In conversation with Mamata’s neighbours on Harish Chatterjee Street

Longtime residents talk politics on the street that’s been Mamata’s home for 50 years.

BySourodipto Sanyal
In conversation with Mamata’s neighbours on Harish Chatterjee Street
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A policeman in plainclothes a few yards from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s official residence—30B, Harish Chatterjee Street in Kolkata—approaches me when he sees me with a pen and notebook while conversing with a local. After being told that I am a freelance journalist, he says, “Reporters are not allowed here.”

I tell him and the four or five other plainclothes policemen he’s with that I mean no harm and I am just striking up conversations with the residents of the street and noting stuff down. They refuse to entertain my request.

Fortunately, the police had either not noticed me or taken an interest in me striking up conversations with others before. This local was the last person I had intended to talk to at the southern end of the street, a space always brimming with policemen holding walkie-talkies, both in plainclothes and uniforms, with police vehicles stationed tens of metres away from each other.

When you enter Harish Chatterjee Street from its northern side, it seems like any other street in the southern part of the city. Mostly a lower-middle class locality with shops selling tea, cigarettes and biscuits, it consists of clustered garages, two-three floor apartments, modern shacks, graffiti paying homage to Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress flag. The two things that are strikingly different in this road, though, is the stench that comes from the 15.5-km canal called Adi Ganga or the Tolly’s Nullah which runs parallel to Harish Chatterjee Street and is filled with the worst of the city’s garbage. And the perpetual heavy police presence as one goes further south of the street.

West Bengal’s chief minister lives in the southern part of the street which leads to the Kalighat Gate, located right behind Tolly’s Nullah. The central party office of the Trinamool Congress is also located here. After becoming chief minister for the first time in May 2011, Mamata Banerjee never shifted from her residence. She’s been living in the same single-storeyed house for about 50 years now. From the reported surrender of armed Maoists in front of her residence in 2017 to the visit of the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 2000 when Banerjee was the railway minister, this unassuming street has witnessed a lot.

The chief minister has also had a busy year in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. On January 19, Banerjee organised a huge opposition rally attended by major leaders like Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Tejashwi Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal), Mallikarjun Kharge (Indian National Congress) and Jignesh Mevani. Her active opposition to the BJP’s politics in West Bengal and the rest of the country—especially after her recent stand-off with the Central Bureau of Investigation which wanted to question Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar regarding his alleged involvement in burying evidence in the Saradha chit fund and Rose Valley scam—makes many believe that she has prime ministerial ambitions.

But do the people living on Didi’s street want her to be the new Prime Minister? What do they think of Narendra Modi?

Prashant Jha is a 40-year-old small shopkeeper in the northern end of the street. His father is from Patna in Bihar, but Jha himself was born and brought up in Kolkata. His wife moved to the city from Patna after their wedding. He tells me, “Modi is fine at the Centre.” But his wife chips in and says: “Jo yahaan hai, unko hum support karenge… Pahle Didi. Baad mein Modi… Hum log shuru se Didi ko dete hain (We’ll support the person who is here … First Didi, then Modi. We have been voting for Didi from the beginning).”

Jha agrees it would be a matter of pride if someone from their street becomes prime minister. But he can’t predict whether Banerjee could become India’s most powerful individual in less than three months.

Further down the street, I interrupt an animated conversation between three women, two of whom seem to be in their 20s and one of whom appears middle-aged. All Bengalis, they’ve grown up on the same street—and they only have nice things to say about Didi. One of the younger women, Shipra (named changed), says: “Didi is from our street. We have grown up seeing her. Of course we love her.”

What does she think about Modi? “I am involved in the business of selling chicken. We hear about what is being done in Uttar Pradesh. They are making people jobless overnight. What will I eat if such things happen here?” She adds: “We hear from rural areas that the central government is doing some work. But not here in Kolkata.”

However, the other young woman, Damini (name changed), has only negative things to say about Modi in general, lambasting the BJP’s interference in the food habits of people, alleged communal politics, the introduction of GST, and demonetisation. She says” “Why did people like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi never take such steps (demonetisation)? Because they knew one can’t do that in a poor country like India.”

The group agrees that Mamata’s becoming prime minister depends on her “luck”, and a few votes from her street won’t make much of a difference. While they refuse to disclose who they’ll vote for, it seems unlikely to be for the BJP.

