On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, a little more than a dozen men, armed with red flags in hand, towing a middle-aged lady with inconspicuous features quietly walk into a gated housing society in the heart of Kasba, a densely populated residential neighbourhood in East Kolkata. Minutes later, the residents hear a firm female voice that promises a better tomorrow devoid of anarchy and lumpen raj. A face here and a face there, slowly but gradually curious onlookers from windows and balconies start peeping down to catch the show.
The lady, with a microphone in one hand (one of her party men carries a mini handheld speaker), makes a namaste gesture and waves at them with her other hand that clutches on to a white handkerchief soaked in sweat. “Namashkar, ami apnader sahajogita chaichhi. Apnara kaste-haturi-taraye vote diye Bamfront ke ei nirbachon-e joyi korun (Namaste, I seek your cooperation. Please vote for the hammer and sickle and make the Left Front win this election),” she signs off after a 15-minute speech on why the Left is their only choice this time, as Kolkata readies for the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections 2019 to be held across five constituencies of the city on May 19.
Meet Dr Nandini Mukherjee, a 54-year-old veteran politician, a computer scientist and a professor, who is fighting elections from the South Kolkata constituency representing her party the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM). A party that had once governed Bengal for 34 years. A party whose election campaigns used to be a sight to behold. A party that has almost zero presence in today’s electoral map of Bengal.
“No, you can’t say zero. We do have a significant presence. It’s not represented, but the presence is there,” argues Mukherjee, as she sits with Citizenmatters.in for a candid chat amidst her humble daily campaign. Excerpts from the conversation:
You have been involved in politics since your student days. What was the personal reason or motivation for you to join politics actively?
In 2011 Trinamool Congress had come to power in Bengal and the Left Front was defeated. But even before that, for a very long time, we had been feeling that Trinamool Congress was not at all good for the state. At the time they came to power, it was clear to us that their party was a destructive power, that they cannot do anything better for the state. I thought that this would be a very disastrous situation for Bengal. I decided that I would fight against Mamata Banerjee because I never liked her policies, her way of thinking about common people, about the development of the state.
I have always opposed that. The way she destroyed the Singur opportunity of inviting business to the state, the way she created the Nandigram nuisance. Now we know (the reality), as the CBI has given a clean chit to the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government and specified they could not find any foul play on the part of the Left government. The way Mamata Banerjee created such nuisance, I always thought that someone should oppose her. And whenever there was a call for me, I agreed to fight the elections. I felt that I should stand against her, oppose her activities in West Bengal. So that was when I fought in the elections for the first time in 2011. Next, I fought the Parliamentary elections in 2014. This is the third time.
You represent a political party that has almost lost its steam and been relegated to nearly zero presence on the electoral map of Bengal, a state that was once the Left bastion for 34 years. Do you feel the Left still has a chance?
It’s not actually zero presence. In the West Bengal Assembly, we do have some representation in 30-plus seats. I am not saying that is a satisfactory number but remember, that time we had in fact fought together with the Congress in the Assembly elections in 2016.
Just after 2011, in most cases we can say that Trinamool Congress literally looted for vote. No election was peaceful. You know what had happened in the Panchayat elections as well. The candidates could not even submit their nominations. That was a major problem. That is why I don’t feel that the Left Front is not there at all. A very good presence is there, it may not be reflected in the electoral politics, the strength is not represented but the presence is there.
I think there will certainly be a comeback and that too very soon. Because you can now feel that the people of Bengal are frustrated with the lumpen politics and destructive policies of Trinamool Congress. Basically, they don’t have policies. That’s their policy actually.
We can see ‘syndicate raj’ all over West Bengal. We can see gunda raj all over Bengal. The law and order situation is very bad in West Bengal now. In the past few years there have been no employment generation. In fact, many of the companies that came to Sector V (the IT hub in Salt Lake) a few years back are now leaving West Bengal for other states.
Thirdly, there were some industries in some sectors of south Kolkata like Kolkata port and Behala. Now most of the industries are closed down. The other day I was speaking to an industrialist from Bhabanipur, who has a factory in Howrah. He was telling me that a few years back there were 150 factories in that region. Now there are only eight. This is the situation in West Bengal. There is complete anarchy in the education sector. If a student tries to get admission to a college, he or she will have to bribe the union leader. It was never like that before 2011.
It is because of such atrocities and such situations created throughout West Bengal, that I feel the Left Front will soon make a comeback. West Bengal will never consider BJP as the real opponent of Trinamool Congress. Now, there might be some inclination towards BJP but that too is created mostly by media hype. It’s not real. People of Bengal don’t like such religion-based politics or caste-based politics. We have never had such mindset. Hence, they will soon throw away Trinamool Congress as well as the BJP. The Left will make a comeback.
