There is one story about West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee that Mou Mondal, 20, has heard since she was a child. The year was 1999 and Kolkata was in the throes of a general election. Banerjee, then an Opposition leader, had walked out of her party, the Congress, barely a year ago and formed the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The fledgling party’s two-flower symbol was fighting for graffiti space with that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M)’s hammer and sickle on the city’s walls. Banerjee was crisscrossing the state to drum up support for her party’s nominees against the entrenched Left Front, which had been ruling the state for 22 years by then.
The Mondals eked out a living in a working-class neighbourhood that was not used to visits of big politicians. But Banerjee dropped by after a big rally nearby. She walked straight into the neighbourhood, making her way through narrow muddy roads with folded hands. Banerjee introduced herself as “your daughter, Mamata”. At the Mondal house, she walked in and found Mou’s mother, Ratna, making lunch. Banerjee took a basket from her, Ratna recounts, and started peeling the vegetables in it. “My grandmother and mother were so impressed that such a big leader was peeling our vegetables, and chatting with us. They have always told me that she is one of us and we have to support our didi [Banerjee],” says Mou.
Mou is a third generation Banerjee fan in a family that makes no qualms about backing the TMC because of the West Bengal chief minister’s personality. They have many complaints against the party – lack of jobs, internal dissent, violence in local politics and factionalism. But the 64-year-old politician’s doughty; street-fighting attitude continues to impress them. “Whoever has been with us, we will be with them. It is amazing to see her fight. I see woman power in Mamata.”
Mou does not understand much of the stand-off between Banerjee and the Central Bureau of Investigation over an attempted raid on the residence of Kolkata police commissioner despite the wall-to-wall coverage by Bengali media. But she is sure that it must be important if Banerjee sat on a dharna over it. “She must have thought of the right way. She is doing this for us and we must stand by her. ”
The Mondals live on Kolkata’s eastern fringes, which is a 20-minute auto ride from the eastern-most arterial road. The people from their working-class neighbourhood travel to the city for work that involves back-breaking commutes. There was no road leading into the settlement even 15 years ago and Ratna remembers wading through slush to reach home.
Mou’s father, Dulal, worked as a mechanic at a garage and then as a driver, and is often away for days. Kolkata’s economy has hit his earnings, which barely cross Rs 15,000 monthly.
Her parents hoped their daughter would be their ticket out of poverty and dedicated all resources for her education. “I would often sit on footpaths for three hours while she went for tuitions during her Class 12 because we could not afford to wait anywhere else,” says Ratna. The family often survived on rice-water and pantabhat or leftover rice soaked in water, chillies, and salt in those days.
Mou did well in her examinations but flubbed the professional entrance tests. She finally made it to one of the many private engineering colleges that have mushroomed across Kolkata. The Dream Institute of Technology is 2.5 hours away from her home. Mou leaves home at 7.30 am daily and returns after 8 pm.
The first time Mou heard about Banerjee’s government was after high school when she qualified for the Kanyashree Prakalpa, a flagship state government scheme that awards girl students a one-time payout of Rs 25,000 and an annual scholarship. Bureaucratic hurdles and lack of cooperation from her school and college meant she did not submit the application in time but that did not stop Mou from admiring Banerjee. “She is always thinking about us. ”
Mou, a computer engineering student, wants to work after graduating and helm a start-up someday. But she knows she has to leave her home and city if she wants to do well. “There are very few jobs in Kolkata. For freshers like me, there is no option here, and I fear if I stay back, I may end up setting up a snack shop.”
But she does not blame Banerjee. “I know that she is trying and things are slowly changing. But it would be good if the change comes faster.”
The 20-year-old is a gifted dancer but she had to discontinue her dancing lessons while in school because the commute was too tiring. She participates in every cultural programme at her college. “People even call me ‘inauguration dance’ because I open every cultural event with dance.”
In her spare time, Mou cooks her favourite Chinese food. Her best dishes are chilly chicken and chowmein, both Kolkata staples. She posts pictures of the dishes on her Instagram page along with her various looks. Facebook is for sharing memes and “trolling” others, she thinks, and WhatsApp for forwarding fake news. The celebrities she follows include cricketer Virat Kohli and actor Vicky Kaushal.
Party and club
Social and cultural life in Mou’s neighbourhood resolves around the TMC’s office and the local club. Both have a common roster of members and function as de facto local administration – a system carried over from the Left Front years. The party office is enmeshed into the daily lives of the residents, resolving disputes, holding programmes and helping with local needs. “I had a dispute with a local leader of the CPI (M), who had encroached upon my land and was refusing to leave. I am a poor woman and had mortgaged everything for my small parcel of land. So I went to the party office and the dadas came and solved the problem,” says Ratna.
“If there is a fight in someone’s home, if there is a dispute between brothers, between husband and wife, they resolve it. The club helps young people get ahead in life,” Mou says.
The office and the club organise a number of community events through the year like the Republic Day and Saraswati Puja. They also organise arts and craft competitions as well as felicitate meritorious students.
When they had to get the Scheduled Caste certificate six years ago, Ratna says the office helped her. “I have started going to party meetings,” she says.
But internal party rifts are spilling out in the open. “Factionalism is at its peak, and there are always skirmishes. The syndicate raj is also present in our here,” Ratna says referring to a system, where party leaders enjoy a virtual monopoly on construction sites and materials. Critics allege the system funnels money into the party; Banerjee claims she has cracked down on it.
‘My vote goes to…’
When she votes this year, Mou would not have to think that hard. Mou is charmed by what she calls Banerjee’s simplicity. “Look at her, a blue-bordered sari and a pair of chappals. Yet she is going everywhere, being so powerful. In fact, when we cannot afford shoes and wear chappals somewhere, we now call it Mamata style. No one can make fun of us.”
It is not just about the image. The Mondals claim the chief minister is responsible for bringing into their neighbourhood a metalled road, piped water and electricity metres. She does not even know the local lawmaker’s name but says they do not need to. “Trinamool means Mamata for us.”
The alternatives do not impress her. She has heard about Congress president Rahul Gandhi, but only through memes. She saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi on television during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign and thought he gave entertaining speeches. But her perception changed on November 8, 2016, when he cancelled high-value banknotes. “I had to pay college fees. We stood in queues for hours.”
For her, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) means communal politics that she says she cannot abide by because of her many Muslim friends. “Religion is a set of customs. It is a perception. It is everyone’s personal thing. I do not understand how it can be used to divide people. Everyone is equal.”
But communal politics is seeping in around her. In her college, a Muslim boy is often teased by others for “eating cows”.
Mou knows reservations are an election issue. She has heard people say they should be stopped, but she does not understand why. “My scheduled caste scholarship is so important to me. How can they shut it down? It is in the Constitution, and it helps us so much. If they want to help others, they can do it.”
In Kolkata, there is a buzz of the BJP doing well in Bengal this time, but Mou dismisses the possibility. “In our area, there is not even a BJP office. I do not know any Bengali leaders of the party. The BJP will find it tough to enter Bengal,” she says.
First Published: Feb 11, 2019 14:02 IST
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