Battle is difficult but I am also a soldier’s daughter: Saira Shah Halim

Story by  Rita Farhat Mukand | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 12-05-2024
Siara Shah Halim CPI (M) candidate from the South Kolkata constituency campaigning
Siara Shah Halim CPI (M) candidate from the South Kolkata constituency campaigning


Rita Farhat Mukand

Battling it out in the heat and dust of Bengal is Saira Shah Halim, politician and activist, a former educator in mega-companies and a member of the Communist Party of India, daughter of veteran Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah, and niece of celebrated actor Naseeruddin Shah, as the CPI(M)’s candidate from South Kolkata Lok Sabha seat in the ongoing General Elections.

Saira is hailed for turning the fortunes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with her performance in the 2022 State Elections by spinning the party’s vote share in the Ballygunge Assembly seat in West Bengal from 5 percent to more than 30 percent. Though she lost the election, here fete is seen as a path breaker for the CPI (M) after the fall of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's government to the TMC's surge and the fading of the party over the years.

Riding on the wave of a spirited campaign in 2024, Saira Shah Halim returned home on the night of May 10, and despite her busy schedule spoke with Awaz-the Voice about her political journey and expectations of the 2024 campaign. Excerpts:

Saira Shah Halim's  campaign poster

Tell me about your life so far..

I was born in Kolkata but brought up all across the country as my father Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah was in the Army and every two or three years, we moved to different places such as Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang Valley.  As my education was suffering due to constant changes in schools, my parents enrolled me at the Lawrence School, Lovedale in Ootacamund, Tamil Nadu, where I studied up to class 10 and was in a hostel.   Later, my father was posted as the  Indian military attaché to Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Kuwait for three years, I did my 11th and 12th from the Indian International School there.  

I came back to India to complete my graduation from Sophia College, Ajmer.  I then went on to work with India Today.  I got married young, at the age of 21 in Kolkata, 23 years ago at the turn of the Millennium.  Being on the roads constantly, I did not have a sense of belonging to any place because Army kids are brought up in challenging terrains. My husband Dr Fuad Halim is a doctor and my father-in-law, Hashim Abdul Halim is a former member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. He was the longest-serving speaker of the (West Bengal Legislative Assembly) from 1982 to 2011.  He is the longest-serving speaker in the entire country.”

What got you into politics?

I saw constant elections and by-elections around as my husband was constantly campaigning as a young SFI (Students Federation of India) member. The world of politics was a little mystifying and difficult to me because I wanted a normal life where you go out with your husband. I was in a big joint family where politics was discussed at the dining table. I pursued my Master's degree after marriage and worked with different companies as a senior trainer in communications.

Activism happened as I started campaigning for my husband and read political literature. I got involved in ground movements like the anti-CAA, NRC, the hijab ban, etc. Also, the BJP brought certain laws and rules that were seen to be anti-people, and anti-minority. So I just felt I needed to speak up. That is when I became active on Social Media. Soon I was invited to the Television debates and asked to write columns. I was invited to Literature Festivals where I spoke about how we can save democracy and stand up for the marginalized. In the midst of this came the Vidhan Sabha by-election in Ballygunge in 2022.

Saira Shah Halim distributing campaign material in South Kolkata

I was not a greenhorn since I wasalways active politically. Of course, it was my first electoral foray in 2022 when Babul Supriyo of the TMC was my rival. The National media projected the binary of TMC and BJP; it didn’t figure that I could be a strong contender.  I managed to break that binary in the by-elections. I increased the Left vote share from 5 to more than 30 percent within a year and I defeated the BJP and the Congress. I defeated the BJP with a thumping majority, the lady got 12,000 votes, and I got more than 31 to 32,000 votes, it was not easy.

What did you do differently to get that big a win?

I did not want to get defeated; I was very clear on that.  I worked very hard; it was my outreach in my Constituency.  I have rich experience in the corporate world, have been socially active, have launched books and authors, and have been part of literary festivals.  People wanted a non-political face yet someone who could resonate with civil society, which was why the party nominated me.  I was initially hesitant but then took on the challenge.  I was already affiliated with the party through my family, my husband, and my father-in-law.