Given that the general election in Bengal this time is popularly seen as a Modi vs Mamata turf war, where the Left is almost non-existent in the popular discourse, what is your agenda or game plan for a turnaround?
First, the mainstream media is creating such a discourse. It’s not true. See, even if there is no election, we always try to go to the people. We always try to meet them. Election is just one of the political milestones. But it is not the entire politics. Our objective is to stay with the people, to fight for people’s demands. For example, we already had called an all-India Bandh (strike) on January 8th and 9th, the main issues for which were the crisis of the farmers and the crisis in the industries. The Bandh was called by the trade unions and the Left parties supported that bandh. And a lot of people participated in that Bandh spontaneously.
Then why is that support not getting translated into election victories? Unless you get voted to power, how are you going to work for the people?
To understand that, you have to understand that the political culture of West Bengal has been destroyed. Take the instance of this Didi vs Modi spat. Have you heard the language of both these parties? A Chief Minister and a Prime Minister — the language they are using to attack each other is just abominable! I don’t think that’s the proper language of politics.
Another unfortunate political culture you can now find in West Bengal … just before the elections Trinamool Congress particularly and now BJP is also following them… they always take some means which are not acceptable. For example, giving money to the voters. We have these slum dwellers who are really very poor and if they get Rs 200 plus a packet of biryani for giving a vote, what do you think will happen? These poor people don’t even know their rights and their power in a democracy.
Secondly, because the Left Front had ruled for 34 years, there had been an anti-incumbency factor working against them. That is why many of our voters did not support the Left Front in the last two or three elections. But now they are understanding the futility of voting for the Trinamool Congress and hence they are coming back to the Left. This time as I went campaigning, some of the slum dwellers asked me, “Hum logo ko toh aap loho ke liye intezaar hain. Aap log kab wapas aayenge (We are waiting for you. When will you return to power?)” They are saying that they are not happy under such administration. They want us back.
City voters however seem to be largely swayed by this Modi vs Mamata discourse playing out in mainstream media; how will you reclaim the mindshare among them?
We are trying to meet everyone. During the election campaigns it’s not possible to meet everyone. We can only reach some of the people. But all our comrades, each one of us, are trying to meet everyone. The way the Left parties are campaigning in Kolkata or in other districts in West Bengal, no other parties are campaigning like that. I start campaigning every day by 8am and then go back home around 2pm. I again start from 4pm and return home by 10.30pm/11pm. And not just me, every Left candidate is campaigning like that. They are trying to reach out to as many people as they can.
Remember, it is not only because of the election. Obviously, we are campaigning for the election, but we are trying to convince people about our politics, our policies, what alternative policies we want for our people. We are explaining those things to the people. It’s not that we are only asking them to cast their votes for us. I am trying to explain why you should cast your vote for the Left. So that is our way of reclaiming the mindshare of the people and revive support for the Left parties, because we know we can implement alternative policies for the poor and the marginalised people.
What are the core issues on top of your mind that you would like to take up at the Parliament, if elected?
The first thing would be democratic rights of the people. In this country, the one thing which has been violated the most during the last five years is the democratic rights of the people. If your democratic right is not there, if you cannot protest, even your minimum requirement like ‘roti-kapda-makan’ can be taken away.
Second, we want to get rid of communalism.
Third, unemployment. We want to fight against unemployment.
Fourth, I being an educationist, education is on my mind always. In the past five years, the budget allocation for education as well as research has been decreased. We want more allocation in education as well as research.
Fifth, we also want more budget allocation for healthcare. So, we are seeking five to six per cent of GDP for education, five to six per cent of GDP for healthcare.
Sixth, we want the minimum wage for any person, whether he is doing a temporary job or contractual job, to be Rs 18,000 per month, plus other benefits that employees who have permanent jobs receive. Even in the organised sector, many people are working now with a very low salary.
Then we also want a minimum pension of Rs 6,000 per month for people in the unorganised sector.
There are certain issues for marginalised people like the differently-abled people and the LGBT community.
Waiving the loans of farmers is also an important issue. The farmers should get appropriate price for their products.
These are issues that not only concerns the urban citizens but every person in India. And we are not here to do lip-service. We will fight for these issues.
Since you are an educationist who was once a student of Jadavpur University and now a professor there, what is your comment on the fact that the BJP alleges that anti-national sentiments among the youth are fanned by certain higher education institutions like JNU and JU? That these institutions are the catalysts for making of “tukde-tukde gangs”?
