In West Bengal, A City Buzzes, An Election Excites

Originally published on May 11, 2011 11:35 am

Commentator Sandip Roy grew up in Calcutta. He moved back there earlier this year after living in the U.S. for two decades.

Five states in India have chosen who will run their governments. The election results will be announced Friday. One election has drawn particular attention inside and outside of India. The Communist Party has ruled for over three decades in West Bengal, the only state in India where it's been in power that long. And this time, there's a serious challenger. Calcutta is the capital of West Bengal. Commentator Sandip Roy says the city is crackling with excitement.

It's a hot, muggy day. I'm in the middle of a streetside rally in Calcutta, and I can hear Mamata Banerjee saying the eyes of the whole world are on West Bengal.

Mamata is India's railway minister, but she wants to be chief minister, the elected head of West Bengal's government. This middle-aged woman in a white sari and bathroom slippers just might topple the ruling Communist Party.

Mamata doesn't promise anything radical — more industry, investment, clean government. She's really about change. In Calcutta, usually nothing much changes. It was once the capital of British India, but these days it's the city that time (and India) forgot. Trams still trundle down the congested streets lined with quietly moldering mansions.

But this election has everyone abuzz. Historian Bharati Ray says that "to oust a government after 35 years of rule, a Communist government — particularly after what happened in Russia and what is happening in Cuba — is of international interest."

Over those 35 years, elections don't seem to have changed much, though the voting machines are now electronic. There's brightly colored election graffiti all over the walls. Posters still flutter from the backs of rickshaws. The Communist Party faithful march down the streets shouting "long live the revolution."

But both campaigns have tiptoed across new frontiers. Mamata's Trinamool Congress party got into social media, inspired by the Obama campaign. The local newspaper rated the parties' websites. The Communists came out ahead.

The Trinamool vice president, Derek O'Brien, says his side won the cookie race (hammer and sickle cookies for the Communists, or Trinamool cookies with their three-leaf-clover-ish logo). "I was very happy to know we were selling 8 to 2," he says. "And the cookies [were] very expensive by Indian standards — a dollar and a half."

But campaign cookies — and text messages and American-style town hall debates — are just the icing of democracy. The real story of change in this election is not high tech versus low — or even Mamata versus the Communists.

It is the way the elections are reported and conducted, argues journalist Ruchir Joshi. India's democracy is strong, but politics can be dangerous here. Just a few years ago, West Bengal police shot dozens of people during a political protest.

"Earlier," Joshi says, "a lot of nastiness in Indian politics would happen because who is going to see if I put a bullet through your head? That is more and more difficult to do now."

This time, a strengthened election commission monitored polling places. And television and the Internet reach into the smallest communities.

"For the first time, the normal public has a sense [of] 'I can go and vote for who I want,' " Joshi continues. "There is a special election bubble which gives people courage."

I couldn't vote in this election. I'm an American citizen. But all around me, I see ink stains on people's fingers, the indelible mark that says they voted. It makes sure people don't get to vote twice. But I also see it as a stamp of courage and the faith ordinary Indians have in their chaotic democracy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is election season in India and of the five states that will announce election results this week, one has the potential to be a major upset. In the State of West Bengal, the world's oldest elected communist government may give way to a new political party.

Commentator Sandip Roy is back home in India. He found himself one of many international journalists following that election.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

SANDIP ROY: At recent street-side rally in Calcutta, Mamata Banerjee says the eyes of the whole world are on West Bengal.

Minister MAMATA BANERJEE (Railway Ministry, Republic of India/Chief Minister Candidate): (Bengali language spoken)

ROY: Mamata is India's railway minister, but she wants to be chief minister, the elected head of West Bengal's government and she wants to topple the ruling Communist Party. Mamata doesn't promise anything radical more industry, investment, clean government and change.

In Calcutta, usually nothing much changes. It was once the capital of British India, but these days it's the city that time and India forgot.

(Soundbite of a railway)

ROY: Trams still trundle down the congested streets. But this election has everyone abuzz, says historian Bharati Ray.

Dr. BHARATI RAY (History, Calcutta University): To oust the government after 35 years of rule, a Communist government, particularly after what happened in Russia and what is happening in Cuba, is of international interest.

ROY: During those 35 years, elections don't seem to have changed very much. Posters still flutter from the backs of rickshaws. The Communist Party faithful march down the streets shouting: long live the revolution.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting)

ROY: But both campaigns tiptoed across new frontiers. Mamata's Trinamool Congress Party got into social media. The local newspapers said the communist website was better. But Trinamool vice president, Derek O'Brien, says his side won the cookie race - hammer and sickle cookies for the Communists, or Trinamool cookies with their three-leaf-clover-ish logo.

Mr. DEREK O'BRIEN (Vice President, Trinamool Congress Party): And I was very happy to note that we were selling eight to two. And the cookies was very expensive by Indian standards. It was a dollar and a half.

ROY: But campaign cookies, and text messages and town hall debates are just the icing of democracy. The real story of change is the way elections are reported and conducted now, says journalist Ruchir Joshi.

Politics can be dangerous in India. A few years ago, West Bengal police shot dozens of people during a protest.

Mr. RUCHIR JOSHI (Writer and Filmmaker): A lot of nastiness in Indian politics would happen because, A: Who is going to see and who's going to put a bullet through your head? That is more and more difficult to do now.

ROY: This time, a strengthened election commission monitored polling places. And television and the Internet reach into the smallest communities now.

Mr. JOSHI: For the first time, the normal public has a sense that I can go and vote for who I want. There is a kind of bubble. There is a kind special election time, defensive bubble around, which gives people a lot of courage.

ROY: As an American citizen now, I couldn't vote in this election. But all around me, I see people with ink-stained fingers; it's so they couldn't vote twice. But it's also an indelible stamp of courage and the faith Indians have in their chaotic democracy.

(Soundbite of singing)

MONTAGNE: Sandip Roy is culture editor for FirstPost.com. He's currently in India on leave from New America Media in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.