Mamata Banerjee’s politics delightful to multitudes

KOLKATA: Just before Durga Puja last year, the English department of Surendranath College for women in Sealdah organised a freshers welcome. As part of the programme they put up a picture of Shakespeare on the department wall. A few minutes later all hell broke loose. A group of students led by a local Trinamool leader barged into the department and began shouting slogans. They also went to the principal to complain against certain teachers who they said were communists, sworn enemies of chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC). “They thought the picture was of Lenin!” said a professor at Surendranath College. “They created a ruckus for a long time,” the professor told ET but did not want to be named.

In Kolkata, which proudly boasts of an entire street named after the English Bard, and where many, especially the middle class, now wistfully remember what five years ago seemed like the interminable rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), not knowing one’s Shakespeare and Lenin would have been once regarded intellectual and political blasphemy. “The CPM was bad. But the TMC is worse,” says a former bureaucrat who now heads a private firm. “The TMC had come to power promising good governance (poribarton or change) but it has turned out to be a machine whose only objective is to retain power.”

Despite the CPM being a workers’ party, its top leaders had a sensibility that appealed to elite of Kolkata. A millionaire Kolkata industrialist, in a private conversation some years ago told this writer that he was a communist at heart. The long-serving CPM chief minister Jyoti Basu was equally at home with Tagore as well as Shakespeare. Many people ET spoke to describe the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee as someone who is more left than the Leftists.

They rue the fact that she plays Rabindra Sangeet, a discernible marker of laid back Bengali high culture, at traffic signals. They also look down upon her for hobnobbing with filmstars and soap actors. It is not Shakespeare-spouting high culture that brings her votes but the command of the streets, many of them named after intellectual, cultural and political giants. Masses are Mamata’s opium and she is their Didi or elder sister. Her politics is enforcing a change on Kolkata that may be indigestible to the aesthete but delightful to the multitudes.

Didi has made the streets, where she honed her politics, her own. When Mamata takes out a rally men, women and children throng the roads to get a glimpse of her as she walks smiling and waving at the hordes. When she came to power the dominant color of the city changed from red to blue. From pavements and flyovers to the tiles of the subway stations, the Trinamool colours rule. Blue and white illumination blinks along major thoroughfares. Blue electric transformers sit atop blue and white painted frames. Along Harish Chatterjee road, an arterial road in Bhowanipore constituency, where Mamata is fighting Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s grand nephew and BJP candidate Chandra Kumar Bose and Deepa Dasmunsi of the Congress in the state elections, there is hardly any other colour visible. The facade of a local restaurant, the signboards of shops and even police barricades sport the TMC colours. So complete is the area domination that a brightly-lit red cross in a drugstore looks out of place.

The current hero of the city is the trash compacter, a machine that presses large amounts of refuse into bins eliminating garbage overflow in the streets. The one thing everyone agrees, even the elite who would like to see Mamata’s back, is that the city is way cleaner than it was earlier. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation runs several clean public toilets (of course tiled blue). The KMC web site says it runs 383 pay-and-use toilets. That is hardly enough for a city spread over 200 sq km but every morning hundreds of people without proper housing queue up at these. “Didi ne city ko dulhan bana diya hai (sister, as Mamata is popularly known, has made Kolkata look like a bride),” says Gufran Ali, a hotel worker.

State finance minister Amit Mitra gave Rs 3,420 crore to the corporation in his last full budget 2015-16 for improving the environment. By keeping the streets clean, the TMC is also keeping its voters happy who mostly operate in the informal economy. In a city that is unable to lure large industries and create jobs, pavements have become livelihood thoroughfares.

Traders, hawkers, mechanics and vendors use kerbs as shops, warehouses and shopfloors. And having usable toilets and clean roads makes their lives a bit more easier.

“The centre of gravity of the city has shifted to the south,” says Mudar Patherya, who organises music shows and plays on the banks of Rabindra Sarobar, a 192-acre lake and woods in South Kolkata. “It is not Park Street any more.” Patherya, whose shows have attracted artists like Usha Uthup, is referring to the iconic street that was once the favorite haunt of the city’s affluent. It boasts of iconic baker and confectioner Flurys, the posh Mocambo restaurant and OlyPub, a no frills bar that is like a jaunty rebel among the polished esablishments. Sumit Roy, who runs brand consultancy Univbrands, says the composition of the crowd on Park Street has changed. “It is now more democratic,” says Roy, who also runs an amateur theatre group the Red Curtain.

The south is where the affluent are shifting, many into rising apartment complexes in neighbourhoods that imitate the gleaming and sterile, as novelist Amit Chaudhuri describes them, Dubai and Atlanta. Chaudhuri who spearheads a campaign to save the architectural heritage resident in the beautiful but decaying old houses of Kolkata, compares the late nineteenth century Calcutta (as it was then called) with industrialised, modern cities like Paris and Berlin where neighbourhood streets looked like “they were born into decay”.

Chaudhuri says the middle class Bengali is now gripped by a sense of disengagement with the city.

A sense of absence lingers in Burrabazar, home to thousands of Marwari businessmen and traders.

The absence of 26 people crushed under a mass of steel and concrete. The fallen structure looks like a giant ramp. On the street below, life has picked up the threads. ET asked a rickshaw puller if he was not scared to stay under what was left of the bridge. “It doesn’t matter. If your time has come nobody can stop you from dying,” he said.