See, in any developed country, in any advanced institution, freedom of thought is a very important aspect for its progress. I can talk about Jadavpur University as I am associated with it. Being the best institution of West Bengal, we always encourage students to express their thoughts freely. We never tell them, “Concentrate on your studies only and don’t think of anything else.” That would not be beneficial for them to progress holistically.
Our Humanities departments in particular are very rich that way. We have created several centres of advanced studies. We are one among the first few institutions in India to have introduced a Women’s Studies department. We always encourage students for creative thinking, analytical thinking. And that is why I think other conservative parties and their leaders, who don’t want people to think critically or out of the box, say that these students are anti-national. But that’s not true. Because they have never given any anti-national slogans. I have never heard them voicing any kind of anti-national slogans.
These students are not anti-national, rather they love their country, they try to help their country by contributing to the creative discourse.
Again, since you mention education, last month more than 150 scientists from across the country had come together to appeal to Indian voters to “reject those who lynch or assault people, those who discriminate against people because of religion, caste, gender, language or region.” As a scientist yourself, who is in the poll fray, do you really think such issues or messages resonate with the people of the constituency at the ground level?
I think so. At least from the feedback that I received from the section of the educated middle-class, I think that this message is ringing true here as well. And that is why I am probably getting so much response this time. They feel that the country cannot make progress with such religion and caste-based politics. The voters in the South Kolkata constituency do not like such discrimination against a particular religion or caste. So, I feel that this time people would vote differently and they won’t go for such divisive politics.
The primary role of an MP is in driving legislation. Voters on the other hand typically look at issues closer home — how do you plan to strike a balance between larger issues and the immediate needs of your constituency?
Whenever I go out and talk to people, I tell them that this is not a corporation election, that it is the Parliamentary election where MPs discuss and work out laws and policies of the nation and then ensure that they are implemented, creating more benefits for the people on behalf of the central government. I always try to explain to them what a Parliament is. Often, they come up and complain that one doesn’t have water, the other doesn’t have light and so on. These issues come up mostly from the slum dwellers.
Now, if you see, before 1977, the slums in West Bengal were in very poor condition. When the Left Front came to power, they worked for the betterment of these slums by setting up hygienic toilets, pukka streets, water connections, deep tube-wells, lights and the works. During the Trinamool regime there has been no improvement, no development in the slums. So, if I am elected, with the help of the MPLAD funds I will try to implement certain things for the benefit of the slum dwellers. It’s a corporation issue, I know, but I feel that certain things can be done as an MP.
I also have one advantage — many of my friends are engineers, as I myself am an engineer. I have many civil engineer friends, many town planner friends who can help me in implementing my plans. I believe that if I can do that, such issues can be handled.
As a woman, what is your evaluation of the safety issues for women in your constituency? How safe do you feel as a woman in today’s Bengal? Do you think there is room for improvement when it comes to general concerns of women across Metro cities like safety related to app-cab services, nightlife and safety, the issues of safe mobility for women in the city?
I have grown up in this constituency. I have never felt unsafe. But a few years ago, a girl was raped in a building just beside where I stay. And such unfortunate incidents keep coming up in the news, including the Park Street incident. So now when our girls go out, we feel fear.
I myself was never afraid but when my daughter returns from New Town I surely worry about her safety and security. I now feel that girls are not safe, it is not like our times. West Bengal has become more unsafe than before. That’s also because of the administration. They never looked into these issues seriously. They never took any action against such crime. Now India is also being perceived internationally as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. And you know who was in power — both in the centre and the state — when such things started peaking.
You are pitted against two other women candidates in your constituency — Mala Roy of TMC and Mita Chakraborty of Congress. It is expected all three of you will look into women-centric issues with more empathy. How do you think voting for the Left can open up opportunities for women’s empowerment differently? Is there a road map?
Voting for the Left is definitely going to open up opportunities for women because we talk about empowerment. We don’t talk about cosmetic changes for women. Cosmetic changes and empowerment are two different issues.
We talk about 33 per cent reservation in the Parliament. That’s in our manifesto.
We believe that empowerment of women means their education. That’s why we talk about more budget allocation in education.
Women’s safety issues are certainly there. We talk about stricter act for women’s safety. Along with that the administration has to be active in generating awareness among the members of our society.
I was a member of the anti-gender harassment cell pertaining to the UGC’s Vishakha Guidelines at Jadavpur University. I am still a member of such cells in other institutions. That is how we are working around this issue for a very long time. I am also a state committee member of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
On International Women’s Day, I never go and greet anyone saying ‘Happy Women’s Day’. Instead, I try to do something for women empowerment. This is one aspect with which I have been involved for a very long time.
We have certain laws regarding property inheritance but they need to be updated and modified to make them more appropriate for women. Not just inheritance, but ownership is also a vital issue for women.
