Much before the British, Marwaris like Hiranand Sahu, Manik Chand, and Madhab Rai, who got the title of ‘Jagat Seth’, dominated the trade sector in West Bengal and its adjoining states like Bihar and even expanded their wings to Dacca (now Dhaka, in Bangladesh).
Such was their clout that Robert Orme, historian of the East India Company, termed Madhab Rai the richest man in the world in 1744.
Since then Marwaris and later Gujaratis have continued to hold sway over Bengal’s trade sector and most of them are settled in and around Bhabanipur, which is going to witness a high-voltage electoral contest on September 30 with chief minister Mamata Banerjee one of the candidates. A sizable number of such communities are also settled in Burrabazar – one of the biggest trade hubs in India.
Knowing their strength, which can prove decisive in the Bhabanipur bypoll, Mamata has decided to meet them as part of an outreach programme on September 16.
The event will be held in a park behind Sir Ramesh Mitra Girls High School at 15, Jogesh Mitra Road in Paddapukur.
The TMC chairperson is contesting the bypoll as she has to get elected to the state assembly within six months of taking charge as chief minister on May 5. She lost the Nandigram assembly seat to her former protégé Suvendu Adhikari, now with the BJP, in the state elections held this year.
To understand the pulse of the non-Bengali trader community, News18 visited Jadubabur Bazar, Lansdowne Market, Elgin Road and Chakraberia Road.
Shopkeepers, businessmen, traders and residents of the area indicated that the Trinamool Congress chairperson has the edge in the electoral contest.
The traders said they are happy with the support they get from their councillors. Some of them accused the BJP-led central government of mishandling the Covid-19 situation by announcing a sudden lockdown in the country that significantly dented their business.
Yudhister Agarwal, a wholesale trader of food grains at Lansdowne Market, said, “We have been doing business in Bhabanipur since 1956 and I live in ward number 72. I can proudly say ever since Didi (Mamata Banerjee) came to power, we never faced any problem while running our business. There is an ease of doing business here and I don’t have words to commend my ward councillor. He is very helpful. On the other hand, Narendra Modi ji is increasing the price of diesel and petrol every day and this has impacted our business."
The April-May assembly elections in West Bengal saw significant communal polarisation. Bhabanipur has about 16.8 per cent Muslim voters who dominate ward no. 77 and 80, while wards 70, 71 and 72 have mainly Marwari, Gujarati, Sikh, Odia, Maharashtrian, Bihari, Telugu and Tamil communities.
In ward no. 73, where Mamata Banerjee lives, there is a mix of voters, but significantly, it has nearly 10-12 per cent sex workers who are staunch supporters of the TMC.
Nand Ram, who runs a tailoring shop at Jadubabur Bazar, says he suffered massive financial losses during the lockdown. His family lives in Bihar and the pandemic situation has left him with little money to survive.
“Last year I went to a local TMC club and I was astonished that they helped me financially. I sent the money to my wife in Bihar and in Kolkata I was taken care of by them. They used to provide me with food and my medicines. The local TMC leaders in Bhabanipur are very helpful. Now you tell me, why we will not give our vote to Didi?” he said.
Close analysis of electoral data from Bhabanipur assembly constituency reveals that nearly 83.2 per cent of the voters are Hindus or ‘dharmic communities’. Further dissection shows that of these, about 16 per cent are Marwaris, 1.5 per cent Sikh, 2.5 per cent Gujaratis and the rest 63.2 per cent are Hindu Bengalis.
Manjeet Singh, a trader of readymade garments at Jadubabur Bazar, said, “The cost of materials has increased and informal sectors have suffered a lot because of this pandemic situation. Due to a sharp increase in the transportation cost our profit margin has gone down and we are paying higher tax. So, overall, small traders like us are very depressed with the present BJP government at the Centre.”
When asked who is going to win the bypoll, he said, “I think Mamata di will win the election but I am noticing the BJP is also trying hard and intensifying its campaign in the area.”
In 2011, TMC’s Subrata Bakshi won the seat by nearly 50,000 votes, defeating his nearest rival Narayan Prasad Jain of the CPI(M). Trinamool had fought the election in alliance with the Congress.
Bakshi then vacated the seat to make way for Mamata Banerjee, who was an MP, so she could get elected to the state assembly. She won the bypoll after defeating her nearest CPI(M) rival Nandini Mukherjee by a margin of nearly 54,000 votes.
On May 21, 2021, once again to make way for Mamata Banerjee, Sovandeb Chattopadhyay resigned as the TMC MLA from Bhabanipur.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has fielded advocate Priyanka Tibrewal to take on the chief minister. Speaking to News18, the chairman of the BJP’s campaign committee for the seat, Rudranil Ghosh, said, “Today, we had a meeting on campaign strategy and it was decided that initially, we will mobilise our local leaders. From September 20 to September 27, we will intensify the campaigning in Bhabanipur where national leaders like Manoj Tiwari, Smriti Irani, Shahnawaz Hussain and Hardeep Singh Puri ji will be present.”
The constituency has a sizeable BJP support base, mainly comprising Gujaratis, Marwaris and Sikhs. So the party feels Priyanka Tibrewal, who belongs to Bhabanipur, will give the CM a good fight.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Tathagata Roy was the BJP’s Kolkata South candidate and he stood second to the TMC’s Subrata Bakshi, but he took the lead in the Bhabanipur assembly segment by 184 votes.
In this year’s assembly polls, of the total eight wards in Bhabanipur, the BJP was leading in two and was trailing by only small margins in two others.
Tibrewal will be at Jadubabur Bazar in ward number 71 on Wednesday to interact with the traders and will also visit ward number 72. Until September 21, she has lined up 11 public events in Bhabanipur.
Madhav Mishra, a building material supplier in ward number 74, said he has decided to vote for the BJP because of “syndicate Raj". He accused the ruling TMC workers of harassing him in the name of “puja subscription".
He said, “Every month, they come for a ‘puja subscription’ and have threatened me several times when I refused. I think only the BJP can bring some respite.”
BJP MP Roopa Ganguly, who is also one of the star campaigners for Bhabanipur, said, “I am presently in Varanasi and in a day or two will start campaigning for Priyanka Tibrewal. I think this time people should realise that they should not vote for a person whom the people of Nandigram rejected. The same Nandigram in East Midnapore, which helped her to come to power in Bengal. I think without Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek Banerjee (the CM’s nephew and Trinamool leader), the TMC will do better in Bengal.”
Due to Covid pandemic concerns, the Election Commission has restricted public meetings to 30 per cent of the allowed capacity or 200 people in case of indoor meetings (whichever is less).
In the case of meetings in open spaces, the gatherings have been restricted to 50 per cent of the total ground capacity. No roadshows or vehicular rallies are being allowed.