Today was Election Day here in Calcutta, and could be a historical one for the state of West Bengal. The CPI(M) – The Communist Party of India (Marxist), that has ruled the state with an iron sickle and hammer, for three and a half decades, is said to be on its way out! People of my generation, who have never known a Bengal under any other influence, can’t quite fathom what this change might bring.
But there is an uneasiness that’s discomforting. There’s police everywhere, and para-military — in full battle gear, armed to the teeth, patrolling the streets, and directing polling booths. I suppose till India learns that democracy means the free and calm exercise of choice, this is how we will continue to vote! Since the Lok Sabha election polls, two years ago, when the electorate first indicated that they were weary of the CPI(M) and desperate for change, even if it means choosing the Trinamool Congress party led by the chaotic and highly strung Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal has been in a state of a virtual blood-bath. There’s news of abductions and killings almost every other day. The CPI(M) has no intentions of leaving without an all-out fight! Nine of the eleven constituencies in Calcutta have been declared “sensitive” for the polling period – meaning prone to violence.
Wishing to avoid the poll warriors, I was at my designated booth by 6.30 a.m. There were about 50 other people there, already, in line who probably thought the same way. My poll booth is an old, ram shackled, government school-building. All schools remain closed today as they double as polling booths. The voter’s line ran parallel to the water line – that is the line of people with buckets and plastic drums waiting to fill water at the municipal tap, which for some reason is located 6 feet directly in front of the school’s entrance. A woman at the water line, with about 4 big buckets in tow, smiled at me and said, “Remember to give the water vote.” I smiled back and asked, “Now who would that be?” She thought about it, and shrugged her shoulder, “Probably no one. We’ve waited 40 years for water, voting for it every year.” I asked, “Aren’t you going to vote?” She laughed. “No, I think water is more important.” The municipal tap does not release water again till mid-afternoon, and if her family wants water for the day, for drinking, cooking and cleaning, she’s got to get it now.
Mamata Banerjee has been hailed as the down-to-earth, friend of the poor, and savior of the down-trodden, who knows what it means to be deprived, as she amply demonstrates by wearing her rubber bathroom slippers to the Parliament meetings. Oddly, that was just the line—the Robin Hood avowal—that brought the CPI(M) to power and kept them there for almost four decades. That, and a network of goons. A few months ago, a policewoman who had stopped a busload of Ms. Banerjee’s party workers at a cross-light so an ambulance could pass, was beaten up and gang-molested by the party workers for daring to keep them waiting.
The woman in the water-line, waiting with four buckets knows what she’s waiting for. The question is what are the rest of us waiting for?