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September 27, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Tara Shankar Sahay

'Mamta Banerjee is invincible here'

At Calcutta's traffic-choked Hazra Square, you find policemen swearing viciously. It has been raining steadily for the last 36 hours. The clatter of trams, the incessant honking, and the thick, black exhaust fumes are enough to wear anybody's patience thin. To make matters worse, the cops have to tackle eight naked urchins dancing in the rain.

The cabby turns right from Kalighat. You are now in the congested Harish Chatterjee street. There is nothing remarkable about it. The traditional mishtir dokan [sweet shops] jostle for space with auto garages and tiny general store outlets. A few yards down, you reach a medium-sized construction that could easily pass off as a shoddy, government department.

"Eta Mamtadir bari," [This is Mamata Banerjee's house] the cabby announces.

It sets you thinking. The tin roof, the unpretentious, crudely constructed doors, tiny windows... There's an overwhelming aura of austerity about the whole thing. Then it clicks. The Trinamul Congress chief is living up to her reputation as a people's leader. No frills, no thrills, just sweat and a burning sense of purpose to fulfil her promises to the electorate.

Right next to her house is the party office. It is equally practical. A few plastic chairs, two small tables and an almirah. You are handed a steaming bhar [earthen cup] of tea and told that the lady of the party can be met in Sonarpur, where she is on a padyatra in the predominantly rural backyard of Calcutta.

The elderly man who tells you all this, Manikda, is the office secretary. He asks a woman activist to ring up party workers in Sonarpur to ensure that the arrangements for Banerjee's visit this afternoon goes without any hitch. He relaxes visibly on being assured that she would get a rousing reception.

You corner the women activists, ask them what makes Mamta click. "Simple," says Nabonita Ghosh, "Didi [as she is affectionately called] is a real leader. She came to prominence in 1984 when she defeated CPI-M heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee from the Jadavpur parliamentary constituency. But that feat did not turn her head. She still wears simple cotton saris and leather chatti [slippers]. There is nothing ostentatious about her. Can you say the same about local Congress and CPI-M leaders?"

Our conversation is interrupted when Manikda gives driver Gopal an elaborate dressing down, asking him to account for five litres of petrol, "You better come clean or you will have to explain to didi," Manikada warns.

"In our party there is no place for extravagance or waste," Nabonita explains, "The people of this state know that Trinamul is hard-pressed for funds. But they also know that didi is willing to do virtually anything for them. So they keep coming to us in large numbers."

That Banerjee is the hot favourite in South Calcutta becomes increasingly apparent as you visit its assembly segments -- Alipur, Ballygunge, Chowringhee, Dhakuria, Rashbehari, Sonarpur and Tollygunge. In fact, the obvious support makes you wonder whether she has any opponents. The Trinamul office secretary says the South Calcutta constituency has 1.4 million voters.

In Selina Café in Lake Town on Rashbehari Avenue are six schoolteachers. They laugh and joke over kabiraji cutlets and coffee. They regret that the poll coincides with Durga Puja, the biggest festival in the state. You discreetly inquire who is the likely winner in the three-cornered contest -- the Trinamul, CPI-M or Congress?

Sumita Roy, the most vocal among the teachers, laughs uproariously. "The CPI-M and Congress candidates are sacrificial lambs. Their parties are quite aware of it," she says. "Mamta Banerjee is invincible here. Even if the CPI-M and Congress gang up against her, she will win handsomely."

Significantly, the Trinamul chief's popularity is based more on what she has delivered during her last three terms as MP rather than her famous tirade against the CPI-M. This is evident during her padyatra in Golpark. Braving the heavy drizzle, soaked to the skin, Mamta politely refuses an umbrella. She gets down from the car at Gariahat Crossing and marches ahead with a large number of enthusiastic supporters. The residents greet her with smiles and folded hands. She inquires about their problems and asks a party worker to note down what they have to say.

"Last year, Mamta gave us money from her MP fund for cremating those whose families could not afford it," says Lattoo Sen, an unemployed youth who earns his living as a street typist. He does not forget to mention that when his typewriter broke down, the Trinamul chief replaced it.

"Dada frankly, didi is what the country needs, she is there to listen and help the likes of us who have nothing to look forward to," Sen gushes.

Riaaz Ali, a shop-owner in Park Circus, echoes similar sentiments. "The Muslims in Calcutta know that Mamta keeps her promise. She successfully intervened when there was trouble over azan [Muslim prayer call] on loudspeakers in mosques. Mamta implored with then prime minister I K Gujral that this should be allowed to continue for the sake of communal harmony. Thanks to her there is no problem over it now."

Ali also underlines that the Muslims in West Bengal know that Mamta means business. He relates how she was instrumental in doing away with the "obnoxious TADA law " and how she helped in matters relating to the Wakf Board. Hence, despite the Trinamul's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Muslims have considerable faith in Banerjee, Ali maintains.

At Sonarpur, about 50 kilometres from Ballygunge, Banerjee is surrounded by old men, women and children with garlands in their hands. Haran Addi, a farmer's help, explains the adulation of the people.

"No other leader has shown the kind of concern that Mamta has shown right from 1991," he says, "She has never let us down. She is like a devi [god] to us."

Thus, the CPI-M and Congress candidate -- Subhyankar Chakroborty and Partha Roychowdhury respectively -- look nowhere in the contest. At a late evening meeting in Gariahat Crossing, Roychowdhury dwells on Kargil and how the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government let the country down. He praises Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. There are barely 50 people to listen to him. Congress workers seek to attribute the thin attendance to the incessant rains. But there is no conviction in either Roychowdhury's or his workers' argument.

Near Ballygunge station, the CPI-M candidate launches a bitter attack on Banerjee, alleging that she is fooling the Calcutta youth with promises of lucrative jobs after she becomes the Union railway minister.

"Mamta is trying to take you for a ride," Chakraborty tells a gathering of about 3,000 people, "Don't believe her. Please vote for me."

The Rediff Election Specials

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