TMC’s Mahua Moitra: A Banker’s Guide To Winning Elections
As they say, “Old bankers never die, they just lose interest.”
(This piece was first published on 26 April 2019. It is being reposted in the wake of Mahua Moitra filing criminal defamation against ZEE News’ Sudhir Chaudhary. The Quint met Moitra on her campaign trail for the Lok Sabha Elections 2019 in West Bengal’s Krishnanagar.)
For a party that is vehemently trying to stop a saffron surge, it is ironic that one of their candidates has rented out a house/election war room of exactly that colour.
But there we were outside Trinamool Congress’ Krishnanagar candidate Mahua Moitra’s campaign headquarters at 8:15am.
“Sharp 8:30 is when she leaves”, we were told.
Moitra emerges, dressed in a crisp white shirt that doubled up as a blouse for an under-stated but gorgeous red and blue Shantipuri saree.
And, indeed, sharp at 8:30 – a rare feat for anybody in Bengal, politicians and aam junta alike.
JP Morgan To Joda Phool
Mahua Moitra’s journey from vice president of JP Morgan to spokesperson, MLA and now MP-candidate from the Trinamool Congress has been often written about.
As has been her Louis Vuitton bag, being anointed as the “Most Charming Woman in Kolkata” by a magazine many years ago, her sarees, her over-sized sunglasses and her “mem-saheb” image.
Add to that, the (in)famous (depends on your dispensation, really) episode where she showed Arnab Goswami the middle finger on a live television debate before walking off, and her showdown with the Assam Police at the Guwahati airport when a team of TMC representatives were stopped from entering the city after the first list of the NRC was announced.
Moitra quit her job with JP Morgan in London in 2008 to come back to India and join politics. She first ventured into the Congress and then joined the Trinamool Congress in early 2010.
In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, she was fielded by the party as a candidate from the Karimpur constituency. Thereafter, the local media had a field-day describing the ‘foreign-return’ madam who was trying to win a seat that was one of the poorest in the state and had parts which were on the India-Bangladesh border.
Moitra won that election by over 16,000 votes.
Contesting against Mahua this time is former Mohun Bagan footballer Kalyan Chaubey from the BJP.
When asked, an onlooker said, “Krishnanagar e eishob Chaubey-Waubey choley na (People who are Chaubey etc. can’t win in Krishnanagar)“
An SUV took us from her rented apartment to the spot from where her roadshow of the day was going to begin. A decorated open jeep stood next to a mandir. As the SUV slowed down, Moitra promptly asked, “Where’s the block president? Where is everybody?”
Her cadre, it seemed, was still following Bengali Standard Time. And her immediate team knew that she was not too happy about it.
“I know her since her days in finance and she is the most hard-working and disciplined person I’ve ever met,” remarked a college friend of hers who had come down for a day to see her in action. “If she says 8:30, she means 8:30 to the dot.”
While she waited (a good half hour) for her people to show up, Mahua walked out of her SUV and headed into what could only be described as a dilapidated mound of a building that stood next to the mandir.
“She’s gone to use the washroom,” remarked another journalist. “Perception matters. The fact that she, being who she is, is using such a place is bound to have some kind of impression on people.”
Through the campaign, though, it was evident that “who she is” is far from the anglicised, city belle the press had made her out to be. The investment banker shone through, however, as every aspect of the roadshow was painfully micro-managed.
There was a set amount of time allocated for each set of booths. And once that allocated time was up, she’d swiftly move to another area, no matter how many workers of that designated area pleaded otherwise.
“I have 1,900 booths to cover. This is not a panchayat poll, it is a Lok Sabha poll. The planning needs to be right,” she explained.
If any of the bikes from her cavalcade made the mistake of coming too close to her jeep, they would be met with an agitated Mahua screaming, “Please distance rakho. Accident hoe jaabe! (Please keep distance. You will get into an accident!).”
Her stint as Karimpur MLA has also taught her a trick or two. As she reached out from her jeep to invite people to shake hands with her, she remarked to her friend: “Y’know every person you touch is a vote. This is something I learnt in Karimpur.”
How does a someone who’s lived in New York and London for years survive in places like Karimpur and Krishnanagar?
“Well, that question is 10 years too late,” she tells me when I ask her. “If I’m in London tomorrow, I’ll be the way I have to be and if I’m here, as you can see, I’m fine as well. You can’t keep doing this day after day after day if you don’t enjoy it. Because you’re meeting a lot of people, but they are meeting you only once. So those few seconds that you spend with them has to be their moment”.
