Standing next to the iron gates of Vidayasagar College through which a bust of can be seen, first-time polling officer Susanta Biswas says he has been fending off calls from his wife and mother every hour asking if all is okay. An armed central force jawan stands guarding the gates and blocking any attempts to venture inside.
A stone’s throw away is the Vidyasagar College hostel that saw the clashes between Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad and BJP workers during which another Vidyasagar bust was vandalised. The hostel has now been cordoned off and policemen posted inside, but the broken bust is visible through the open main door.
On the eve of the final voting day in West Bengal, a pall of tension hangs over the neighbourhoods and polling stations around Vidyasagar College, located in North Kolkata. After sporadic violence marking the previous polling phases in the state, Kolkata Uttar (North Kolkata), Kolkata Dakshin, Dumdum, Bashirhat, Barasat, Jadavpur, Diamond Harbour, Joynagar and Mathurapur vote on Sunday.
In Kolkata Uttar, the scene of the latest violence, veteran politician and sitting Trinamool Congress MP Sudip Bandopadhyay is taking on BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha.
Biswas, who has stepped out of the Vidyasagar College where polling officials like him are lodged, to fetch some water, wearing an identity card around his neck, says, “My mother and wife are worried as they have seen so much on television recently. I am not worried though. No point worrying, what has to happen will happen.”
His senior and presiding officer at one of the booths, Mrinal Pal, adds that having done this “a number of times”, he is more concerned about their living arrangements. “Only two fans are working out of four and that too running slowly. We have to sleep either on narrow benches or on the floor. You can see, we are buying drinking water and food from outside.”
At the Aryakanya Mahavidyalaya, about 15 minutes walk away, polling officers can be seen either stripped to their vests or bare-chested, trying to beat the heat as they sit on the floor of one of the classrooms and pore over piles of papers.
Susanta Bhattacharya, a polling officer at one of the five booths at the school, says it will be 2 am before they finish the preparations. “We will catch a couple of hours of sleep, before waking up to conduct the elections.” Adding that they can do little but have faith in the central forces, he asks, “Can you tell me a good hotel from where we can get some food?”
Outside, by 8.30 pm, people are hurrying home and the long queues generally seen outside the mutton and chicken shops in the lanes beside Bidhan Sarani have thinned.
Amit Sinha, a milk wholesaler who is also a BJP leader entrusted with five polling stations, says they too are prepared for Sunday. “People know there is no point giving votes to third (CPM) and fourth (Congress) parties. They have decided to vote for the BJP. We have learnt from the polls in 2014 and 2016. This time we are concentrating on booths. Inside the booths if the Trinamool Congress tries to do some nonsense, we will be ready. We will also have workers outside. I am getting calls from the local police and from hoodlums, but I don’t care. The BJP will win North Kolkata, just wait and watch. The BJP’s result will be very good, TMC days are over.”
Elaborates a person accompanying Sinha, who doesn’t want to be identified, “We will have three agents in all booths because we have put up two dummy candidates. The Trinamool Congress has done so too. Our agents this time are all under 40. You can understand why. Then there are ‘relievers’ (for the polling agents) and youths outside.”
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The Trinamool says it is equally prepared. At Ram Joy Seal Sishu Vidyalaya on Nilmoni Dutta Street, which has five polling booths, Pintu Singh is one of the party’s ‘relievers’. Claiming the TMC will win by a huge margin, Singh says, “The BJP has no base here. They also vandalised the Vidyasagar statue. We are ready if they act smart. They have brought outsiders, we have information.”
At Goenka Hospital and Diagnostic Centre on Muktaram Babu Street, first-time polling officer Debanjan Sarkar, a resident of Hooghly, evades all queries insisting, “Everything is alright. I cannot speak to you, everything is alright.”
At the Vishudanand Vidayalaya 10 minutes walk away, where there are seven polling booths, there is a large central forces deployment as well as a Quick Response Team car. While the car leaves after sometime, media is not allowed inside.
“The security this time is like never before. We are safe, but do not know what will happen tomorrow,” says Joydeep Pal, the presiding officer at one of the booths.
Just a few steps away, standing amidst a group at a tea stall, businessman Binay Jaiswal says he will decide his Sunday plans depending on what he sees in the news. “There are outsiders riding motorbikes in our locality. That is it, till now no one is threatening anyone. Tomorrow my family and I will see television first. If the situation is alright, we will go to vote, or else we will stay home and enjoy the holiday.”
Agrees Gobindo Das, at Chandan Chicken Centre on Shimla Street. “We all saw what happened at Vidyasagar College. We also saw what happened in the last phases. I will take a call after watching the news tomorrow. I do not want to risk the life of my family.”
The Haryana Vidya Mandir polling station is just 15 feet away. A central force jawan, who belongs to Ara in Bihar and doesn’t want to be identified, says “the situation is worse than in Bihar elections”. “I was posted in Chhattisgarh, then in the Maoist areas of Lalgarh. This election we have been posted in all the phases. We do not know politics, whoever creates trouble, we will break their legs. In an earlier phase, we did the same. The man who was trying to enter the booth called up so many people. We said call your leader, we will beat him up too.”