It’s 10 am and the office traffic in the East Kolkata locality of Phoolbagan is an organised mess. Autorickshaws sneak past rickety buses, taxis slow down teasingly near commuters before zooming away, pedestrians negotiate dug-out roads. In any other city, the morning rush hour is not the ideal time to stop a pedestrian and ask for directions, but this is Kolkata. And after a heated election.
“Are you sure you want to go to the Beleghata CPM party office?” asks a young man, before giving us the directions. Straight and then a left turn, opposite the Divine Nursing Home, it’s a red building with glass doors. In a city awash with the Trinamool Congress blue and white, here is a rare red.
Since May 19, when the West Bengal election results were announced, 14 CPM regional offices in the Beleghata constituency have allegedly been occupied by TMC workers. The TMC’s Paresh Paul won from here against the CPM’s Rajib Biswas by 26,179 votes.
One can find Biswas at the Beleghata CPM office, among the few to have escaped the TMC’s wrath in the constituency. Four policemen sit on guard at the entrance.
Inside, the three-room office is strewn with party banners, flags and boxes full of documents. “Sorry about the mess. Stuff from most of our other offices in the area has been shifted here because Trinamool workers have occupied our buildings,” says Biswas.
There are only two other cadres present, pouring over a pile of Bengali newspapers.
Biswas makes space for us to sit in the “inner chamber of the office”. A wall bears mould-ridden pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. However, the most weather-beaten image is that of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. A network of damp patches criss-crosses the face of the CPM’s last chief minister, who held all of two reluctant rallies in the recent polls.
Glancing at Bhattacharya’s photo, Biswas smiles wearily, “The damp weather has no mercy”.
Diagonally across hangs a shiny laminated photograph of Jyoti Basu, who didn’t live to see the CPM’s decline after his heady, 23-year reign.
Since the results were announced a week ago, Biswas says, he has not been able to “sleep properly”. “We have been in hiding. Yesterday, my home was attacked by Trinamool workers. My election agent is in hiding. His house was burnt down a few days ago.”
“Even a fortnight ago, the place was buzzing with energy,” Biswas adds.
The policemen outside sip tea, offered around the office by party members.
Biswas was contesting for the first time. Slowly slipping from his cup, he says that in his campaign, he focused on infrastructural development and employment opportunities that he could bring to the largely middle-class constituency. “I was convinced that we would win because the sitting MLA had hardly done any work.”
On the morning of May 19, when it became increasingly clear that he was going to lose, Biswas called an urgent meeting with his cadres in this very office. “The regional office near my house was already taken over, we treated this as a safehouse,” he says.
There is a sense of post-poll fatigue about the office, Biswas corroborates. “We ran a gruelling campaign. I went to almost all the houses of the area asking for votes. Now an almost crippling tiredness has taken over.”
Around him, sheafs of documents flutter under the fan, as the rising pitch of a television anchor provides a lulling background score. Biswas keeps checking text messages on his phone intently, while the other CPM leaders remain buried in newspapers.
Around 1 pm, Biswas gets up to go home for lunch. “It’s a 15-minute walk, I live in a slum,” he says. “You can stay in the office, it will be kept open.”
Mainak Das is having biscuits and tea, and waves us over. The 62-year-old remembers the glory days of the party. “I was a big admirer of Jyoti Basu. One of my most cherished moments is when I met him in the 1990s. He was such a gentleman, never compromised on his dignity even in the direst of times,” says Das.
He has been a party member since he was a teenager, he adds. What does he think was the reason for the party’s crushing defeat? “I feel people were not very convinced about our jote with the Congress. We should have declared the alliance at least a year back. Also, we didn’t have a definite CM candidate.”
Today, he made his way to the party office early in the morning, Das says. “I left before the Trinamool guys could spot me and I will leave before sundown.”
He has “never seen this kind of violence”, Das adds. “I have sent my wife and children to my in-laws’ place. They (the Trinamool men) are not only targeting CPM supporters, but their families too. I don’t know why, they have won overwhelmingly.”
The only other CPM leader at the office, Swapan Saha, also 62, a zonal committee member, says his house was attacked by a mob of 30 TMC workers on the night of May 19. “They pelted my house with stone and bricks, most of my windows were broken.”
Most junior members of the party have stopped visiting the office, Das adds. “Auto drivers who are aligned to our party have been asked to join the Trinamool. Hawkers are being asked to join victory marches.”
The lunch hour extends leisurely to 2 pm, and the office still has no visitors.
At about 2.15 pm, Sulagna Maity, 31, walks in to do the cleaning. This has been an afternoon ritual for about five years. Does she see any change in the office? “There are no people around,” she smiles shyly.
The floor, covered with boxes and papers, doesn’t have much space for her to broom and mop. Yet, like the devoted cadres around her, she perseveres.
At about 3 pm, Biswas walks back in. “I have heard that one of our party members, whose sister died a day ago, had returned to attend her last rites but Trinamool party workers asked him to leave as soon as possible. This is the atmosphere we live in,” he says agitatedly.
Have they lodged a police report? “What report can be made? These are covert threats,” says Biswas.
Late in the night, he will have another meeting with party workers. “They are requesting me to join the Trinamool to stop all this madness, but I will not let this bog me down,” he asserts.
It’s 5 pm and a salmon pink dusk descends upon Kolkata. Biswas, Saha and Das are ready to lock up the office. “We will come back tomorrow. We have to keep the red flag flying high,” says Biswas.