A famous boxer in his younger days, 77-year-old Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay is the quintessential bhadralok of Kolkata and a veteran of his party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Chattopadhyay, who is fighting the elections from south Kolkata’s Bhabanipur in place of incumbent legislator Mamata Banerjee — she has shifted to Nandigram — says the chief minister chose him as her “best comrade” for the seat.
Chattopadhyay, West Bengal’s power minister, is not among leaders who use harsh words against their political opponents, as he prefers a civilised campaign. But he does get worked up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Didi-O-Didi” remark targeted at Banerjee. “The PM is blaming our CM in a very critical way, which has not been accepted by our female voters. It is a very nasty word which the PM is using —like if he is joking with that. She is the only woman CM in the country. So he should not have done this, not in this way at least. This is not acceptable. Modi and (Union home minister) Amit Shah are the most important ministers of the country. They cannot speak in this way. A Tom, Dick or Harry can, but they cannot. You will see women voters will all support Mamata,” Chattopadhyay told News18 in an interview at his Bhabanipur residence.
Asked about the harsh words, such as daanav and Duryodhan, the CM is using against the PM, Chattopadhyay said they were the “after-effect” of the words the PM was using. “Daanav is not a nasty word; it is used in literature also. But as the PM has come down to a street-level speech like that…every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” he told News18. “We will win both seats – Nandigram and Bhabanipur,” Chattopadhyay added. The CM held a road show for him in Bhabanipur on Sunday.
The Prestige Battle
Posters in Bhabanipur highlight Chattopadhyay and CM Banerjee, and the bond of trust between the two leaders. “This has been the seat of Mamata Banerjee for the last 10 years. So I have to fight very strongly. I will surely win this constituency. I don’t see any challenge because Banerjee prepared the ground…by serving it for 10 years…This seat is also my birthplace,” Chattopadhyay said.
He does know a thing or two about winning elections. In politics for the last 59 years, Chattopadhyay has won his last seven elections consecutively since 1991, and was the TMC’s first MLA when he won Kolkata’s Rashbehari seat in a bypoll in 1998. “This is my eighth election. So I have all the experience,” he said. He won Rashbehari till 2016. And now, he is in Bhabanipur.
Chattopadhyay said Bhabanipur was as dear to him as neighbouring Rashbehari. “I started my political career in 1962. Since then, till 1991, I served this area and people know me very well. I was the captain of Indian junior boxing team. People used to call me Boxer Sobhan. My college and my schooling is in Bhabanipur area,” he said.
Chattopadhyay called the BJP’s charge that the CM was running away from Bhabanipur as propaganda. “Banerjee is a product of struggle, and she started her struggle from Nandigram (where a movement against land acquisition helped Banerjee rise to power). So when people there requested her to contest from there, she instantly accepted it. She has chosen her best comrade and worker for the TMC to win Bhabanipur,” he told News18.
Bhabanipur is considered a “mini-India” with the constituency housing several Gujarati and Punjabi voters — which many believe could help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). News18 spoke to many such voters in Bhabanipur. Some of the Gujarati voters did object to CM Banerjee criticising the leaders from the western state —PM Modi and Shah — and her comments that she “will not allow Bengal to become another Gujarat”. The BJP’s candidate, Rudranil Ghosh, has been raising this in his campaign in order to rally support.
“This seat is a mini-India with all religions and castes. All labourers and sweepers (Scheduled Castes) belonged to my union earlier, and they are my supporters. I have met lot of local Gujaratis to convince them and they say ‘you are a local man’. So it is better for them to vote for me, as MLAs are generally not available otherwise,” Chattopadhyay said.
He added that the CM was not critical of Gujarat but “particularly men who are criticising her”.
Covid-19 is another challenge with Chattopadhyay, who himself has recovered from the disease, saying he will not hold any big rallies in the coming days. “EC (Election Commission) has not been impartial this time. They are arranging things in such a way that the election has been going on for over a month in this Covid situation — just to help the BJP. They will be responsible if the Covid situation goes out of hand. Modi is coming and holding big meetings. I have been in politics for a long time but I have never seen the PM coming nearly every day; he has become a daily passenger to West Bengal. EC is giving an opportunity to these leaders for big meetings, but we are not able to hold our smaller meetings in the evenings…EC’s decision of putting campaigning on hold from 7pm-10 am has been taken to help the PM and BJP,” he said.
News18 asked him what he thought of the BJP’s dynasty charge against the TMC and the CM’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. “This is a non-issue, I think. My son is also a youth leader of the party. Children of politicians are inclined to politics. Nothing wrong in it. The future will prove if Abhishek is the future of the party,” Chattopadhyay told News18.