One thing was clear – both in Karimpur and now in Krishnanagar – the election was not about how Moitra won inspite of her personality, but about how she won BECAUSE of it.
An Investment Banker’s Guide To Managing An Election
Mahua’s “scientific” campaign is known across her constituency, and beyond. In fact, at a chai pitstop on the way from Ranaghat to Krishnanagar, a gentleman urged us to see her “war room”.
“She used to work for that foreign bank…that Douche…doshe one,” he explained.
“JP Morgan,” I correct him.
“Yes that only. So she is very scientific in her approach. She has numbers for everything,” he went on.
A man sitting to his side also added that she reminded him of Sonia Gandhi.
Forming Mahua’s core team is a group of 20-odd young people from Delhi – most of them lawyers from top law schools who are now practicing in the Supreme Court and have taken two months off from work.
One of them showed this reporter around the “war room”, which is basically the ground floor of the rented saffron building.
“Right after the candidature, the Election Commission gave us the voters’ list. We analysed the list according to the demographics – women, caste, religion, rural, urban etc – and then divided them according to booths. We then had to mobilise booth level leaders to analyse each list and then figure out who is voting for us, against us or is in the middle,” explained the lawyer who didn’t want to be named.
The first table in the room has a group of four booth workers. Each with four cellphones.
“We have started having a set of four phone numbers for each anchal. We reach out to the voters from these specific numbers only. And we also tell them that they can call back on the same number if they have any problems. We get a lot of random calls in a day, but this way the voter has one specific number via which they can contact the candidate’s team. They also hear a familiar voice every time they call as only one specific group handles one specific anchal,” he further explained.
This process also gives the booth level cadre – the lowest in the hierarchy – the opportunity to work closely with the candidate, thus also enthusing them to a great extent.
Her social media out-reach is on point too with events and pictures from each day of the campaign being uploaded on her page almost immediately.
There are other things too like reaching out directly to those who have been or are to-be beneficiaries of various government schemes. “That way we get direct feedback from them and they also have a way to redress their specific concerns,” our war-room tour guide said.
“This is really all her. We are just helping with the execution. This is planned according to investment banker sensibilities! In fact, when some senior leaders come and see our set up, they ask us to go and form a similar set up in other constituencies also,” he laughed.
‘The BJP & the Left Can Decide Who’s Coming Second. I’m Winning For Sure’
As the day bit of the campaign was coming to a close, we caught Mahua in her jeep for the “interview” part of this story.
(For the readers: This was supposed to be a video story, but technology wasn’t on our side and the equipment malfunctioned.)
Knowing that this was one of the many interviews she had done during election season, we decided to skip the usual talk about her bag and make-up, saree and fitness routine etc, although the make-up aficionado in this reporter was dying to ask her the shade of the Bobbi Brown lipstick that she pulled out for touch-ups from time to time.
We thus started with all the sexist trolling that she and other female candidates from the TMC had to face after their candidature was announced. It is important to note that none of this online chatter had anything to do with her performance as a legislator or a partywoman. It generally centred around her photos in dresses from years ago, her perceived lifestyle and well, just the fact that she was woman.
“I don’t deal with any of this,” pat comes her reply. “I have always said that this is not my problem. And if those who are propagating such things have these problems, then they can continue to have them.”
Next we talk about how she took the Modi government to court on the issue of privacy (and won!)
Do issues like privacy resonate at all with her rural electorate?
“Not at all. But its something that I feel very strongly about as an individual. Twenty years ago people weren’t on social media. They didn’t realise what they were giving away. But now, my mother for example, doesn’t understand privacy settings on Facebook. For all you know, she could be writing an email to her daughter blasting the government and those could be accessed and then used as sedition. Anything can happen. And that is very dangerous for democracy,” she says.
Finally, how strong does she think her chances are this time around?
“Well, you can ask the BJP if they are coming second. The BJP and the Left can decide amongst themselves. But I’m definitely winning,” she say emphatically, adding that her family is native to Krishnanagar and Nadia and that she knows the area like the back of her hand.
After this, we stepped out of the jeep, to get into the aforementioned SUV and started to make our way back to the “war room”.
Somewhere on the way, the huge car gets stuck in a messy traffic jam.
“I can’t take this. I’m really hungry,” she says, before she jumps out of the car, all of us in tow, and gets on to a toto (an electric auto-rickshaw).
The driver charges 40 bucks for four people.
“Remember these four customers I got you and vote for joda phool,” she jokes with him before walking off.
I was the last one to get off.
“Madam, was that Mahua Moitra?” the toto driver asked me.
“Yes,” I smiled.
“Arre madam! You should have told me! I wanted a picture!” he said.
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