This Communist student leader turned down Novartis, worked on Covid, joined Bengal’s poll skirmish

Like most millennials his age, Shuvam Banerjee is in a hurry: Trying to cover as much ground as possible in the shortest span, with the least resources available. But he’s no babykisser.

Its 5:30 pm on a Saturday. After a series of neighbourhood meetings under the blistering midmorning sun, Banerjee is resuming his door-to-door election campaign from a bustling marketplace in south Sonarpur, a municipality bordering Kolkata in the South 24 Parganas district. That same evening, none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi was leading the BJP’s campaign blitz, canvassing for his party’s TV star candidate, in this former-CPM-flipped-to-Trinamool Congress (TMC) bastion, on the Gangetic delta. Hundreds of party workers, VVIPs, Tollywood celebrities and curious residents, trooped into the campaign ground, chanting Jai Shri Ram and Har Har Mahadev.

“Didi has accepted her defeat in Bengal–right or wrong? Otherwise, why will she go outside?” Modi demands from the dais, responding to the TMC’s challenge that Mamata Banerjee will be contesting from Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha seat, in 2024. “My people of Varanasi, Kashi, Uttar Pradesh are so large-hearted that no one will call you an outsider, a tourist or the tourist gang,” the PM’s attack increasingly gets personal.

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  • A little away from this high-decibel election slugfest, Banerjee is eager to focus on the basics while walking through the bylanes, harping on the drinking water problem, bad roads and poor drainage or the lack of street lights in the panchayat areas of the constituency. The state wise malaise of unemployment, cultural and religious disharmony and political violence also finds mention. Suddenly he stops, grabs a brush and paints some graffiti on the wall. This fresh-faced, spontaneous exuberance bemuses the elderly, exhilarates the young. “Oh paarbe?” a homemaker asks another by a lake, wondering out loud if he will be able to survive what has been a hard-edged campaign. “Chhokra toh, student naaki?” (He looks very young, is he a student?) she wonders.

    “Vote diyei dekhun naa (vote for him and see for yourself),” a fellow comrade retorts. Banerjee simply gives a seraphic smile, gently nods his head.

    Eight years ago, recruiters from Swiss pharma giant Novartis were similarly stunned. Banerjee, then a final year Master of Science (MSc) student of Ballygunge Science College, had got selected for a high-profile drug discovery job as a pharmacovigilance officer at the company’s main R&D headquarters at Basel, Switzerland. That came with grand professional prospects and an even grander pay cheque. A dumbfounded interview panel just could not figure why Banerjee refused the job to choose the heat and dust of Indian democratic politics instead. “You are not happy with the job or the salary,” they asked. “Neither,” said Banerjee. “The Kolkata district conference of the All India Students Federation (AISF) is to begin a week after my joining date.”

    At that meeting, he was made district secretary. Two years later, in 2015, the state secretary and then in 2018, Banerjee became the national president, the first Bengali to helm the organisation – the earliest national students’ organisation of undivided India — in its 85-year history.

    Coming from a family of traditional Left activists, growing up listening to stories of the Bengal famine of 1943 and the communal riots of 1946 from his grandparents, Banerjee’s career decision was perhaps not surprising.

    HEAT AND DUST

    The Lok Sabha elections of 2019 saw the state’s Left politics reach its nadir but Banerjee believes the tide is turning. “Have been campaigning for 8-10 hours daily. Haven’t seen either of my celebrity candidates on the road,” he quips. “They are all busy with infighting. “They are all busy with in-fighting… Have you seen the price inflation? Since the Modi wave of 2019, a lot has changed on the ground.”

    For example, some election observers would go to the extent of arguing that the Left’s 27% support base will not get transferred en bloc to the BJP this time.

    But campaign strategies have changed dramatically. Elections are won or lost as much on perceptions built and destroyed online as on legacy outreach. Banerjee too has been targeting the 122,000 voters of his assembly constituency who are active on Facebook with two daily updates or posts in one month of campaigning.

    The significance of sequential data analysis – in genomics or elections — is not lost on the bioinformatics doctorate holder. Banerjee, also a former state-level swimming champion who plunged full time into active student politics, understands that individual voters are bound to react differently to issues much like twins reacting to the same virus.

    For his doctorate thesis, he had used bioinformatics and trace metal analysis for disease risk prediction and individual susceptibility, having done extensive research and field work on the impact of arsenic poisoning and skin cancer in the state or the impact of human hair reprocessing occupation on environmental degradation in rural Bengal as well as the mutational spectrum of the deadly SARS-Covid 19 virus.

    Several of his research papers have been published in reputed international journals such as Wiley. “He’s a hardworking, sincere researcher,” said Anindita Chatterjee, scientist at the UGC-Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Consortium of Scientific Research, who co-authored a paper that Banerjee presented at a global biochemistry Congress in Prague in 2018.

    “The viral structure varied from USA to Europe and Europe to India,” Banerjee explains. “The structural alteration due to mutation have an impact on viral nature and alters drug-molecule interaction. There were some signature mutations at ORF1ab and Spike (S) protein in USA which were different than the common mutations of Europe. Similarly, in India some specific mutations were predominant, which were not so common in Europe or USA.”

    In simple terms, the variant that hit India last year was relatively less ferocious, causing lesser fatality rates than other pockets in US, Latin America and Europe, though he accepts, the situation now is quite grim. “I wish I could do research on the current strains. But in the last one and a half months of campaigning, I have not been up to speed.”

    Scientists and doctors in the US and Europe are daily uploading thousands of genetic sequences of the virus. The pitiable situation here on the ground persists. “Our central government believes in religious prejudice, but not in science and logic,” he says.

    Lack of funds, access to sequencing and red tape have always hamstrung indigenous research. Many might accuse the party Banerjee represents as being similarly ossified and bureaucratic. “Even though we had many senior leaders, we promoted youth leaders like Shuvam,” said B Narayana, CPI national secretary. “He is popular among students, intellectuals and very knowledgeable. They are our future leaders.”

    As one waits for the results on May 2nd, I can’t help but wonder if these young turks of the Left movement will be allowed to prosper within their organisations, or even nurture their own seats for the long haul, irrespective of the results this summer.



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