Babul Supriyo faces ‘minority’ challenge in Kolkata by-poll – Hindustan Times

Kolkata News

Kolkata: Babul Supriyo, who quit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last year after being dropped from the Union council of ministers and joined West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), faces a tough contest in the April 12 by-poll to Kolkata’s Ballygunge assembly seat.

Supriyo’s challenge stems from the demographics of the constituency. “Of the seven wards [in the constituency], Muslims comprise around 60% of the electorate in five…,” said West Bengal Imams Association chairman Muhammad Yahiya, who has opposed Supriyo’s candidature calling the former BJP leader “communal”.

Supriyo was accused of stoking tensions after he threatened to “skin” people who shouted slogans against him when he visited his then Lok Sabha constituency of Asansol after communal violence there following the Ram Navami processions in 2018. He also backed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal.

CAA was passed in 2019 to fast-track citizenship for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, who arrived in India before 2015. Opponents of the law called it discriminatory and unconstitutional as it leaves out Muslims and links citizenship to faith. They said it could result in the expulsion or detentions of Muslims unable to provide documentation if the law is seen in the context of a nationwide NRC.

A process carried out in Assam to detect undocumented immigrants led to the exclusion of around two million people from the NRC in 2019. The Centre has said there was no immediate plan for a pan-India NRC.

Yahiya participated in rallies against NRC and CAA after Supriyo was fielded from Ballygunge. Several rights groups also joined the campaign. References have also been made to the Asansol mosque imam, who lost his teenage son in the 2018 communal violence.

Yahiya said a third anti-CAA convention will be held on April 7 when TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee is scheduled to hold his first rally in Supriyo’s support. He claimed even Hindus will not want Supriyo to succeed a popular leader like Subrata Mukherjee.

The death Mukherjee, a TMC minister who won the seat by a record margin of 72,000 votes in the March-April polls last year, in November necessitated the by-poll. Mukherjee won the seat first as a Congress candidate in a 1971 by-poll and retained it a year later. He won from Ballygunge thrice in a row from 2011 to 2021.

Yahiya said many prominent Hindu intellectuals, writers, and artists live in Ballygunge. “They are politically conscious.” He said minister Firhad Hakim met him last month and requested to change his stand against Supriyo. Yahiya added he will not relent.

“We are not asking people to vote for anyone but we are confident that they will make their choice judiciously,” Yahiya said. He said Supriyo told people during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2021 assembly polls that Bengal can be saved only if chief minister Mamata Banerjee is ousted.

Mamata Banerjee has criticised CAA and NRC and used them against the BJP in the assembly and civic elections. A vast majority of Bengal’s 30% Muslim population has backed her party. The TMC won 215 of Bengal’s 294 assembly seats last year while the BJP bagged 77. The CPI (M) and Congress failed to win any seats.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), and BJP have fielded debutants Saira Shah Halim and Keya Ghosh from the constituency in the heart of south Kolkata, which has some of the city’s finest mansions and crowded slums.

Halim, who is former deputy army chief Zameer Uddin Shah’s daughter and actor Naseeruddin Shah’s niece, may have an edge due to her campaign against NRC and CAA. Naseeruddin Shah and his actor wife, Ratna Pathak Shah, released video messages in support of their niece. The messages were circulated on social media with Urdu and Bengali subtitles and #NoVoteToBabulSupriyo.

“Being the daughter of my brother, naturally I have known her since she was born but family ties aside, I have always found her to be a courageous, committed, caring person of integrity who is been always eager to help the less fortunate…The choice before the voters of Ballygunge is a clear one… Would you prefer a turncoat opportunist who is also a serial hate monger?” Naseeruddin Shah said in his message.

Saira Shah Halim’s husband, Fuad Halim, is a CPI (M) leader known for running health camps and dialysis clinics for the poor. “I did not ask Naseer uncle to campaign for me. He did this on his own even when my husband contested the seat last year. Moreover, my uncle did not mention any name but everybody knows who switches allegiance and babbles on communalism.”

In 2021, Fuad Halim got only 8,474 of the 151,056 votes cast in Ballygunge. BJP’s Lokenath Chatterjee, a high court lawyer, got 31,226 or 21.68% of the votes.

Supriyo, who lost Kolkata’s Tollygunge assembly seat in 2021, said he was loyal to the BJP and never spoke against the leadership although he might not have liked many of its decisions. “I was a disciplined soldier of the BJP. I never said in public that overnight demonetisation [in 2016] was a wrong decision or there was no need for NRC. I felt that a Bengali deserves to be in the Union Cabinet with independent charge. Yet, I did not say a word when I was fielded from Tollygunge when I was a Union minister.”

He praised Mamata Banerjee for being magnanimous and giving him an opportunity to serve the people. “I am aware of the questions being raised by the minority community. I am visiting their homes and holding one-on-one interactions. I have met some clerics as well,” said Supriyo. “Those asking people not to vote for me have already conceded defeat.”

The BJP has been using a song Supriyo composed and sang against the TMC before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls for the by-poll campaign. Ghosh said she is focusing on developmental issues in the slum areas. “I am focusing on the terrible condition in which people live in the slums of Ballygunge. They have to wait for clean potable water every morning. The drainage systems are in a dismal state. People need roofs on their heads,” said Ghosh.

TMC leader Baishwanor Chattopadhyay said they are expecting around 50% of the turnout. He said as the polling is being held during the fasting month of Ramzan, many Muslim voters may not vote. “People will not waste their votes since this is a by-election. The CPI (M) is trying its best but Mamata Banerjee’s performance as administrator will prevail.”

Ballygunge has traditionally had low voter turnout. “This is the trend in many upmarket urban neighbourhoods. A section of registered voters lives outside the state. The rest simply do not bother to vote,” said a TMC leader, who did not want to be named.

The by-election to the Asansol Lok Sabha seat will also be held on April 12. Former BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha is TMC’s candidate for the seat, which Supriyo vacated after joining the TMC. Supriyo won the seat twice on the BJP ticket. BJP has fielded Agnimitra Paul against Sinha. The results of the by-polls will be announced on April 16.



    Tanmay Chatterjee has spent more than two decades covering regional and national politics, internal security, intelligence, defence and corruption. He also plans and edits special features on subjects ranging from elections to festivals.