West Bengal Election 2021: At 11 am, 36 Maharani Indira Debi Road is bustling with people – while someone is managing phone calls from party workers, others are busy preparing for the day’s campaign and making sure the vehicles are fit for arduous canvassing. Once, the city was virtually run from this address, now the fight from here is to regain lost glory.
The noteworthy house in the middle-class locality of Parnasree Pally in south Kolkata is the residence of Ratna Chatterjee, the Trinamool Congress candidate from Behala Purba, who is fighting her first election, in the middle of a bitter separation from her husband Sovan Chatterjee, the former mayor of Kolkata and sitting MLA from the seat who joined the BJP in late 2019.
“Since childhood, I have seen a lot of elections. First, it was my parents and then my husband. So, this is not new for me. However, this is my first election as a candidate so there is a bit of excitement. (CM) Mamata Banerjee has worked a lot for the people so as a TMC candidate, I don’t have much pressure in reaching out to the people,” Ratna told PTI.
Sovan quit the BJP along with his friend Baishakhi Banerjee after they were denied nominations by the opposition party. Besides, being a mayor, he won the seat for two consecutive terms — 2011 and 2016. He wanted to contest this time too from the constituency, but the BJP chose to field actor Payel Sarkar.
“The party, not the candidate, is more important. But yes, if Sovan had been fielded by the BJP, family issues would have been raked up in public domain. I have been saved of that,” Ratna, 49, said.
“However, it is a fact that if he had fought the election, I don’t know how his campaign would have been but the people of Behala Purba would have been unhappy. Firstly, because he has been missing from public life for three years and secondly, he wouldn’t have campaigned alone. He is roaming around with another woman when he has a wife at home, that is not Bengali culture,” she said, referring to Baisakhi.
Announcing Ratna’s name for the elections, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said, “Ratna Chatterjee, for women’s safety.”
In his resignation letter, Sovan said he felt humiliated that BJP decided not to give him a ticket from Behala Purba and instead field him from Behala Paschim. Besides, the decision not to give a ticket to his friend Baishakhi was an added cause of unhappiness with the saffron party.
Sovan, a powerful minister with a slew of portfolios in the Mamata Banerjee government quit the TMC, amid a strain in his marital relationship over his “friendship” with Baishakhi. BJP’s Payel too said people do not care about candidates, but vote on the basis of party promises and past record.
Payel, 39, who has starred in popular Bengali hits such as ‘Bojhena Se Bojhena’ and ‘Prem Amar’, now starts her day at 7 am in the morning, campaigning hard through the lanes and by-lanes of the constituency, which stretches from New Alipore to Joka, home to IIM, Calcutta.
“57% of voters in my constituency are women and I am banking on them… I appeal to people to come to polling stations and cast votes. Security forces are deployed. I think everything will go very peacefully today,” Payel told reporters on Saturday morning.
“I was always interested in politics. Since 2014, I have been following Prime Minister Narendra Modi very closely and the kind of work the BJP has done in other states. This has been very inspiring,” she said while taking a break after the morning campaign at her election office — a rented wedding hall off James Long Sarani in Manton earlier.
Brushing aside criticism that celebrities go missing from public life once elections are over, Payel said it was a wrong notion. TMC won the seat in 2016 time by bagging around 47 per cent votes, while a Left-supported Independent candidate had 36 per cent of vote share. BJP came third with around 10 per cent.
However, the scenario changed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even though the Trinamool Congress led with 43.32 per cent votes in Behala Purba, the BJP came second with 35.63 per cent votes. The CPI(M) was a distant third with 15.90 per cent. The seat has a total of 3.07 lakh voters.
CPI(M) candidate Samita Har Chowdhury, 52, said she was confident her party would be able to regain its vote base. “You have to understand that Lok Sabha is different from an assembly election. People were voting for a government at the Centre and we, the Left, could not provide an alternative there. So, they left us. But, on the campaign trail we are now witnessing that our supporters are returning and joining us,” she said.
Samita, a dog lover with five canines, has made the party office in Behala Tram Depot her home since her candidature was announced. “I start my campaign at 8 am and it continues till 10.30 in the night. The main focus of our campaign is the issue of employment. Behala is now home to only elderly people with most of their children working in other parts of India or abroad. We need to create opportunities for the young here, so that they don’t have to leave their homes,” she said, adding that this promise is drawing the youth to her party.
While Ratna has roped in the chief minister for her campaign, Home Minister Amit Shah held a roadshow in the area to support Payel. Samita said that though some large rallies have been addressed by Left leaders such as Biman Bose, the party is focusing more on door-to-door campaigns. Besides, the party’s young brigade is organising flash mobs at important crossings and busy markets to reach out to the voters.
Behala Purba, which is considered a TMC bastion over the last decade, has more women voters (1.56 lakh) than men (1.51 lakh), possibly because of which the three main candidates are ladies. “TMC was first to announce my name. I don’t know, if that is what forced the BJP and CPI(M) to field women candidates. However, earlier politics was male dominated, we are now witnessing a change,” Ratna said.
Payel said it was “fantastic” that all the main contenders were women, while Samita, a full-time CPI(M) worker, said that rather than seeing herself as woman in a fight with two others, she was concerned about the two parties she is contesting against. “My fight is with the ideologies of the TMC and BJP.” On the ground, the TMC’s campaign is much ahead in terms of visibility — wall graffitis, flags, festoons and hoardings, among others. The CPI(M) is not far behind but the BJP is catching up as the polling day nears. People of the area said they are more concerned about basic issues such as water-logging — a pain that still persists in some pockets.
“Sovon-da has really worked for the people in Behala.As a mayor, he resolved the water-logging issue to a large extent. Let’s see, what happens this time. All three candidates are new,” said Tapas Samanta, who vends fruits at the 3A Bus Stand.
Behala, once a distant suburb, has witnessed rapid growth in the last decade with several large housing complexes coming up and a metro line in the making. Prativa Sarkar of Thakurpukur said, “Mamata Banerjee announced this metro project when she was the railway minister, it has been 10 years. Don’t really know when it will be completed. Also, the menace of auto-rickshaws charging exorbitant fares needs to be checked.” Shambo Mondal, 29, a creative professional who lives in Sakherbazar, said the issues of potholes on James Long Sarani and other roads bother him as the issue of unemployment.
“Potholes are like death traps. Hope, whoever comes to power takes care of this and the traffic snarls we face every day. Also, I don’t want fascism and politics of hatred in Bengal,” he said. Saugata Paul, 28, an IT professional who moved back to his home in Bhuban Mohan Roy Road from Chennai during the lockdown last year, said the major issue for him is the lack of jobs in the state.
“I sincerely hope industries make their way back to the state. Bengal does not have enough jobs, so we have to go elsewhere,” he said. Behala Purba goes to polls in the fourth phase on April 10. The votes will be counted along with 293 other constituencies in West Bengal on May 2.
(With inputs from PTI)