It’s 4 pm on Thursday, and a white SUV is parked at Moulali in central Kolkata — normally one of the city’s busiest street junctions, now deserted. A familiar voice rings through the neighbourhood, amplified by loudspeakers perched on lamp posts up to a radius of perhaps half a kilometre.
“Aami Mamata Banerjee (I am Mamata Banerjee),” it echoes in the silence of the lockdown. “Aapnader kaachhe eshechhi; aamay khoma korun aapnader saathe dekha korte parchhina, gaadi theke naamte parchhi na (I have come to you; forgive me for not being able to get out of the car to meet you).”
The Chief Minister of West Bengal is inside the SUV. “Barite thakun, shustho thakun (stay indoors, stay healthy),” she says into a mic in her hand, speaking through a cloth mask that covers her face. “The lockdown is on. Your shops are shut, you have no work. You are suffering, but you are cooperating with us. Aar kota din korun, jotodin na aamra shokole mile corona ke taracchi (Please endure for a few more days, until we are able to together chase away corona).”
“It will only be possible with your cooperation,” she pleads. Sarkar aapnar paashe aachhe (The government stands with you).”
At a time when she faces criticism from both the Opposition and the Governor of her state who has even made allegations about a “PDS scam”, and teams sent by the Centre are checking on her government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Banerjee has decided to do what she does best — hit the streets.
Every day for the past several days, she has been out in the city — travelling its length and breadth, visiting neighbourhoods, especially those near the coronavirus hotspots that have been sealed. She has been speaking into the mic, directly to the people — asking them to stay in, advising them to reach out to the police if needed, and underlining the do’s and dont’s that are essential to check the spread of the disease.
She has been hands-on, personally drawing circles on the road to ensure people follow the norms of social distancing in markets, visiting ration shops, and speaking to conservancy workers.
“We have never seen a lockdown like this, and we are grateful to you for your cooperation as you face hardships,” she says repeatedly. “Please wear a mask and maintain social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. If you have symptoms like fever or respiratory problems, do not hide them. Contact the police.”
She is accompanied by the Mayor of Kolkata, Firhad Hakim, and Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma. About an hour before she arrived in Moulali, arrangements were put in place. The movement of vehicles was restricted, and policemen were stationed in the neighbourhood lanes and streets. A vehicle mounted with a board displaying COVID do’s and don’ts and a picture of the Chief Minister was parked to one side of the crossing.
“Leave all your worries to us,” Banerjee says, first in Bengali and then in Hindi. “If you have symptoms, visit M R Bangur, our special COVID hospital. You will be treated there and you will get well. So many people have recovered. Those with critical ailments like a heart or kidney condition are at greater risk. If you think you have been in touch with an infected person, alert the authorities and stay at home or at our quarantine centre for 14 days. So far, it is mostly family members who have been infected. So you have to take care.”
After about 45 minutes at Moulali, she is ready to move. She lowers her windowpane and asks mediapersons not to stand close to each other. “Keep some space between yourselves,” she says, as the convoy of over a dozen vehicles, including those belonging to the media, starts moving. She heads towards South Kolkata, through Theatre Road, Alipore, to Behala Chowrasta.
By the time she reaches her destination, a light rain has started to fall. She begins speaking, about the virus and the need to take the right precautions, but also about festivals and people’s everyday problems.
“Ramzan is here. I wish you well for the month of Ramzan (which began on Thursday evening),” she says. “I also wish everyone a happy Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year, which was on April 14). Our homes are now our temple, our mosque, our church and our gurdwara. We cannot celebrate any festivals now. Let us celebrate in our homes,” she says.
“Do you have any problems? Do you have enough food? Is anyone in your family sick? Please contact the local police; they will help you. We are giving free rations. But please maintain social distancing when you go to get your rations. And when you return, wash your clothes, and even your chappals.”
Over the past three days, the Chief Minister has visited Rajabazar, Park Circus, Kidderpore, Tiljala, and Ballygunge Phanri. In sealed-off areas like Rajabazar, her car stood outside the barricades, while she spoke to the people.
Mamata’s outreach to the people has been criticised by the Opposition, including the BJP.
“She is visiting neighbourhoods, speaking into a microphone. This proves that the administration and her party have no one else to do the job. It is only her. This is also her votebank politics, a political gimmick. She and her administration have not only failed to combat COVID, they have actually made it worse by suppressing facts and trying to resist central teams,” Rahul Sinha, national secretary of the BJP, told The Indian Express.
But Mamata continues to play to her strength. Long after she has left for her Kalighat residence, her message continues to echo in the locked down city — a recording of her speeches is played by the Kolkata Police over loudspeakers.
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