Three days after March 4, when the Election Commission announced the dates for the West Bengal election, ruling Trinamool Congress spokesperson Derek O’Brien kicked off poll season scrapping by calling the Congress party a watermelon. The Left Front and the Congress have cobbled together an unofficial electoral alliance in the state, and O’Brien’s reference was to the watermelon’s colours – green on the outside, red inside. “It is a shameless alliance,” he said. “We all know they have always been together like watermelons.”
As far as allegations go, it was rather fun. Compare this with the rhetoric in Delhi: between being called an anti-national, a caste- or patriarchy- apologist, and a watermelon, who wouldn’t go for the fruit? Over the past several weeks, the mood in Delhi has been entirely fun-free: the Bharatiya Janata Party has invoked Bharat Mata anytime anywhere without warning, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University has demanded a laundry list of azadis. Not that this hasn’t been enjoyable: Smriti Irani’s “Main apna sar kalam karke aapke charanon pe chhod doongi” speech in Parliament was entertaining, and Kanhaiya Kumar’s address to JNU was truly affecting. But the idiom on both sides has been self-consciously serious, lofty.
The poll rhetoric in West Bengal, on the other hand, has been a lot less lofty, and much more tasty. The principal election issue is the same as everywhere else – development – and the election jingle is an extension of Achhe Din – Aro bhalo din ashcche (Even better days are in the offing). But the real fun is in the repartee.
The watermelon analogy had originally been drawn by Mamata Banerjee several years ago at a time when she had broken away from the Congress to form the Trinamool Congress. She had been threatening suicide atop the bonnet of an Ambassador car and then state Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee responded to this by calling her Beder Meye Josna, the title of a popular Bengali film. He had meant it to say that Banerjee was a ham. She responded by calling Mukherjee a watermelon – a Congressman with the heart of a Commie. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has now returned the favour by calling the Trinamool a pumpkin – green on the outside, orange inside. The counter-compliment is being widely shared on social media.
There have also been a number of cheeky rhymes in Bengal. The chhora – easy rhythmic rhyming verse in Bangla – is a voting tradition here, and Mamata Banerjee, who has published several books of poetry, likes to flip a few every now and then. A few days before the Election Commission announced the poll dates, Chief Minister Banerjee said at a rally, “Thanda Thanda Cool Cool, Ebar Jitbe Trinamool (This time it’s the Trinamool).” Half the rhyme is lifted from the ad for Navratna Talc but it is not a bad move. It’s got that groove of self-referencing cool, it is somehow reminiscent of hip-hop star swagger – Yo Yo Honey Singh declaring, “Yaar Tera Superstar Desi Kalakaar”. The official weekly publication of the Trinamool, Jaago Bangla, carried another niceish chhora:
Haath Haturi Poddo
Bhalo kore korun Jabdo
(Hand, hammer and lotus
Put them all on notice)
Jabdo has a sweet connotation, it means leaving someone smitten, it carries with it a mote of affection. It doesn’t mean vanquishing someone dry, rather it implies winning them over.
Banerjee hasn’t had the sweetest response to other people’s jokes though. In 2012, the police in Bengal arrested a Jadavpur University professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra, and his neighbour for circulating a cartoon featuring the chief minister and her aide Mukul Roy. It was a move that fetched her trenchant criticism, but she defended herself angrily in a TV interview with journalist Sagarika Ghose, calling it a cybercrime and not a question of freedom of expression. “It is not the cartoon,” she told the student who questioned her on the subject. “We love the cartoon. Our No.1 famous cartoonist Narayan Debnath, I am giving him Rs 10,000 per month the pension… Please realise this is brainwash or something. It is the Maoist people that are spreading this news, and the CPM… Cartoon is a different thing and decomposed photo is a different thing. Local police, they arrested because it is a cybercrime. He misused the email of his society people without their consent.”
Like the Trinamool, the CPM too has been using verse in the political sniping. It responded to a sting operation by the news portal Narada News, purportedly showing Trinamool leaders accepting money, with a superb rhyme:
Hajaar hajaar koyek koti
Kothay gelo hawai choti?
(Thousands of crores was the haul
Ms Hawai Chappal, who ate it all?)