Harish Chatterjee Street is part of the Bhabanipur Assembly constituency, whose MLA since 2011 has been Mamata Banerjee. The Bhabanipur constituency is part of the Kolkata South parliamentary seat which goes to vote on May 19, in the seventh and last phase of the Lok Sabha polls scheduled to be held in the state. While Didi’s popularity is evident on Harish Chatterjee Street, some are particularly grateful. Mamata loyalists such as Gopal Ghosh (63), who works at a garage a few metres from the chief minister’s residence, has been living on this street for more than 30 years. He says: “It will be unfair if I say anything bad about Didi … She ensured that my son got a job.”

A similar sense of loyalty is seen from others on the street, including some Trinamool Congress workers who claim to have been given government jobs. A 60-year-old woman, who’s been a resident here for over 40 years, says: “Didi has done very good work, I won’t lie … My daughter does party work … Kartick Banerjee (one of Mamata’s brothers who also lives adjacent to the chief minister) helped her get a job. The family runs on her earnings now.” Satyajit (name changed), a 38-year-old TMC party worker, has a similar story to tell. “I have a job because of Didi … Kartick Banerjee helped my elder brother get a job last year.” He’s been working at the nearby Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in Hazra since 1998.

A few yards from Mamata’s house, a man collecting garbage tells me, “Didi works for the poor … we have her blessings.’’ He says it was only after Mamata Banerjee came to power that he got this job. He says he also pulls hand-rickshaws at night to supplement his income.

The constituency has been kind to Mamata Banerjee ever since she contested in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections when she was in the Indian National Congress. She retained this seat until 2011, when she voluntarily resigned to contest from the Bhabanipur Assembly constituency. The only time Banerjee and her party faced some sort of setback in this constituency was during the Modi wave in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Then, BJP candidate Tathagata Roy finished first in the Bhabanipur Assembly segment with a small lead of 185 votes, even though he lost the constituency to the Trinamool candidate.

Even though most residents of Harish Chatterjee Street say Banerjee has done better work than the Communist Party of India (Marxist), some admit they might not vote for her. A 60-year-old man hailing from Bihar, who used to work as a labourer when he was physically fit, says, “CPM, Trinamool, BJP—they all are the same … They’ll take our vote and later kick us in the ass.”

He refuses to identify himself. “Why would I want to get beaten up at this age?” While he isn’t particularly critical of Banerjee, he does have nice words for Modi: “Modi has given an answer after Pulwama. This has happened for the first time after Independence.” He demurs from revealing which party he’ll vote for.

Another man from Bihar has worked as a private driver in Kolkata since 1983. Since he earns a living by driving around the city, he is a witness to how the city has become illuminated since Mamata Banerjee came to power. “The city has become lit because of Didi. It was never like this before.” However, that isn’t a strong enough reason for him to prefer Didi over Modi—though he doesn’t have a voter card, anyway. If he did, he would have voted for Modi since he believes Modi has done good work in his home state of Bihar. He hopes Modi remains the Prime Minister.

A general trend I observe is that it’s mainly people with roots in the Hindi heartland—who refer to themselves as “Hindustanis”—who seem to favour Modi, irrespective of whether or not they like Mamata Banerjee. Harchand Tripathi (name changed), a shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh, has been working and living on the street for more than 30 years. He says he’s going to vote for the BJP: “I support the BJP … I am a Brahmin. I believe in God.”

He adds that supporters of the BJP never openly say so on Harish Chatterjee Street, fearing reprisals from TMC workers. Before my conversation with him began, he had asked, “Photo-voto toh nahin chhapega, na (My photo won’t be published, right?)”

Yet, he praises Banerjee and says she did better work than the CP(M). He’s glad about the beefed-up security along one stretch of Harish Chatterjee Street from Balaram Bose Ghat—which offers a good view of the dirty waters of the Tolly’s Nullah—to the road leading up to the Kalighat Gate. Before Banerjee was chief minister, he says, it was unthinkable to leave unattended stuff outside. But now: “Gundagiri has stopped in this para (locality) … If cycles are kept outside, there is no problem.”

So while enough people in Didi’s para credit her for providing them with jobs and vow to vote for her, are there enough Harchand Tripathis who might kill her vote? It remains to be seen.

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