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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Bhabanipur bypoll: Everything but politics

Mamata Banerjee fights a bypoll from Bhabanipur on Sept 30. But in this seat of yellow cabs, heritage buildings, there’s a different buzz — price rise and ‘Dada’ Ganguly getting in Dhoni as Team India mentor.

Written by Santanu Chowdhury |
Updated: September 20, 2021 7:18:06 pm
Outside Netaji Bhawan in Bhabanipur. The neighbourhood’s status as a VIP constituency explains why it’s not starstruck about the bypoll. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

Sitting on a bench outside Habu Da’s tea stall, opposite the heritage ‘Mitra Institution’ in Bhabanipur, Babla Ghosh, 36, speaks dismissively, “What election? People already know the outcome.”

Bhabanipur — the constituency in south Kolkata thrust into the limelight as the seat from where Mamata Banerjee will seek to enter the Assembly through a by-election on September 30, after her loss from Nandigram in the state elections earlier this year — has had an extended electoral season, and the fatigue is showing.

The conversation in the town’s popular addas, from Habu Da’s tea stall to the famous Balwant Singh’s Eating House, mostly focuses on the mundane — price rise, the unusually heavy rainfall this year, and Mamata Banerjee’s intervention to find a sponsor for the East Bengal football club.

Sitting around a table outside Shyam Da’s tea stall, a group of men are having an animated conversation on M S Dhoni’s selection as a team mentor for the T20 World Cup. When asked about the bypoll, one of them says, “Everyone knows who will get 98 votes out of 100. What’s the point of asking? Forget Didi, Dada (Sourav Ganguly) has done a superb job by bringing in M S Dhoni. Now India has a solid chance of winning the T20 World Cup.”

Mamata Banerjee’s election campaign hoarding at Harish Mukherjee road in Bhabanipur under the Bhabanipur assembly Constituency is one of the cosmpolitan area in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Located in south Kolkata, Bhabanipur is arguably the most cosmopolitan part of the city. About 40 per cent of its voters are non-Bengalis — mostly migrants from Punjab, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh.

The place has the quintessential old Kolkata charm — with dilapidated centuries-old bungalows, narrow bylanes, hand-pulled rickshaws and a potua para (potter’s quarters).

Idol-maker Bapi Pal, 52, has no time to discuss the bypoll. He has more pressing things on his mind, with Durga Puja starting on October 11. “Bengal’s biggest festival is just a month away. We were anyway running into losses for two consecutive years due to Covid. Now we have got some orders for idols. We are working round the clock to finish them on time,” says Pal, who lives within 200 metres of Mamata Banerjee’s Kalighat residence.

Despite the ennui surrounding the election, Bhabanipur has issues that its residents want to be fixed — the poor drainage system, the desilting of the Tolly Nullah, and the uneven roads that need to be fixed.

“The next MLA should ensure the Tolly Nullah is cleaned up. Every time there is high tide, the water overflows and all our homes get flooded,” says Pal.

The highly polluted nullah, also known as Adi Ganga, runs by Banerjee’s home. The canal continues to receive untreated sewage and waste from homes in the neighbourhood, despite the National Green Tribunal’s intervention over the years.

The constituency is also the hub of Kolkata’s famous yellow taxis as most of them have garages here.

Taxi stand at Bhabanipur. Once it was famous for Trustworthy Sikh Taxi drivers. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Shankar Verma, 47, who hails from Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh and has been a taxi driver in Bhabanipur for 30 years, says the condition of roads needs to improve. “Every monsoon, the roads get affected due to heavy rains. It gets difficult to drive on potholed roads,” he says.

Balwant Singh’s ‘Eating House’ on Harish Mukherjee Road is known for its famous ‘chai’. The eatery is adjacent to Gurdwara Shant Kutiya, where CM Banerjee paid a visit last week seeking the support of the Punjabi community. On a Thursday morning, the eatery is all abuzz but there is hardly any talk of the upcoming bypoll.

“People here have no interest. We are busy running our business,” says Saminder Pal Singh, whose family owns the eatery.

Famous Balwant Singh eating house in Harish Mukherjee road under the Bhabanipur assembly Constituency . From Morning walker to food lovers famous eating joint in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Sipping tea from a kulhad, businessman Manbir Singh says, “The TMC is already in power. There is no point supporting the Opposition.”

Banerjee’s opponent is the BJP’s Priyanka Tibrewal, a young lawyer who was instrumental in ensuring a CBI probe into incidents of post-poll violence in West Bengal.

Banerjee has won twice from Bhabanipur since 2011. In the Assembly elections earlier this year, she had moved out of Bhabanipur to contest from Nandigram in East Midnapore district, but lost to her former confidant-turned-BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari by a margin of 1,956 votes.

BJP candidate Priyanka Tibrewal’s election campaign hoarding at Elgin road under the Bhabanipur assembly Constituency is one of the cosmopolitan areas in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

The TMC’s Sovandeb Chattopadhyay won from Bhabanipur, securing 57.71 per cent of the votes, but vacated the seat to allow Banerjee to get elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.

Bhabanipur’s status as a VIP constituency — besides Banerjee, former West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray was twice elected from here — and the fact that it is part of Kolkata city, probably explains why it’s not starstruck about the highly anticipated bypoll.

Standing outside Gupta Brothers, a sweet shop across the road from ‘Eating House’, businessman Akash Mehta, 42, admits that there is no excitement over the bypoll. “It’s a non-contest. In the Assembly polls, all eyes were on Nandigram because Mamata Banerjee was up against Suvendu Adhikari. This time, the BJP has not fielded any heavyweight against the Chief Minister. This has made the contest easier for Banerjee,” he says, unwilling to be drawn into any more talk on politics.

But there is somebody who is willing to hazard a guess. Umesh Kamath, 55, whose family hails from Madhubani district in Bihar, has a clear winner in mind. “Didi will win. Her government has provided a lot of social welfare schemes which have helped people like us,” says Kamath.

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