Friday, June 14, 2024

Interview: Politics is a responsibility, says CPI(M)’s young face, Kolkata South candidate Saira Shah Halim

Saira Shah Halim, a relatively new face in the West Bengal political landscape, is confident and ready to contest the Kolkata South constituency, considered to be the stronghold of sitting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

An educator, TEDx speaker, and human rights activist, Halim first contested the 2022 Ballygunge Assembly seat on a CPI(M) ticket and posed a tough challenge to BJP’s Babul Supriyo, although she did not win. She believes that she has disrupted the ‘BJP-TMC binary’ in the 2022 Assembly polls and is capable of doing it again.

Kolkata South goes to the polls in the last and 7th phase of the general elections 2024, on June 1st.

Maktoob spoke to Saira Shah Halim about CPIM’s political road map for West Bengal, Congress- CPIM Alliance, TMC’s anti-incumbency in the state, her candidature, promises for the constituency, her influential associations among other things.

Read:

Ghazala Ahmad: How do you view this fight, especially against both the BJP and a perceived secular party within the larger INDIA alliance? What are the chances of winning?

Saira Shah Halim: Firstly, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is not as secular as it claims. Mamata Banerjee has categorically walked out of the INDIA alliance and said that she will not be a part of it. Now that she has noticed that INDIA might win in all probability, she is trying to keep a channel open from behind.

Now she has made a statement that she will back the INDIA alliance from behind. Now when you have fielded candidates on all 42 seats against the CPI(M)-Congress alliance, how can TMC be a part of the alliance now?

Congress and CPI(M) are the only parties that have come to a consensus as far as seat sharing is concerned. CPI(M) has not fielded a candidate in Kolkata North, likewise, Congress has not fielded a candidate against me in the South. Mamata Banerjee has fielded all BJP ex-ministers who were accused of inciting hatred and violence.

In the 2022 Ballygunge Assembly polls, I managed to increase the Left vote share from 5 percent to 30 percent and was very close to winning the polls. That’s the reason both CPI(M) and Congress are supporting me because they know I am a tough nut to crack.

Whenever a party is in an overwhelming majority, they have the means to manipulate and do things. Trinamool Congress is engaged in competitive communalism, if you see the advent of these Ram Navami festivals and all. Bengalis have only celebrated Durga Puja and Kali Puja. There has never been a big voracious celebration of Ram Navami. Ever since, the TMC has gotten into the mode of competing in communalism with BJP in order to target the Hindutva vote bank when festivals like Ram Navami in Kolkata are marked by violence against Muslims and minorities.

Following the pattern, why would Mamata Banerjee give space and tickets to people like Babul Supriyo, Arjun Singh, Shatrughan Sinha, Suvendu Adhikari, and all those who were earlier associated with BJP? This indicates TMC’s passive understanding with BJP.

Moreover, two sitting chief ministers got arrested in a democracy and there are TMC ministers like Abhishek Banerjee who is under the scanner for coal and other scams, and the education minister is in jail for the teacher recruitment scam, where 26,000 teachers in the state lost their jobs. TMC is riddled with corruption charges but no action was taken against TMC because actually it is hand in glove with BJP.

I want to ask a question, who gives the No Objection Certificates (NOC) to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas here? Mamata is very well facilitating the BJP in the state, she allowed it, she gave the NOCs. During the Left and the Congress’s regime, there was not a single shakha in the state. There was not a single RSS-BJP seat in Bengal, but to evade the CPI and left parties Mamata Banerjee has joined hands with BJP.

Now, it is important for the community to now understand that Mamata has not done anything for the Muslims of the state.

The ones who are literally fighting the bulldozer politics, CAA-NRC, and the divisive politics are the Left, Congress, and INDIA, not the TMC.

The BJP’s dirty divisive politics and TMC’s corrupt politics have turned people off and we are getting a lot of support. Kolkata South has a 17 percent Muslim population, and my competitor Mala Roy whenever bills like CAA-NRC were discussed chose to walk out of parliament and enabled the BJP, now people understand they need people in parliament who can represent them and not be a dummy.

We hope to win the seat and send a message across that these binaries can’t last forever.

Ghazala: Would it be beneficial for a larger alliance, including non-BJP parties, to contest together?

Saira: That’s the binary I have already broken in the 2022 Assembly elections, by defeating the BJP with an overwhelming margin, as well as the Congress.

TMC has nothing to offer other than “if you don’t vote for us, the BJP will win,” but their politics are similar.

It has not done anything for the Muslim community. For my political campaign, I have been spending a lot of time in the basti area; the living conditions are not good, there are no policies for them, and the OBC certificate benefit has also been removed; there are no livelihood and job opportunities.

On the ground, TMC is not helping the middle class, educated, and the Muslim community in Kolkata. People are looking for jobs and development work, but TMC provides none. So, alliance or not, TMC is no relief for people; it is an enabler of competitive communalism.

Ghazala: Who is the real enemy: TMC or BJP?

Saira: Both are the same; there is nothing like, “to save yourself from BJP, you need to vote for TMC.” We are making it very clear that TMC is the B-team of BJP.

