The glass edifices of the biggest hotel chains in India and corporate buildings in Kolkata’s satellite town of Newtown glisten in the sun, next to multi-storeyed flats that boast of clubhouses and tennis courts. But as evening comes, and the shadows of the buildings lengthen, they fall on the bylanes of Kada and Patharghata, villages on the edge of this luxury, where most homes are still huts, and by the evening, women collect to store water from functioning handpumps. For four years and eleven months, these villages are mostly forgotten, but with polls in the constituency of Newtown Rajarhat in the North 24 Parganas district on April 17, suddenly, as always, there is attention.
In a narrow lane in Kada, Ashok Biswas opens his grocery shop at 6.30 am.
“For years, nobody comes here. Now suddenly, every single day, they come to each home, asking for votes… Those people in the glass buildings don’t vote. We do.”
But the aspirations of Kada are different from the Newtown elite, says Biswas about his village of close to 1,200 people, pointing out that what defines their decisions are still welfare schemes, building of roads in their lanes, and the sensitivity of the state government.
To this, echoing the voices of many around him, he says it cannot be argued that TMC chief and CM Mamata Banerjee has done nothing. “You see this cement road, it was not like this before. I will say that during lockdown we got rice, and the Rupashree and Kanyashree schemes for women are very good. I also got two cycles from the state government.”
But “sushasan (good governance) is the “only problem”, he says.
“In Newtown, so many buildings have come up, but the politicians have all become rich… Even those from our village connected to the government have made money. This should not have happened.”
Lives in Kada have not been untouched by Newtown’s boom — many have shifted from farming to the urban economy. But this is not enough for the young.
“The CPI(M) took over this land, and the TMC developed it. But what did we get? We are still doing menial jobs. There need to be more opportunities for us, and universities, not private ones… We have tried the other two, and it is perhaps time for the BJP,” says Swapan Saha, a 22-year-old driver with an LPG distribution company.
Two kilometers away, at the panchayat headquarters of Pathraghata, there are shops that sell televisions and air conditioners, and glass façade beauty salons, that didn’t exist a decade ago.
In a campaign which has seen communal overtones in places, and in a panchayat, where the population is evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims, there is little sign of polarisation.
Samar Thakur, of Pathraghata, says, “That might happen in other areas… Here the issue is of unnayan (development), and work, and the local MLAs. It is basically between the BJP and the TMC.”
The candidates in Newtown Rajarhat are also emblematic of the politics that Bengal is seeing across this campaign.
The BJP candidate is the erstwhile TMC MLA, Sabyasachi Datta, who joined the saffron party in 2019, and has been appointed the state unit secretary.
The TMC candidate is former CPI(M) leader Tapas Chatterjee who lost to Datta in 2011, when the constituency came into being after delimitation.
Both carry the reputation of being strong organisational hands and both carry the baggage of allegations of corruption, and alleged connections to “local goons and syndicates.
“But both are accessible and have their own loyal votebanks,” one TMC local worker said.
Much will depend on what arithmetic works out. In 2016, TMC’s Datta had beaten his closest CPI(M) rival by 9,193 votes. In 2019, the BJP had risen to be the principal opposition.
Back in Kada, Ashok Biswas adds another element to the debate on whether Banerjee’s popularity will prevent the BJP’s rise. “Some will still decide in the last few days, based on who they think will win. Right now, it seems Didi, but five days are a long time in politics.”