A filmi song plays intermittently on the para (locality) loudspeaker, breaking the sleepiness of a Sunday afternoon. A catchy tune, it’s been playing for some days on the trot. A lady with a husky voice sings spiritedly, and the words ‘desh ka bachha bachha’ float in the air. Curious, I look up the refrain with the search words ‘Hindi song’. This peppy number, it then emerges, is a campaign song which declares ‘Bharat ka bachha bachha mere Ram pe kurban hai’ (every child of India dotes on my Ram).
The ground transitions are as simple as that. At the para level, it’s pop culture belted out on loudspeakers or free lunches that the local club dishes out to its constituents that capture the election currents in poll-bound Bengal.
Over the past decade, para clubs have emerged as perhaps the most pivotal enclaves of political patronage in Bengal’s urban milieu, recipients of doles of money and other incentives to keep them affiliated and in hand. Para clubs being in hand, through patronage in the name of the neighbourhood Durga Puja or Kali Puja, has meant overall a hold on the locality.
The chain extends upwards, into the functioning of local and municipal government, with councillors and local MLAs fitting into this structure of patronage and its returns. On the ground, the structure manifests itself through familiar local faces and their poll-bound activities. The friendly agarbatti vendor of the street side para stall, who in election time helps with putting up the banners and turns grassroots party functionary.
Last election he was planting twin flowers and helping paint the sidewalk blue and white. This year he’s turned saffron. Through the year he feeds on the little incentives offered by para patronage structures, is a regular around the office of the local councillor, and in transiting times may fast switch camps if the councillor who offers him patronage has been withheld a ticket. He goes to the other side, because that’s the only way to ensure continuation of patronage.
Bengal, which has fought many a battle on ideological fronts, now wanes in that respect. Poll-bound Bengal is more like a circus than ever, with film and popular personalities of lesser standing making almost daily appearances in the political fray, making it a bit of a circus. A top local mishti brand is making medal-like sandesh rounds embossed with the logos of the different political parties.
And of course the election rhetoric is at an all-time low. Blinkered and outright offensive speech flies thick and fast, though of course that’s a more generic aspect of our times. But in Bengal, long held as a bastion of gentility, this degeneration over time is ever more palpable.
For the thousands that are onlookers and watching from the side lines, this election has come to mean a pitched battle that each side wants to win at any cost. In the para rumour flies fast. The friendly local agarbatti vendor now works overtime as rumour-monger. Not simply because he has nothing better to do. But because in times such as these rumour is often a way to test the waters, to see if things will go this way or that. It’s a way to take the pulse of the para.
Below the loudspeaker blaring Hindi pop music, some local boys sit eating a picnic lunch. It could be chicken curry with rice, better still, the perennial favourite, mutton curry. In election season, local festivities have gathered more steam.
This Bengal election, what before was unacceptable has started to turn accepted. In speech and rhetoric, in the things that are being held out to us as promises of a better future. When talk of development turns to talk of who did or did not celebrate which religious festival, or an impromptu uttering of mantras. Or even just who speaks how much Bengali!
The days leading up to the polls are a state of flux, and which way the tide turns politically will then decide what pop culture gets dished out to us on para loudspeakers and whether the friendly agarbatti vendor is still so friendly with everybody, no matter what festivals they celebrate.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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