It is naturally the opposition that has the best, most memorable rhymes to its credit. Sometime in the late eighties, when the CPM was entering its second comfortable decade in power, the Congress said: Haathe boma, mukhe prem, taari naam CPM (Bomb in hand, love on their lips, Welcome to the CPM’s tricks).
On March 20, six days after the Narada sting tapes were released, a number of anonymous posters were spotted across Kolkata with a picture of the chief minister and the line “Chorer Rani Dilo Bor (The queen of thieves grants a boon)”. The reference is to an evergreen Bangla song from Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne that went Bhooter Raja Dilo Bor (The king of ghosts grants a boon). A couple of days later, the posters had been removed.
On the Bengali celebration of Dol Jatra on March 23, the chief minister responded to the sustained criticism from the Kolkata media over the Narada sting: “Kukur kukurer kaaj korechhe, kaamre diyechhe paaye (The dog has done its job, it has bitten one in the leg.)”. On March 19, she made another remark which is enjoying viral play in the Kolkata media. The Election Commission had transferred 40 police and administrative officers from Bengal, and Banerjee said in response: “You ask Obama. He will supply police.”
Her party copies this style of blunt invective wholesale. When asked for the party’s reaction to the 2016 Rail Budget, Trinamool spokesperson O’ Brien said, “Zero plus zero equals zero.” Banerjee is the star of countless WhatsApp jokes in Bangla, and many of them ring so close to her style that it is hard to tell whether they are parody or not. One such joke describes her response to the 2016 Budget as thus: “I asked for a Bengal package. They have a jungle package.” I went looking for this sound byte on YouTube and Google and realised that it was actually a spoof.
The one industry that she has managed to promote effectively, it seems, is sharp satire.
Queen of theatre
Everything in this election is about Didi, all the jeers and jibes and opposition fire are directed at her, and her own party’s campaigning, expectedly, centres on her. This is probably just the way she likes it: on March 18, she said at a rally in Jalpaiguri, “I am the candidate in all 294 seats, and I request you to vote for me.” In all the party offices in Kolkata, the typical conversation opener is “Did you hear what Didi said the other day?”
“I think of Mamata Banerjee as a significant game-changer in the way the political discourse in the country has been forced to become elastic,” the writer and critic Sumana Roy had said a few years ago. “Her political discourse is utterly homegrown, crowded with idioms used only with those one is very familiar with, her conspiracy theories verge on neighbourhood gossip, her humour is that of an indulgent matriarch, and her display of affection and anger completely uncensored by the public gaze.”
Further, the citizen she addresses in her discourse is often female, a rare thing in the Indian polity, and her content too invokes the feminine and the homely. At one rally I attended in Murshidabad during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, she culminated her performance saying: “I will go home and have bhaat (rice) today, after six days of campaigning I will be home today. The taste of bhaat at home is different. You also go home and make bhaat.” After saying this, she stepped into a helicopter and roared off, a powerful near-deity of a woman who would go home and eat rice just like everyone else. Now, it is the woman who will go home and likely set the rice to boil.
Compare this with Modi’s celebrated gender moment in 2014 when he addressed the nation on the occasion of Independence Day: the film critic and essayist Trisha Gupta has noted how phrases such as “Hamari bahu-betiyaan” (our daughters and daughters-in-law) and “maan-samman ke liye tarasti hamari maa-behenen (our mothers and sisters pleading for respect)” carry the assumption that the constituency being addressed is male. And the implication, too, is of patriarchal supportiveness: Let’s help our mothers, sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law to become full citizens. Even Kanhaiya Kumar’s lovely speech invokes a male constituency: the soldier at the border is his brother, the farmer on the field his father. Not his mother or his aunt, although a 2005 National Commission for Women report noted that women’s overall contribution to farm production ranges from 55% to 65% of the total labour.
On May 13, 2011, the day she led her party to an historic win, ending 34 years of Left Front rule in Bengal, Banerjee capped her address to the waiting crowd outside her Kalighat home saying, “Now go home and bathe. It’s a hot day.” Can you imagine anyone else, Sonia Gandhi or Mayawati or Jayalalithaa, telling us this?
The broad-shouldered guard at the CPM party office in Alimuddin Street cups his hands over his mouth and chuckles when reminded of this. “But you know what I feel when I see her? You know those jatra companies in Chitpur? [Chitpur was once popular for its theatre companies.] She seems like the queen bee of one of those jatra companies.”