We would like to ensure each woman should receive the same amount of salary as their male counterparts. Then there are women who are in marginalised or non-white-collared professions like our sex workers. They have their own set of problems.
The Trinamool is also popularly perceived to be very pro-women…
The Trinamool Congress keeps talking about Kanyashree scheme. Has anyone tried to know what is the amount they spend on the advertisement of Kanyashree? If you don’t spend that much money for advertisement, you can use that money just to improve the condition of the girl child.
In fact, Kanyashree was started by the Left Front government. It had a different name then, usually referred to as Incentive for Girl Students. The TMC government basically changed the name and tried to showcase it as their initiative for women’s empowerment.
However, Kanyashree is not primarily seen as the real tool for empowerment. It was originally conceptualised and implemented by the Left Front government as a way to prevent child marriage. It was actually a conditional cash transfer scheme that ensured that the girl is not married off before the legal age. But Kanyashree cannot ensure if the girl is actually studying. Hence it can’t be labelled as a direct empowerment scheme. But Trinamool Congress just re-branded the already existing Left Front scheme and tried to publicise it as their success story.
It’s for anybody to see how much they advertised it and how much funds were misused for such publicity.
What we are talking about is real empowerment. If you spend some money for girls’ education, then make sure that the girl is going to school and really learning something. I am giving you an example: in 1977 there were only one lakh students studying upto Madhyamik (Class X Boards). In 2011, the number had increased to 11 lakh and more than 50 per cent were girl students. That’s the real change in West Bengal. That is empowerment.
If women’s empowerment is so much up there in your manifesto, then why do we see so few women candidates in the fray from your party, as opposed to, say, the 42 per cent candidature from Trinamool Congress?
Because we do not nominate people who do not have any political background.
I don’t think the constituency will be benefitted if such a person gets nominated for Parliamentary election. The Left parties always nominate a candidate based on his or her political background. Whether he or she has been involved in Left politics and whether he or she is leading the political discourse within his or her community is something the Left considers before nominating anybody.
As far as women candidates are concerned, she may be from a different profession but she must have an involvement with politics, she must have a political background and knowledge about the current political situation in the country. She must be aware about the demands of the people. She must be aware of what the other political parties are saying. She must know the basics of Parliamentarian politics.
Our party is not outside the Indian society. And unfortunately, very less women take part in active politics in our country. Even if you see the students’ movements in our country, you will see much less participation from the girls.
If you see each of the women candidates from the Left, you will see all of them have a sound political background. Take Gargi Chattopadhyay of Barrackpore (she is a CITU leader), or Koninika Ghosh (she is the general secretary of AIDWA), Rama Biswas is a leader, Debolina Hembrom is a leader… for me I have been involved in Left politics since my student days. So, all the women leaders are fighting the election this time.
Trinamool Congress has brought a very good number of women as their candidates. That’s laudable but what is their political background? I am not saying that a film artist cannot become a Parliamentarian. I have no issue with that. But she should have some background. Without the political knowledge, they won’t be able to perform their duties as an MP, and that means there won’t be any benefit for the people of that constituency.
Yes, one thing you can say is that despite having many women party members, the Left has not been able to see them in leadership positions. That’s a problem with our party. But we are trying to address that issue.
So, you are against BJP as well as Trinamool Congress. In the 2016 state assembly elections your tie-up with the Congress had proved beneficial for the Left parties. Yet, this time we see no such agreement on seat-sharing or fighting the Modi-Mamata wave together. For the Left Front in Bengal, going solo will clearly divide the vote and give BJP and TMC an easier winning ground. Why didn’t any alliance happen with the Congress this time?
We never thought about a Gatbandhan with the Indian National Congress because in our earlier party congress, the decision was taken that there should not be such type of election alliance with Congress. But surely, our leadership thought about seat-sharing. However, for certain reasons, maybe a communication gap or something, the idea of seat-sharing didn’t mature.
Having said that, I want to point out that in West Bengal at this moment, the Left parties can go alone. Even in the 2016 Assembly elections, in some places the Left was defeated by a margin of maybe just 5,000 votes. That way the Left could have gained those seats if there would have been a slight swing in the voting pattern. This year we feel that even if we go alone, there will be a change in the voter’s mind due to the failure of BJP and TMC and that will get reflected in the popular mandate.
We surely feel that both TMC and BJP are the opposite faces of the same coin. They both are communal forces in Bengal. Trinamool Congress is playing their card based on religion, BJP is also, as usual, doing the same. Both of them are destroying the political culture of West Bengal. And I think the Left is the only power that can defeat these two forces. There is no other power. We still have our support base and we have shown that at the Brigade parade ground on February 3rd.