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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 April 2006, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Calcutta's colourless campaign

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Calcutta

Campaign graffiti in Calcutta
Colourful 'wall-campaigns' such as this are no longer permitted
The life has gone out of elections in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, home to the world's longest-running democratically-elected Communist government.

An Election Commission ban on political graffiti, banners, posters and the colourful plywood figures of party symbols has contributed to a dull and cheerless campaign.

Federal election authorities ironically used a 30-year-old local law which prohibits "defacement" of public and private property - which like many such laws had always been ignored - in invoking the unprecedented ban.

The result is that there has been little sign of the frenetic political campaigning and colour synonymous with Bengal's intense political culture ahead of the first round of voting on 17 April.

All the parties, including the ruling Communists, blame the ban on political graffiti - known locally as 'wall writing' - banners and posters.

Political culture

During previous campaigns the streets of the state capital, Calcutta, were decorated with gaudy, hand-painted campaign banners, bunting, posters and party symbols cut out of plywood or Styrofoam.

It is a desire to rid the space of citizenship of all the noise, smell and gaudiness of a publicly mobilised plebeian culture
Sociologist Partha Chatterjee
Political parties would divvy up the space on public and private walls through informal negotiations months in advance before the polls and mark their pickings with a line like: "all wall Communist Party of India (Marxist) 1999-2002".

But this year's ban has meant that candidates can only put up some banners and campaign material outside their party offices.

Most home-owners in Calcutta appear to be relieved that their walls are free of graffiti, although many others feel that the ban robs the state of an essential part of its political culture.

Social scientist Partha Chatterjee says the ban on political graffiti is part of a "zeal to cleanse and sanitise the public political arena".

"It is a desire to rid the space of citizenship of all the noise, smell and gaudiness of a publicly mobilised plebeian culture that is now being seen as both an impediment to and an embarrassment for an India seeking to be become a world power," he says.

Writer Ruchir Joshi, who has lived and worked in Calcutta, says the "wall painting" of Bengal is "human, with different painters showing individual take-offs in the grid of allowed messages and stamps, in the illustrations, in the lettering, and even in the deployment of the limited colours available".

"This is popular production, but it also displays the serious play required for any work to reach the level of genuine art."


A member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Avik Dutta, says the exercise of political graffiti writing was handled by the parties' workers.

Campaign graffiti in Calcutta
The ban has led to a dull, lacklustre campaign
"This was one the best ways to get our cadres involved with the party in a big way. This ban will definitely leave a big gap here," he says.

After the initial shock and protests, Bengal's intrepid politicians seem now to be reconciled to a political future without graffiti and banners. Some of them have even come up with novel ways to campaign to get around the ban.

One Communist party candidate hired horses and decorated them with party banners on his campaign in the suburbs.

"When the wall writing ban began, I thought why not use horses, dress them up and use them in the campaign," says the candidate, Abdur Rezak Mollah.

The Communist party has also distributed t-shirts, caps and aprons bearing party symbols to party workers, rickshaw and trishaw pullers; and at least two of its ministers have launched websites to woo urban voters.

Main opposition Trinamul and Congress party officials say they are depending on cable television spots and audio tapes to get their message to the voters.

Artists hit

But, worst affected by the ban is the once thriving community of graffiti-writers, banner and symbol designers - all part of a self taught decade-long trade in handwritten and painted billboard and graffiti writing.

This ban has taken our livelihood away
Montu Patra
Graffiti artist
These "artists" live in a narrow and filthy warren of lanes dotted with slums and grotty housing in central Calcutta.

Montu Patra, an artist in his sixties, began as a painter of Bengali cinema billboards and then moved to political graffiti, billboard and banners.

He says he has virtually no orders this time.

His dingy "studio" is nearly empty betraying the downturn in business - there are just two banners being painted on, and a few plywood symbol cut-outs.

Some unused cans of cheap oil and water paint are stacked in a corner.

During the last general elections in 2004, Mr Patra bagged business worth nearly $4,500 over two months.

This time, he says, he will be lucky if he makes $100.

"This ban has taken our livelihood away," he says.

"Did the election authorities ever think that there are over 10,000 people and their families who have made their living painting posters, banners and graffiti?"

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