Lest detractors say the only ‘vikaas’ visible in the past five years has been in Vivek Oberoi’s acting career — which went from being a total Advani to literally half-a-dozen Modis — the Prime Minister stuck to basics in his Kolkata rally on Wednesday. He invoked the trifecta of strikes — “surgical strike, air strike, satellite strike” — and went on and on about them, like they were his new Robert Vadra.
In Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground — a sprawling stretch of land in the heart of the city, home to political chest-beating down the decades — Modi’s audience, however, was singing a different tune. While the Prime Minister ‘how’s the josh’-ed his audience relentlessly, the mood of the crowd was probably more Gulshan Kumar than Vicky Kaushal. So as hordes of men trooped into the meeting grounds, they stopped in front of TV cameras, and at times for their peers’ phone cameras, and shrieked ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
It’s not an unusual sight around the parade grounds in Kolkata to spot clusters of men, political flags tied as bandanas, laughing, spitting, hooting and shouting their way to the grounds. The shouting could be for different reasons: to get the attention of television crews, to disguise catcalling as sloganeering, and, at times, just for fun. The only thing different this time was that the men howled ‘Jai Shri Ram’ instead of the usual platitudes to a leader. There was an occasional “Jab Tak Sooraj Chaand Rahega, Modi Amar Rahega” but it was as sparse as mentions of demonetisation are in the Prime Minister’s speeches these days.
Bongshidhor had rolled out a big mat on the sidewalk and neatly arranged the table mats he and his wife make at home on it. He watched anxiously as the men stomped past his wares, occasionally dragging the mat back so that no one stepped on it. Occasionally, he took off the orange gandhi topi with BJP scribbled on it to dust the two dozen pretty round mats he had laid out on the footpath. He arrived in a party bus early on Wednesday morning from Machhlandapur, Bongaon, 70 kilometres away from Kolkata. “I come here often, but since I now I support BJP, I came in their bus,” he said.
Bongshidhor now supports BJP, he told HuffPost India, for the same reason he supported Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress eight years ago. “I was a CPM worker for very long. They used to take care of us initially, then they became rogue. I have a feeling Trinamool should get a scare, their people have become very violent in places,” he said.
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“Remember Banerjee being dragged and beaten up by CPM people and then police? That day I changed my mind about CPM,” he said.
And what changed his mind about the Trinamool Congress now?
“The local leaders meddle in every land-related transaction, they always want a cut. They let party people steal bricks and they ignore older members like us. Plus there’s a lot of fighting and hitting each other happening. It’s like we don’t have any importance for them,” he said, still keeping an eye on the crowd wafting past his mats. Bongshidhor makes a living by sewing mats at home and selling them at fairs, rallies and cities. He makes between Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 a month. His elder son, he said, is with Trinamool Congress.
As another group of young men crowded around a selfie cam and shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Bonshidhor grimaced a bit and then smiled.
Has he ever seen people shouting religious slogans for votes in his life before?
“No, never. I think this could be an order from the top. We used to have stuff around religion, yes. For example, you have a Kaali Puja or a Lakshmi Puja at your village. You invite everyone, and I mean everyone, for a feast and that way, you increase your party’s influence. By basically meeting people and feeding them and having this festive thing. People are happy, they vote,” he said.
Things, however, are different this year, he conceded. “I heard Hindu women were held by their hair and dragged around in Baduria. Weren’t they?” he asked.
Bongshidhor is referring to the riots in Basirhat in 2017 over a Facebook post by a 17-year-old about Prophet Mohammad that led to communal clashes. One man, whom the RSS claimed was their worker, had died in clashes with the police.
He has heard allegations that BJP can stoke communal disharmony, but is sure that if they do any such thing, there’s always an option to vote them out. “It happened to CPM after 30 years, it can happen to BJP too,” he said.
An hour later, inside the grounds, BJP leader Rahul Sinha was drawing all the ‘Jai Shri Rams’. His speech would make WhatsApp forwards shed a tear or two in pride. “Mamata became Mumtaz and now she wants to become Mamata again, but Bengal won’t be fooled,” Sinha told the crowd. After railing against Banerjee for donning a Muslim headscarf and praying, he mentioned that journalists have told him Banerjee is very popular in Pakistan. “I told that journalist, now she has to go where she is popular,” he said. He covered the whole range of arguments that come with the ‘you’re a mullah-go to Pakistan-mandir wohi banega’ version of national history.
Sinha has never won a Lok Sabha or Assembly election, but is trying his luck this time from the Kolkata North constituency.
He ended his speech with (what else but) “Jai Shri Ram.”, as the crowd cheered along.
Before Sinha, the emcee had ended almost every announcement chanting Jai Shri Ram, obviously the theme song of the event until then. Except Chandra Bose, nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose, most BJP leaders chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ alongside ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’.
However, while the other speakers were working up to a Sri Ram frenzy, Modi began his speech with Kali and Laxmi. In his speech, Ram was as absent as Nirav Modi is for Indian law enforcement agencies. Modi mentioned Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Vivekananda but Ram stayed mysteriously absent.
Anyone who has followed his speeches would know that the CBI is to Modi’s speeches what paani is to paani puri. Berating CBI, praising CBI, Modi has done it all in his speeches. Yet, in a big Kolkata rally in a city which recently saw a dramatic CBI-police stand-off, Modi barely mentioned the agency. He did mention how ‘bua-bhatija’ are stealing money, but went uncharacteristically easy on corruption—strange, since this is perhaps the easiest charge to lay on TMC at the moment. Some of the BJP’s pet schemes—giving houses, gas connections to poor people—were mentioned in passing, but the frequency and intensity were not comparable to his development pitch from 2014 or to the number of times the ‘army’ and ‘strikes’ were mentioned (remember the Election Commission asking political parties not to use any “political propaganda involving activities of defence forces”? No? Neither does Modi, apparently).
Benubala Ojha had arrived in a BJP bus from a village near Junglemahal, once known as the Maoist stronghold of Bengal. Ojha and a small group of women were huddled around a leafy big tree outside the venue, passing around a bottle of water. Why were they here?
“For this meeting,” Ojha said, pointing towards the saffron flags fluttering atop pandals at a distance.
Whose? “That party,” she said, pointing to the bus which got them there. Ojha can’t remember the name. Immediately, a man shuffled to Ojha’s side, seeking to explain why they were there. “We have done CPM, the TMC, now let’s check out BJP. No party has done much for us,” he said.
What has BJP promised to the villagers? “Kichu boleni (Haven’t said anything). Let’s see,” he laughed.
’We came in the morning, reached here at 5 am. Have some muri (puffed rice) and chhola (gram). Just finished cooking rice,” he beamed.
“What else have you made? Dal?” Ojha asks her younger neighbour. The man baulks and asks her to see for herself. He then turns to a younger woman and exhorts her to say whose meeting it is. The woman smiles, giggles and stares. “Bolo Modi jee (say Modi jee),” he said. “Yes yes, Mooodi,” the woman replies.
Ojha, however, has no time for formalities. “Desh dekhte eychi. (Have come to see the city),” she said, pottering away to check what’s for lunch.