Kolkata: It’s an early morning with a light drizzle. A crowd has started gathering at Balwant’s Eating Place, the almost 100-year-old famous tea joint adjacent to the Sant Kutia gurdwara in Bhabanipur for their morning cup of tea. Everyone is looking forward to an informal adda on almost everything — from the weather to the price of Ilish shooting through the roof this puja season and, of course, the upcoming election right at their doorstep.
There’s a similar crowd at Sharma Tea House, another famous tea joint, just opposite the gurdwara. Hordes of morning walkers made up of retired government servants, lawyers, and businessmen seem to be waiting for someone. There is a certain buzz in the air.
Union Petroleum Minister Hardeep Singh Puri is expected to come to the gurdwara to seek blessings before starting his campaign for party candidate Priyanka Tibrewal — the 41-year-old lawyer who will take on Mamata Banerjee in Bhabanipur, the chief minister’s former turf before she contested from Nandigram in the April-May Assembly elections.
The bypoll to Bhabanipur assembly constituency is on 30 September. It was necessitated because Banerjee lost from the Nandigram seat to BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, and rules say a minister has to get elected to the state legislature within 6 months of assuming charge, else the person ceases to be a minister.
Local residents say politicians are making a beeline for the gurdwara and it’s a must-visit on their itinerary because 40 per cent of Bhabanipur’s constituents are non-Bengalis — mostly Sikhs and Punjabis, besides Gujaratis and Marwaris — and each party is wooing this voter base. Last week Banerjee, too, came visiting during her campaign.
At 8 am, sharp, Wednesday, Puri arrives at the gurdwara with a West Bengal police escort following him. He briskly climbs the stairs and goes inside, bows before the sanctum sanctorum and takes a round before coming out. He is met by TV journalists who have been waiting outside the gurdwara. He gives them a few bytes, then climbs into his car and goes to the next campaign location — Ray Street, where many Punjabi and Gujarati families live.
He enters the one-room home of one Gurpreet Singh, a taxi driver, who is a third-generation Punjabi living in Kolkata. After Puri comes out of the house and goes to an adjacent building, Singh tells ThePrint that the outcome of the Bhabanipur elections is known to all.
“The fact is that a lot of non-Bengalis live here but Trinamool Congress is the ruling party and Mamata Banerjee is the chief minister. Do I have to say more?” he said.
‘Not a lightweight candidate at all’
A little later Puri, in a freewheeling interview, tells ThePrint that the perception that BJP has pitted a lightweight candidate in Tibrewal is not correct.
“She strikes me as being anything but a lightweight candidate. She’s an outstanding professional. She’s a lawyer. She has fought cases for political figures but more than that look at her track record. And I think this is what the BJP represents. That you don’t have to be somebody’s son or daughter, or nephew, in order to rise and advance in politics,” Puri said.
Referring to the April-May assembly elections, when the BJP failed to oust the Mamata Banerjee government despite an aggressive campaign, Puri said, “In any democracy, we accept the results of what happened. Equally, we cannot be guided by what happened….”
Puri also sought to dismiss the fact that not many senior party leaders were campaigning for the Bhabanipur bypolls.
“I saw a list of 17 star campaigners, who are or will be campaigning, including senior ministers… I was not utilised earlier because we had more than enough people. But as I said when I was given an indication that I could come and lend my shoulder to Priyankaji’s campaign, I was delighted.”
‘Gurdwara Sahib not the place to talk about farmers’ issues’
Taking a dig at Banerjee for talking about farmers’ issues during her visit to the gurdwara, Puri said the West Bengal CM did not observe the sanctity of the place.
“To me, the Gurdwara Sahib in Bhabanipur is not the place to talk about farmers’ issues. She chose to do it. She can be my guest,” Puri said adding, “…quite apart from the sanctity of that holy place not being observed, she was talking about farmers’ issues. So I asked myself a simple question. Are there farmers living in Bhabanipur?”
On the farmers’ protest, Puri said the three farm laws were necessary because “35 per cent of our produce was going to waste”.
“People who are actually sweating and toiling, were not getting the benefit. So we are doing that… MSP on grain, wheat and rice has increased. Procurement is much higher now, money is going directly into the pockets of the farmer and the farm laws,” the minister said.
Puri drew on Bengal’s rich contribution to India’s freedom struggle saying that “great” Bengalis such as Rabindranath Tagore and Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee had contributed to nation-building.
“Bengal’s contribution to our national movement has been fantastic. But what are we getting involved with here? I mean, when somebody asks me if BJP will make post-poll violence an issue in the bypolls, I want to say why do you produce post-poll violence in the first place?” Puri said.
‘Issues like Pegasus do not resonate here’
Puri said that as far as the BJP is concerned, a party that has 303 seats in the Lok Sabha and a presence in almost all states, it would like a credible opposition party that can raise credible issues.
“The Congress in the two last elections in 2014 and 2019 couldn’t cobble up even 100 seats…if you are a credible political party, you take up issues, which matter to the people. What happened was because you don’t have credible issues, you manufacture issues…. You just look at all the issues, which they were raising when in Parliament and elsewhere, how many of those issues resonate in Bhabanipur?” he asked.
Pegasus, Puri said, is a “winged horse” referring to the spyware that was allegedly used to snoop on many of India’s most prominent politicians, journalists and activists, an issue that had rocked Parliament’s monsoon session.
“I mean take a survey here. What is the issue? Do you want a legitimate, duly elected government not to have the ability to take measures in the interest of national security or you don’t? You can say no. People make statements, which are, I would say not well thought through,” he said.
CM changes in five states
Asked if there is churning in the BJP ahead of assembly elections in many states as a precursor to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls — the party changed five chief ministers — Puri said changes take place in a democracy “all the time”.
“Sometimes you can turn around and say the change should have been affected earlier or a little later. That’s not for me to answer. I mean we have a party mechanism, we have a party president, and surely the people who make this decision take them, taking some factors into account,” Puri said.
He added that the sign of a good, healthy and functioning democracy is that there has to be democracy within the parties. “That is the point I am making. I have always had difficulty with political parties, which want to participate in the democracy at the national level, but do not practice democratic processes within the party,” he said.
On the BJP recently replacing Bengal state president Dilip Ghosh with party MP Sukanto Majumdar, Puri said that it is a sign of a dynamic party. “People will come, people will go, your talent will be spotted, you will rise in the party”, he said.
Puri said in his book Delusional Politics, he had referred to the fact that “in the 16-17 years that Mrs Sonia Gandhi was Congress President, the BJP had changed five presidents”.
“Now, is that good or bad? I think it is very good because we have a defined term for a party president, we have a defined term for party,” said the minister. “My young friends, they start off in the Yuva Morcha or in the Vidyarthi Parishad, etc, then they grow. .. these are the democratic avenues for the growth of people and this is from where the party draws strength.”
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)