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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A city’s choice: College Street bookstores to Jorasanko workshops

Large bungalows and gleaming glass edifices sit next door to heritage homes, their columns and rafters exquisite and crumbling. Come this election, Kolkata, that bastion of Bengali exceptionalism, has a similarly convoluted choice to make.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Kolkata |
Updated: April 20, 2021 12:44:02 pm
In 2016, the TMC swept all 14 seats in Kolkata. By 2019, the BJP led in three of those. (Express photo by Dipankar Ghose)

At the heart of Kolkata lies a bundle of contradictions. On tracks that cut through tarred roads, trams trundle unhurriedly. Around them, the whirl of new money and luxury vehicles, speeding along roads that are one-way at one time, another way the next. Large bungalows and gleaming glass edifices sit next door to heritage homes, their columns and rafters exquisite and crumbling. Come this election, Kolkata, that bastion of Bengali exceptionalism, has a similarly convoluted choice to make.

Of going back to the Left that has a very little chance of winning the election, of sticking to the TMC that swept the city, is very much Bengali but not quite bhadralok, or the rising BJP that promises jobs and vikas but comes with its own unique trappings.

On an afternoon this week, the gates of Presidency College are firmly shut with three guards staring at their phones. On the wall are two posters, one denounces the “corporatization of Presidency College”, another proclaims “Lohia raj nahi chalega.” The pandemic means many such colleges are shut but on College Street, most of the book shops are doing brisk business. “Kon boi chai” (Which book do you want?) is the question you are asked.

“This is Kolkata. Even when colleges are shut, a book market is crowded,” said Tapan Ghosh who has owned a bookstore here since 1967. “Politicians are all the same. The CPM guys first moved to TMC, now some TMC have gone to BJP. What I am most wary of is that our culture should not change.”

The word “culture” is almost a caricature of the “bhadralok” Bengali but it’s a refrain this time. A kilometre from Presidency is Vidyasagar College where the TMC alleged BJP supporters in 2019 broke in and damaged the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. It was a moment the TMC seized then, accusing the BJP of attacking Bengal with “outsiders”, a term now frequent in the political lexicon.

Outside the college, the anger over the 2019 incident has diminished but some doubts remain. “The BJP has brought some leaders in but their main campaigners are all from Delhi. Prime Minister Modi may be good in Delhi but why don’t their state leaders lead the campaign? Why Amit Shah? Do these people understand Bengal, understand our ethos?” asked Saikat Rai, a 45-year-old resident.

But Rai’s question isn’t exactly a chorus. While there are seats in Kolkata and its suburbs like Tollygunge or Dum Dum that fall in other parliamentary constituencies too, Kolkata has two Parliamentary constituencies, North and South, that have a total of 14 seats.

In 2016, the TMC swept them all. By 2019, though, the BJP led in three: Rashbehari, Jorasanko and Shyampukur. While these were all with small leads within 5000 votes, in at least two other seats, including Mamata Banerjee’s erstwhile seat of Bhabanipur, the TMC led by slender margins too.

Next to Saikat Rai, Partha Thakur, younger and just out of college, voted for the BJP in 2019 and will do so again. “How long will we keep saying they do not understand Bengal? The BJP will bring jobs and industry to Bengal. At the very least, there will be a government here that will not fight constantly with the Centre. If they don’t perform in five years, vote them out. But this culture argument cannot be a constant reason to keep other political options out,” said Thakur.

In the city, the TMC’s argument for retaining Kolkata is primarily two-fold: play on Bengali pride, as well as work done in the city over the past decade. If in rural Bengal, the “kaaj to hoyeche” (work has been done) argument from the TMC voter is based on a slew of welfare schemes, here it is “visible improvement in the city.”

Said a TMC worker in Ballygunge: “Look at the city, how it has improved so much in 10 years. There is Newtown that has developed so well, the upkeep is better, the roads are better maintained. The residents here can see the improvement.”

But the BJP, too, clearly senses an opportunity to build on its gains in 2019. In a series of town halls across the city, its message is clear: corruption, violence and the need for change. That the Syndicate affects the city and its Bengalis who will benefit under a government where “law and order and firm leadership are paramount”.

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However, Kolkata isn’t just about Bengalis.

In the lane that runs parallel to Thakurbari where Rabindranath Tagore grew up in Jorosanko, are vehicle mechanic shops, cloth merchants and hawkers’ colonies. Here live the migrants, the silent soldiers who keep the city on its feet. “We come here to work but nobody asks after us for five years. When elections come, they do. It is not like Didi has not worked for us but she favours Muslims too much. Her schemes help us too but now there are some who talk of change. That may bring more development. But it is very close and difficult to tell,” said Ravi Kant Prasad who works in a machine shop.

Among many migrants, there is also conversation about “amity and peace.” Many migrants are Muslims from UP and Bihar like Mehraj Khan from Buxar who works as a driver. “I have lived here for 20 years. Yes, the TMC has been corrupt and even in the city their local people ask for money for small things. But at least in Kolkata, there has never been a Hindu-Muslim problem, I want to keep that peace,” said Khan.

For a section of the bhadralok, too, the creeping rise of overt religiosity and the “Jai Shri Ram” rallies are an issue. Underlining this is Samir Bagchi, who lives in a Jorasanko lane and retired as an academic. For his 67 years, he said, religion and caste did not “enter my politics.”

Asked if this spoke of his privilege more than anything else, he said: “Yes, maybe. I have not considered myself a Brahmin, but that is perhaps because caste was not spoken around me, and that may be because of privilege. I am still proud of it though, that caste and religion in Kolkata are not divisive factors.”

On voting, he keeps his cards close: “I have voted for the Left all my life, and many say they are switching to the BJP. The TMC has too much hooliganism, too much corruption. But the winning option now is the BJP. They can be given a chance for five years, and if we don’t like them, we can vote them out. But I have to think about it. They say they will bring Romeo Squads here like in UP. Where does that stop? Is that what I want in Kolkata?”

The answer is a bundle of contradictions that lies at the city’s heart, who best teases out its message will decide May 2.

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