“Khela hobe, dekha hobe, jeeta hobe,” proclaimed a wheelchair-bound Mamata Banerjee during a rally on Monday. With the West Bengal Assembly election mere weeks away, the phrase ‘khela hobe’ has become something of a constant in polls rallies. The TMC uses it as a rallying cry while the BJP has turned it into a jibe. But the words (which roughly translate to ‘the game is on’) are well on their way to attaining pan-India recognition. Much like the Kolkata Knight Rider’s ‘korbo lorbo jeetbo’ during the IPL, this is fast becoming a phrase associated with the 2021 Bengal elections.
Other variations, including counter-slogans with the same words, have been delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many others during the high-pitched campaign as Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress seeks to retain the 294-seat Assembly for a third term. The Opposition BJP, almost a negligible force five years ago, is posing a fierce challenge this time around.
From holding multiple events and road shows on a daily basis to fielding interactions with the media and keeping abreast of the ever-changing political landscape – it is a busy time for party workers. And for the creator of the now iconic slogan, it is also a time of immense public scrutiny and increasing fame. At 24, Debangshu Bhattacharya Dev is well on his way to becoming a household name in the state. The TMC spokesperson is a regular face on television debates and poll rallies and now, even the Opposition BJP is taking notice. The catchy slogan is part of a poem about the efforts of the Bengal government that Debangshu wrote in the run-up to the elections.
“What makes me happiest when it comes to ‘khela hobe’ is that fact that even the Prime Minister himself is coming to this narrative of mine to ‘play’. The same PM who did not engage with Rahul Gandhi or Akhilesh Yadav or even Arvind Kejriwal, has felt the need to react to the words of a relatively unknown politician. What more can a person want in their political career?” he asks.
‘Khela Hobe’ has been influenced primarily by a Rabindranath Tagore poem, he tells the FPJ. “The BJP is trying to break the TMC. But such is the fervour of the political ‘game’ right now that the opponents are getting scorched,” Debangshu adds, quoting an excerpt from Moder Jemon Khela Temni to underscore his point.
The rap-style anthem also draws inspiration from sports and the current political situation in the state. “BJP’s Bengal Chief Dilip Ghosh speaks on a daily basis about attacking and killing people. Politics has taken a violent turn. As a youth member of the TMC, I want politics to be akin to a game – a game where people are pitted against each other only in the political arena. There might be both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan supporters in my home. But when the match ends, we all come together as a family,” he elaborates.
In recent days, West Bengal has played host to countless BJP leaders – from Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to several Chief Ministers and top party leaders. Debangshu however is skeptical about this show of “election-oriented fondness for Bengal”. Dubbing the BJP leaders as “bohiragato”, he compares them to fair weather friends drawn to the eastern state in search of votes.
Baire theke borgi ashey
Niyom kore proti mashey
Amio achi, tumio robe
Bondhu ebar khela hobe
Khela khela khela hobe
Over the last few months, a slew of TMC leaders have switched to the Opposition camp, with many being fielded as the BJP’s poll candidates. But even as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee gears up for a high-octane battle against one of her former top lieutenants in Nandigram, Suvendu Adhikari, Debangshu is not excessively worried.
She’s going to win by a margin of around one lakh votes, he asserts confidently. “We all know how big a factor Mamata Banerjee’s picture is in West Bengal politics. And if that support is removed, that person loses importance as a political leader. Especially if they’re going from Trinamool.”
Trinamool er bhangiye neta
Noyko sohoj vote a jeta
Didir chobi sorbe jobe
Bondhu sedin khela hobe
Khela khela khela hobe
Khela hobe… khela hobe
Khela hobe… khela hobe
“It is only recently that Suvendu Adhikari became a voter in Nandigram. Now he might lose by 99,999 votes instead of one lakh,” he jibes. Debangshu believes that the newly-saffronised leader has become a pawn in the BJP’s political game – one that will be shunted aside after the poll results.
But what is the reason behind the recent defections? Debangshu is quick to point out that many of the recent changes involve people who were denied party tickets. He cites the example of 85-year-old Jatu Lahiri who switched to the BJP after being denied a ticket by the TMC. For the uninitiated, the MLA from Shibpur had been dropped in favour of former cricketer Manoj Tiwary – a fact that he had said he was deeply hurt by.
Cricketers and celebrities may be a prominent part of the upcoming elections, but Debangshu contends that they make up only a tiny percentage of the TMC’s poll candidates. “There are only 9 celebrity candidates, including individuals who have been actively involved in politics for several years. There are people from all sectors in the candidate list. They might not have prior political experience. Why is nobody talking about the teachers, doctors and barristers who are contesting? The question is about whether they can serve people successfully,” he notes.
Coming back to the use of campaign songs, Debangshu is, perhaps quite naturally, not a fan of the offerings put forth by the BJP and the CPI(M). And while he does find the latter’s adaptation of Bengali hit song ‘Tumpa Sona’ somewhat tolerable, the TMC leader makes no bones about his dislike for the BJP’s Bengali adaptation of ‘Bella Ciao’. The song – an adaptation of the anti-fascist anthem from the Italian Resistance – makes use of an animated video format to highlight problems seen under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and calls for her to leave.
“Khela hobe is completely different, while the others are recreating songs. I’ll grant that the Tumpa Sona adaptation has some good material. But BJP’s Bella Ciao? Even as a creator, I can tell you that the song is an awful recreation,” he says, sounding somewhat horrified about the lyrics of the song. Laughingly, he says that he has heard the Opposition party playing his own khela hobe anthem (the song version that hits out at the BJP) during their events.
Debangshu joined the party in the wake of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as a state spokesperson, at a time when “many were leaving TMC because of the poll results”. And as he has reiterated on several occasions, he does not have any concrete political aspirations for the years to come. The civil engineering graduate says that he wants to see Banerjee settled into Nabanna (the state secretariat) for a third term before making any concrete plans for the future.
Over the last year and a half, Debangshu’s popularity has grown exponentially. A TMC supporter for about a decade, he now commands an active social media presence with lakhs of followers. “I began by disseminating videos and slogans from by Facebook profile. Then I created a page in April 2020. What began with around 20,000 followers has now grown to around 5.5 lakh followers,” he says with pride. A recent video clarification released by him for example had seen a whopping 25 thousand people tune in live. In three days, the clip had seen more than 67 lakh views, he reveals.
And how has the experience been? “It feels great, and I feel as though I’ve been able to give something to the party. Now, when I go out, people come up to me to click pictures or to shake my hands. They cheer when I get on stage. Khela hobe has only amplified the positive reaction. But it is easy to get appreciation, harder to hold on to the goodwill,” he says.