Of brothers, rent collectors and absentee MLA: A Bengal Diary

Of brothers, rent collectors and absentee MLA: A Bengal Diary

By JOYEETA BASU | SILIGURI, MALDA AND KOLKATA | 9 April, 2016
Isha Khan Choudhury at the Congress office in Shujapur.
The problem arises when the brothers start behaving like ‘rent’ collectors and start visiting offices, small businesses, etc.
The infectious enthusiasm to vote for Mamata Banerjee, which was so apparent in the 2011 Assembly elections in West Bengal, is missing in 2016. A large chunk of the urban, middle/upper middle class voters in Kolkata are disillusioned and disgruntled. With the Trinamool Congress government hit by a series of controversies starting from the Saradha chit fund scam to the Narada sting video, in which her leaders were seen taking money, the common chorus is “she has let us down”. At the same time there is admission that “she has taken government to the people”—built roads, made bridges, cleaned up the city, erected those trident lampposts with three lamps even in the slums, taken tap water to the villages… Many of these urban and urbane folk, who had voted for Didi en bloc last time, have made up their mind about going with the BJP. Some are also mulling the Left-Congress option, because BJP is “such a non starter” in the state. But since when did political parties depend on the urban and urbane to win elections?
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There is no escaping Didi’s “brothers” in Bengal. Some of them were with the CPM once and are now with the Trinamool Congress. The ruling party too has reared its share of strongmen. As some say, the only way Mamata Banerjee could make CPM irrelevant in Bengal was to control the muscle power, which she has done with considerable flair. The problem arises when the brothers start behaving like “rent” collectors and start visiting offices, small businesses, etc. Even buying a luxury car could merit an innocent visit by a brother or two. As someone said, in the time of the Left, corruption was more institutionalised and more civil. One knew how much to give where. Now, one has to deal with the brothers.
Baichung Bhutia with a fan in Siliguri.
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In Shujapur constituency in Malda district’s Kaliachak block, an interesting fight is brewing: between uncle and nephew, although the nephew, Isha Khan Choudhury, does not like it when it is described thus. “It’s not a personal fight,” he says. The uncle, Abu Nasar Khan Choudhury, is the brother of the late Railway Minister from Congress, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury. Lebu Da, as Abu Nasar is commonly known, and which roughly translates as “Brother Lemon”, was the sitting MLA from Shujapur from Congress. He defected to the Trinamool Congress, did not fight an election, and is now the sitting MLA from Trinamool. Lebu Da, 80 years of age, has caused quite a scandal among his conservative Muslim voters by allegedly going around with a known gangster while asking for vote. The gangster concerned was with the CPM once, is with the Trinamool now and has a terrifying reputation. Shujapur anyway has infamous areas like Jadupur and Mojumpur where criminals fight turf wars over smuggling and opium trade, and taxi drivers do not want to stop their vehicles for fear of the untoward. Coming out to vote can be a strain for people in these parts. The voting may pass off peacefully, thanks to the presence of Central forces, but the voters may get “bombed ten days after the elections,” complains Isha Khan. He says he intends to clean up Shujapur, traditionally a Ghani Khan family constituency. 
In Siliguri, Trinamool workers admit that their candidate, Baichung Bhutia has a tough fight ahead, with his opponent, Ashok Bhattacharya being too heavyweight a fighter—the mayor of the town and a former CPM minister for 20 years. But then Baichung is young, handsome and a celebrity. People are coming out of their houses to greet him, women are swooning over him and the young are running after him. As far as his fans are concerned, Baichung has already won the contest. 
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The Kamarhati constituency on the northern outskirts of Kolkata has an absentee candidate, Trinamool Congress’ Madan Mitra fighting the elections. The erstwhile minister in the West Bengal government is in jail in the Saradha chit fund scam. He is the MLA from Kamarhati and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has thumbed her nose at everybody by re-nominating him from the seat. The calculation here is simple according to local Trinamool workers: “This seat has around 136,000 voters. On the other side of B.T. Road are seven minority dominated wards with 40,000 to 42,000 voters. Madan Da will get his lead from there. We don’t have to worry about what this side of the road is thinking. Anyway, we control 29 of the 35 wards in this constituency.” On the other side of B.T. Road, around half a kilometre down a Kolkata’s trident lamps have got a Trinamool makeover.serpentine lane is the local CPM office, painted bright red, sharing space with a jute mill workers’ union and inhabited by two really old men—one just finishing lunch and the other fast asleep. The banner outside the CPM office reads: “Cast you own vote. Do not let your vote to be looted.” A few kilometres away on B.T. Road is the Kamarahati municipality office, painted bright blue and white, the Trinamool colours. There, Gopal Saha, the chairman of the municipality, who is one of the persons overseeing Madan Mitra’s campaign, repeats a similar message: “We are telling voters to vote freely and fearlessly. Do not be coerced by anyone.” 
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Warning bell for BJP: A walk down Harish Mukherjee Road, a few blocks away from Mamata Banerjee’s house in Bhowanipore constituency shows that none of the hawkers, tea sellers or shopkeepers knows who the BJP candidate is. “Chandra Bose? Who is he?”
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The last word must go to the taxi driver. “Just look at the way Didi has wrapped all those blue and white LED lamps around the lampposts. Ekdum jhakkas (so fancy).” And to think that the urban and urbane lot has been shuddering at the display of “such tackiness”, where every trident shaped streetlamp in Kolkata has been wrapped with Trinamool-coloured LED lamps to welcome the election festival.

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