Not everyone has it in them to take it up because it is a humongous responsibility; very difficult for a woman especially.  In the last election, I faced a lot of misogyny and trolling.  One candidate was trying to say that I am a lesser Muslim than him. That was unfortunate. He would say, “I am the son of Bengal and she is the outsider. I told him I was born in Kolkata.  My father was posted here between 1978 and 1980 in the Eastern Command and that is when both of us (brother Maj. Mohammad Ali Shah) were born. 

Saira Shah Halim in Kolkata

What was your strategy as a first-time contestant?

In 2022, what worked was my outreach; I was going basti-to-basti, door-to-door. I was very active on social media. My hard work and outreach mattered more than the Party symbol.  People told me, “We voted for you, even though right now, CPI (M) is a sunset party.” I take that as a compliment. A lot of people voted for me because I was into activism socially and literarily as well as being pro-minority whereas Ballygunge has about a 48 percent minority base.  At the same time, Mamata Banerjee has a pro-minority tag, so it’s not that every minority voted for me.  There are a lot of intellectuals and white-collared people whom I know in Ballygunge who also voted for me.  In 2022, some of my wards were rigged because the counselors showed there was an element of intimidation where my polling agents were driven away. Morally, I know that I won but because the TMC is in an overwhelming majority and they have the means to maneuver things.  Initially, we got word that I was leading in two wards but from everywhere we got to know about rigging in a big way.

Two things went wrong: They (TMC) had rigged a couple of my wards to fill in that margin to defeat me by a couple of thousand votes and secondly. my booths were not manned properly by our agents; We were a little weak in that area.

However, it was a huge success after a very long time someone could do it in the first electoral foray at a time when the CPI (M) had lost all seats, so it came as a ray of hope, and everybody got rejuvenated.

How do you see the challenge this time?

Earlier I contested from one (Legislative Assembly) constituency; now it is seven. I am competing against two sitting MPs - Mala Roy and Debasree Chaudhuri. The latter has been shunted from her Constituency to Kolkata South.  I am fighting against seven MLAs. They all are from the TMC and you know, they will pull the strings. So this battle is very difficult but I am also a soldier’s daughter, so while it is psychological warfare, I am also playing the game. I am getting great public support, and I hope to win the Kolkata South with public opinion because both of my rivals had no presence in the Parliament. Also, TMC faces serious corruption charges as it has received the second highest money through electoral bonds; its Education Minister Partha Chatterjee is in jail for the Teacher recruitment scam. The TMC’s rule of syndicates, goonda raj, TMC recruitment scam, coal scam, and cow smuggling cases - an anti-incumbency factor is just settling in. I hope to ride the wave with my credentials of hard work, young girl candidate image, and my preparedness to go the extra mile for the betterment of the constituency.

Saira Shah Halim on campaign trail

You don't look like a stereotypical left politician. How did people reach out to you when you first went into campaigning?

I look very different from what people imagine a Leftist to be because of my Army background, and corporate experience. With this image, people have greater aspirations. I don’t want that old projection of what people have of Leftists, we just want progress, and equitable distribution of wealth if not equal.

What are your expectations from this election?

People are getting a little jaded with this whole religion politics, this whole Hindu, Muslim, mandir, masjid, mangalsutra, ghusapaithiye, and I think people want answers, they want growth and jobs.  How are these religious politics helping the youth?  What kind of ideas are you sending out?  It is very appalling and disturbing to hear such things.  I think especially the first-time voters who are fed up with this would be the game-changers.  People are looking for unity and peace in the country.  This year Congress is supporting me as I am in the INDIA alliance. Congress is helping me in my campaign so all that should add up if I do my math correctly and read up everything in the next twenty days, we should be able to win this election.” 

Interestingly, Saira Shah Halim's father stands staunchly as a strong pillar behind her. He spoke in a press conference explaining why the people need to vote for Saira Shah Halim and also took to social media to seek votes for her. 

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Uncle Actor Naseer-ud-din Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah sent out videos validating her outreach.

Rita Farhat Mukand is an independent writer.