mamata Banerjee’s sullied image
Though no one will come on record, it is widely alleged in Bhabanipur that Mamata Banerjee’s family members have amassed huge wealth. Her brothers, people here allege, have benami properties worth hundreds of crores of Rupees in their names.
The palatial residence of Mamata’s nephew Abhishek is cited as an example by the people of Bhabanipur. “He started a small business sometime in 2010 after getting a management degree from Delhi. And within a few years, he made this multi-storied palatial house. How was that possible?” wonders a prominent builder who lives a few blocks away from Abhishek Banerjee.
“We see the lavish lifestyles of Mamata Banerjee’s brothers, their clothes, gadgets, SUVs and fancy cars, branded clothes etc. Even fifteen years ago, they were common folks like us. The money they have now didn’t fall into their laps from the sky. People cannot be fooled,” said a middle-aged Bengali lady who stays just a few houses away from Mamata Banerjee.
People of Bhabanipur are, thus, no longer fooled by Mamata Banerjee’s proclamations of honesty and her spartan lifestyle.
The political campaigns
BJP has fielded a well-known Bengali film actor Rudranil Ghosh from Bhabanipur. Top BJP leaders, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah, have campaigned extensively for Ghosh.
Shah, in fact, went on a door-to-door campaign in Bhabanipur canvassing support for Ghosh. He received a very enthusiastic response from a cross-section of people here.
Ghosh, a good orator and an articulate speaker, comes across as well-meaning and sincere. A huge number of people have been turning up at his roadshows and street-corner meetings.
A whisper campaign is also on against Trinamool candidate Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, a veteran trade union leader and power minister.
It is being rumoured that Mamata Banerjee has fielded Chattopadhyay from Bhabanipur because his loss would be convenient for her.
“Chattopadhyay has outlived his utility in the Trinamool and there are some others like Purnendu Bose and Dola Sen who have become close to Mamata Banerjee and want to take Sovandeb Chattopadhyay’s place as head of the Trinamool Trade Union Congress. So Mamata Banerjee moved Chattopadhyay from Rashbehari Assembly constituency which he won since 1998 and gave him the Bhabanipur which has become an unsafe seat for the Trinamool,” said a former Trinamool functionary who left the party following differences with Mamata Banerjee’s close aides.
Though the Trinamool is banking on Muslim votes, not all Muslims will back the party. “Muslims have also suffered under the Trinamool, which has used Muslims as mere vote banks. The Trinamool has not done anything for the socio-economic upliftment of Muslims,” said Akhtar Hassan, a resident of Ekbalpore who runs a garments store in New Market.
Many Muslims are supporting Mohammad Shadab Khan of the Congress. Khan has been president of the North Kolkata wing of the Chatra Parishad (the Congress students’ body) and knows the ropes.
Khan has carried out a hard-hitting and intensive campaign against the Trinamool and his rallies and roadshows have attracted a huge number of Muslims, especially the youth. Khan, say Muslims of Bhabanipur, has managed to capture the imagination of a large number of youngsters in the area.
Thus, with a likely split in Muslim votes, and consolidation of Hindu votes (especially the non-Bengali Hindu votes), the BJP’s Rudranil Ghosh stands a good chance of sailing through.
And it was the realisation that she no longer commands the respect and support of the people of Bhabanipur that made Mamata Banerjee shift to Nandigram. Had she contested from Bhabanipur, the Trinamool supremo would perhaps have faced an ignominious defeat.
She took a gamble by contesting from Nandigram against Suvendu Adhikari, given the fact that it is the Adhikari family’s stronghold.
But even if she loses from Nandigram, that defeat will not be as embarrassing as a loss from Bhabanipur, which is her home base.
Mamata Banerjee can always explain away a defeat in Nandigram to a host of external factors. But she would have been very hard-pressed to explain a defeat from Bhabanipur.
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