As the date for the electoral battle for the megacity of Kolkata draws near, campaigning by the three main contenders — the TMC, BJP, and CPIM-Congress ‘Jot’ (combine) — for the three Lok Sabha constituencies that make up the city has intensified into a hectic frenzy. 

As dusk set in, Saira Shah Halim, CPI(M)’s glamorous candidate for the posh South Kolkata constituency, rode a cavalcade along with party boss Sitaram Yechury through the busy Sakher Bazaar area of Behala as young and middle-aged party volunteers carrying red banners shouted slogans, raising their fists in the air. 

In the alleyways of North Kolkata’s Girish Park, 79-year-old veteran Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharya, flanked by Congress and Communist supporters, walked the talk, greeting voters. Smiling away a question about his age, he told the media, “I will rest only after my opponents’ ego and corrupt practices are shattered.”

Kolkata, or Calcutta, as some still pronounce it, was once considered the second city of the British Empire. While its relevance to the outside world and even to 21st-century digital India may have ebbed, it remains the heartland of Bengal, and as the saying goes, whoever wins Kolkata eventually rules Bengal.

This time around, an anxious Trinamool is pitted in a contest against the BJP, and a resurgent CPI(M) that is hoping its young, fresh faces like Halim and Srijan Bhattacharya, the candidate from Jadavpur, will help them claw back control over the city.

“As you can see, the Left has revived. Our rallies are drawing record crowds Our old voters are coming back in numbers to us. We should do well in Kolkata South and in Jadavpur,” Halim told businessline. The Left had managed to win 21 per cent of the votes in Jadavpur in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but had been pushed to less than 12 per cent in Kolkata South and to single digits in Kolkata North as large chunks of its voters deserted it for the BJP.

However, Halim had staged a comeback in a high-voltage by-election to the prestigious Ballygunge assembly seat two years ago by garnering over 30 per cent votes, coming second to TMC’s singer-turned politician Babul Supriyo and pushing the BJP to a distant third slot.

Her enthusiastic supporters have painted walls with slogans in red: “Dakshine Mala Badal-er pala elo” (literally, ‘time to exchange garlands in the south’ but with a double entendre meaning ‘time to change Mala’ Roy, the TMC MP from South Kolkata) and ‘Hrithpindo baam dike, Rokto tao lal, amra phirbo, aaj noy tho kal’ (The heart is on the left side, the blood is red, we will return, if not today, tomorrow). 

“Kolkata has always been a trendsetter. Winning over the urban intellectual elite to an ideology has often ensured its spread elsewhere,” pointed out Rajat Roy, a political analyst and member of the think tank Calcutta Research Group. “Though the base to win Bengal has to be rural, the city has often shown the way, which is why every party woos the urban middle class.”

In 1969, when CPI(M) leader Prasanta Sur became Mayor of Calcutta, breaking a long history of Congress mayors of the city since 1924, it became evident that Bengal was turning ‘Red’. Eight years later, Sur’s party romped home to begin a 34-year-long Left rule in the State.

However, by the turn of the century, Trinamool Congress’s Subrata Mookherjee managed to wrest the post once held by the likes of Subhas Bose. Eleven years later, the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC steamrolled to victory in West Bengal as the sun set on Bengal’s ageing Communists.

“Kolkata has been the focal point for the rise of any party in Bengal,” said Kingshuk Chatterjee, professor of modern history at Calcutta University.

The BJP had lost all three city seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls to TMC, despite improving their tally nine-fold to 18 in Bengal. In the assembly elections too, they could not win even one of the 21 assembly segments which represent Kolkata.

Nevertheless, their determination to win the city was not lost. A large number of frontal organisations, ranging from cultural societies to lawyers and writers’ forums, have been working hard in the city.

After all, the founder of Jana Sangh, the BJP’s previous avatar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, represented South Kolkata in India’s first Lok Sabha. “We are gaining as people here are fed up with systemic corruption in the State,” said BJP leader and industrialist Shishir Bajoria.

Helping the BJP is the changing demography of Kolkata. Despite the industrial decline of this city of 4.5 million people, it continues to attract migrants from neighbouring States. The percentage of Bengali speakers has come down from 64 per cent in 1991 to 61.5 per cent in 2011, while Hindi speakers now account for nearly 23 per cent. While the pockets of Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Jews, and Armenians have declined drastically.

“In a three-way poll, the incumbent TMC may still be the favourite, despite the BJP and CPI(M) gaining votes, as they will neutralise each other,” said Ranabir Samaddar, former head of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.

However, in Jadavpur, which was once called “Leningrad of the East,” the fight seems to be between the TMC and CPI(M), with the BJP’s Anirban Ganguly, a historian, lagging behind.

Earlier in the day, defying a sizzling afternoon sun, TMC’s film actress-turned-politician Sayonee Ghosh went campaigning through the constituency, accompanied by drum beaters and volunteers handing out pamphlets to mostly women voters. While her rival from the BJP, Anirban Ganguly, too, did a road show with few people around.