After paying obeisance at the Lake Kalibari temple, Lt Gen (retd) Subrata Saha is about to start his campaign for the day as an unconventional Bharatiya Janata Party candidate in the urban Rashbehari seat of Kolkata. News18 caught up with him on Sunday to ask him about the Trinamool Congress’s criticism of the security forces in the elections. “If you ask me, this is despicable and outright condemnable. I was the corps commander in Kashmir in 2014 when we conducted the last assembly elections over there and we were able to achieve a voter turnout of over 80% without a single terror incident or incident of violence,” the former commander of the Srinagar-based XV Corps says. This, he says, is because the Election Commission and the forces work very professionally. “But there are elements who do not want free and fair elections because that threatens the TMC and the way they operate by politicising crime and criminalising politics. They are trying very hard to somehow create a fear psychosis among the people to discourage and dissuade them from coming and voting for the BJP.”
On the morning of April 10, the CISF personnel on duty at booth number 126 at Jorpatki in the Sitalkuchi constituency of Bengal’s Cooch Behar district opened fire, leading to the deaths of four people and another person receiving a bullet injury. One more person was killed in a separate incident of shooting by some unidentified men near a different polling booth. The Election Commission’s special police observer, Vivek Dube, said in his report that the CISF had to fire in self-defence after villagers tried to snatch their weapons. There was a misunderstanding between villages and the security personnel, he said.
The Sitalkuchi incident has heated up the state’s politics in the middle of the elections. While chief minister Mamata Banerjee blamed union home minister Amit Shah for the incident, the BJP alleged it was TMC goons who attacked the forces prompting them to open fire. “Even in my constituency, the issue being raised by people more than being raised by me is the terrible state of security amongst the locals. There is an element of terror. That terror may not be in the sense of the terrorists in J&K but terror perpetrated by goondas patronised by the TMC as part of their strategy and day-to-day functioning,” Saha says. They have done it over the past 10 years and continue to intensify it during elections. It is very much a part of their DNA, culture and doctrine.” The former deputy chief of Army Staff says this shows how threatened the TMC feels over the way five of the eight phases of the assembly polls have gone.
Retired soldier faces big challenge
Saha was a surprise entry into the BJP before the elections given he has no RSS background or known political affiliation after retirement. In Rashbehari, he faces the tough task of dislodging the TMC whose leader Sovandeb Chattopadhyay has won the constituency continuously since 1998 but is contesting from Bhowinopore (chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s erstwhile seat) this time and the Trinamool has given a chance to councillor and popular local face Debashish Kumar. The bhadralok (intellectual) urban voter here has backed the TMC so far. “With the bhadralok, I would add bhadramohila (women intellectual voters). A host of these bhadralok and bhadramohila are living alone in houses, suffering one common problem: that their children are not with them. They have gone out for education or employment and the elderly are all alone here. They are undergoing harassment and being suppressed by TMC hooligans…cut money and lawlessness have permeated urban Kolkata too and driven people to the wall. They are now saying to hell with it, let’s go for a change and the BJP,” Saha says to News18.
He is also raising emotional issues like the decay of the Adiganga river in Kolkata on which people like him went by boats to worship at the Kalighat temple. “The river was closely interwoven with culture and history but it is in complete decay. The water hardly flows and people die in the hundreds in bastis along the banks due to malaria, etc,” he says. Saha maintains that given his background, people welcome him with a lot of warmth and respect. “Even TMC supporters don’t hesitate to come and shake hands, and some even give me a hug to say Dada, you have served the country,” he says.
Joining the BJP
Asked why he joined the BJP, Saha cites how he has served all over the country in the past 40 years but has also seen the decay of Bengal in front of his eyes. “I admit this with a sense of helplessness and the urge to do something. We are just across the Rabindra Sarobar lake where a cultural show called Ashok Kumar Nite happened in 1968 (a scheduled musical night had to be called off due to faulty equipment, leading to mayhem) where the downfall started; women had to jump into the lake to save themselves and kill themselves. How different is that from the Jallianwala Bagh incident?” Saha tells News18. “I highlight this to show the progressive decay and the hurt I have carried all along and the desire to do something about it. Modi is an inspiration to any well-meaning person to do well for the nation.”