Look at the candidates fielded by TMC; all are former ministers of BJP. Banerjee is very actively assimilating the BJP.

She was once part of the RSS project; people don’t know that. Somebody who has paid allegiance to a particular ideology can switch sides anytime.

We have formed a very formidable alliance in the state, and this should be a reckoning of sorts, and INDIA is going to do really well in Bengal.

Ghazala: The CPI(M) has fielded many young candidates. Do you believe these young leaders will spearhead a resurgence of the Left in the state?

Saira: Absolutely, if you look at the MLAs, MPs, and candidates fielded by TMC, most of them have criminal records or are in jail. Some of them are turning to BJP since they feel their politics and ideology sync with them.

The younger faces we have fielded come with a fresher perspective; there is no baggage, they are dependable, you can trust them, so obviously, they are connecting with the audience easily, whether middle class, educated, or even uneducated. So these young candidates are capable of shifting the voting patterns.

Ghazala: Could you describe your political career and your journey to joining the Left party?

Saira: Politics was incidental for me; I have been on the national media talking on topics of importance, critical issues, on policy and governance in debates for over 10 years now. This is because, if people with their presence or leadership can influence others, they should, given the times we are living in under the present rule of Narendra Modi. I think it is our responsibility towards society.

I was not even a member of CPI(M) in 2022; the party itself approached me to contest the Assembly elections because they said they were looking for a face who could resonate with civil society. Then I fought against BJP’s Babul Supriyo for the Ballygunge Assembly seat. I defeated him with an overwhelming margin and performed really well, securing second position. I would have won the seat, but some of the polling booths were attacked and my voters were diverted with the strategy.

And now the party has again invested its trust in me for the area which is considered Mamata Banerjee’s den, which is Kolkata South, a cosmopolitan constituency.

I come from an Army family; my father, Lt. General Zameeruddin Shah, was in Kolkata when I was born. I was raised all over the country, did my schooling in a boarding school in Ooty. Then I went to live with my parents in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I finished my school. Then, I kept shuffling between Yemen, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia and came back to complete my graduation and then got married after working for a year.

My in-laws and husband are also from Kolkata. I came here as a 21-year-old bride, who explored and learned about the city and language on her own. I worked in the corporate sector for 17-18 years in MNCs and later transitioned into writing and activism.

Ghazala: What are your promises for Kolkata?

Saira: I want to work for urban poverty alleviation, sustainable development, inclusive growth, and secular growth of the nation. Local issues here include sanitation, water supply, and electricity. People don’t have basic amenities in the region.

You can’t just get away by giving 1,000 rupees to the women; that’s not development, that’s charity, which is TMC’s Lakshmir Bhandar.

Congress has promised to give 8,500 rupees to women, which can help women at least start a very small-scale startup, which will eventually make them independent and allow them to multiply that capital. That will be real empowerment.

Ghazala: Bengal’s Muslims are among the most marginalised communities in India. Does your party have a roadmap for their development?

Saira: Yes, they have been the most neglected. So the party, in its manifesto, has made a clear indication that we will work in the basti area to alleviate poverty.

Congress has announced a financial assistance program for women that will empower them. There will be schemes for social welfare, and there will be jobs. We will ensure that the area is developed.

There will be schemes for the unemployed to create jobs, and there will be efforts to improve the quality of education in the area. Under TMC rule, 8,000 schools were shut, and the percentage of students appearing for high school has gone down, so we will revive those schools. There will be a campaign to bring the children back to school as students.

In the Teacher Recruitment Scam, 26,000 people lost their jobs. There were other scams too, including the coal scam and cow smuggling. There will be an anti-corruption drive, and social justice will be ensured.

Ghazala: As a Muslim candidate, how do you respond to PM Modi’s hate speeches and his Islamophobic campaigns?

Saira: I am appalled; it is very disturbing. Being an Indian Army officer’s daughter who has been serving the nation, a patriot, and then you see this coming from the PM for you and your community just to get some votes.

It’s a clearly divisive speech, downright communal, and I fail to understand how anyone in their right mind would support the PM like that.

As a kid, I saw Rajiv Gandhi, and he inspired a sense of awe, a sense of dignity for the PM’s office. Narendra Modi has totally downplayed that image in everybody’s mind.

Ghazala: How will you respond to it?

Saira: I will do it in my own way, in the media, on the ground, sensitizing people, talking about it in my speeches, doing whatever I can, as an Indian citizen. I will fight him politically, I will fight him individually, and that’s how I will respond. It is also up to the citizenry to take the call; it is also a test for them as citizens.

But the words he has used for India’s own citizens are absolutely abysmal.

Ghazala: Do you think being a daughter of a soldier and niece of a celebrated actor can help you get some more public support?

Saira: I am proud of being an army officer’s daughter and I absolutely cherish all my other influential associations, but don’t think that these associations have or will help me in my political career.

I have been given the ticket for my own work and all the social presence I have among people. I have been active among these people during the NRC and CAA issues, in Delhi, in Kolkata, and other places.

The associations matter, but I am here on my own merit and I am sure I will get through on my own merit.

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