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10 June 2010

Bengal Will Be Left

Unless Mamata does a volte face

More than a quarter-century of political praxis looks like changing. The Left Front’s sweep in West Bengal is giving way! To the politics of a maverick, a firebrand woman politician who, in the eyes of her constituency and friendly Bengali media, pursues a dedicated political career to the exclusion of other calls on a woman’s life (such as marriage), who lives a Spartan life, happily munching on muri while on tour, which can take her hawai chappal-clad feet to Nandigram or the platform of fast unto death over land acquisition in Singur for her spadework drama.

Mamata Banerjee’s theatrics are sincere, or so believe the people of South Kolkata constituency, not some gullible lot from the backwoods that vote for her. Perhaps they consider her histrionics an evil lesser than that of the regime they are now disgruntled at. So what if the anti-Left commentators in New Delhi are not elated by the drubbing the Left Front Government has got in the form of the results of the 2010 civic polls, for they are wary of the eccentric woman, the face of possible change? Bengal seems all dressed up to sing the threnody to Left dominion.

That the ruling coalition has met with four consecutive setbacks since its win in the last assembly elections cannot be denied: 2008 panchayat elections, 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the assembly bypolls and now the 2010 election to the civic bodies. That the people are tired of the 33-year-old regime is almost a given. What must be explored is what they are looking for in the shape of change: changing the visage of the government or that of governance as well?

For one, the prevailing mood in the boondocks is that the post-2000 Marxist dispensation has failed to deliver on the promises of socialism, and not that the formula of Marxism was never deliverable. The ageing comrades of the late Jyoti Basu, many of them still influential on the hustings, are missing him badly. With unwavering faith in the canon of socialism, they had never agreed (when Basu was the chief minister) that the state was in a sorry state. And they were the overwhelming majority of Bengal’s thought leadership.

Of course, socialism has prevailed in the region since an era much before the CPI or the CPI(M) was actualised. But experimentation was the hallmark of the Bengali socialist before Independence. Misgivings about change mark the Bengali socialist of today.

The contentment with a set order can be explained by studying a certain pattern that the Bengali society follows. Bengalis may be among the most travelled communities in India. Their travelling has but mostly been of the domestic tourism kind, and tourism hardly lets one understand the peoples and places visited. Few among the permanent residents of Bengal have had a history of living outside the state for long spells. Non-resident Bengalis, typically emigrants from Kolkata and not from the hinterland, on the other hand, may think like other Indians but, not being enrolled as voters in the state, their views are inconsequential.

Thus the resident Bengali basked in the all-is-well glory. Many even bore an unctuous attitude and refused to take lessons from the rest of India. Al Beruni wrote about a similar problem in temper that prevailed in mediaeval India, where the people had failed to build on the good work done by their forefathers in the ancient ages; they stopped travelling and learning from the world. Such druthers saw it hurtling down the graph of development until some invaders filled in the vacuum. The ubiquitous Bengali chatter clubs — which, unlike their contemporaries in Mumbai and Delhi, are not all bourgeois; they are not to be dismissed on this ground — betray a startlingly similar mindset.

Criticise Bengal’s economy, and the most likely refrain you hear from an average resident Bengali is that you earn less in his state, alright, but you manage to sustain; elsewhere, earning as much means starving to death!

Next, economics derives ex post facto justification from sociology. In the minds of a small-town Bengali, so deep-seated is the prejudice against the general lifestyle of the mero/maura — a pejorative, colloquial Bengali term that refers to the Hindi-speaking population — that, even when he migrates for employment, he seeks vindication for the canard about other Indians. Some days later, after having cursed everybody from the landlord to the bus conductor, he returns to his hearth, sullen that the rest of India does not produce good Samaritans!

Either the uninterrupted socialist pecking order has killed the dreams of the riches, or, to play devil’s advocate, one might postulate that the communist rulers did not deliver more because the proletariat, by nature, wasn’t demanding enough! The long and short of it: capitalism, for right or wrong reasons, does not catch Bengali fancy.

The idea did, however, penetrate a small but significant section of voters. As information from the pro-market parts of India poured in, the youth of Bengal increasingly got disillusioned with the Marxist regime. This was the transition period of the 1990s. Before the mood could spread to the rural areas, the Left Front sensed it and replaced the ageing Basu with a much younger Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the helm.

The new chief minister’s image married dynamism with the part of socialism the voters still had faith in. That he is a man of letters — never mind the BA in Bengali (Honours) has no acclaimed published titles to his credit — and also among the relations of revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya was an impression cleverly cultivated by the Left’s foot soldiers. A leader couldn’t have had a better bio-data to make an unassuming Bengali drop his jaw.

In the years that followed, the promise was found to be misplaced. The bid to reform ran into two stumbling blocks. First, veteran comrades did not take to Bhattacharjee’s reformist streak kindly. Maleficent, they went about vitiating the cadres’ minds against the new leadership. Even the people of Delhi should know it, as The Pioneer, a newspaper unofficially boycotted by the Left, was picked up by several notable members of the RSP, the Forward Bloc and even the CPI to vent their frustration through successive op-ed columns every Saturday. This dissent was but a faint echo of the uproar in the villages. To the rural folks, Bhattacharjee had turned an embodiment of treachery who had failed socialism!

Second, the non-socialist section of voters, who had thought after Bhattacharjee’s ascension that the state was in for an overhaul, met with gross disappointment. The culture of mass strikes and routine street demonstrations never ended. Even new sectors like Information Technology were threatened with the intrusion of trade unions. Notably, the population of this voter segment, the urbane youth, has far outpaced that of the old.

For the opposition in West Bengal, it was always a matter of bridging a gap of roughly two per cent of votes that the Left Front had been getting more than the Trinamool-Congress combine — the BJP is as good as non-existent in the state — which, in turn, translated to a majority of assembly seats remaining with the ruling coalition election after election. This decisive gap is narrowing.

Now, since rural areas offer the bulk of votaries who will decide the 2011 outcome, it is their sentiment that will count. No wonder, all of the current Union Railways minister’s programmes in the state that are making her constituency swell by the day, be it her posturing in Singur and Nandigram or her playing footsie with Maoist-backed PSBJC, are typically Leftist. To consolidate her position further, in a public meeting in 2007, Banerjee had famously said that she was not anti-Left, merely anti-CPI(M)! The pronouncement not only impressed the cause célèbre rabblerousers, but also rekindled the reverie of never having to relinquish power among the smaller constituents of the Left Front. The Bengal picture is clear now. Next year, its government might change, the style of governance will not.

Yet another thing will not change. The huddled masses were so far daunted by the all-pervading CPM cadre. They will now bow to the Trinamool’s hoodlums. The commentary broadcast from New Delhi will change, though. The by-now-impugned sympathisers of Maoists apart, this city’s ‘intellectuals’ will not tout the phenomenon as ‘people’s revolution’.

Those who want a new guard to usher in an era of industrial revolution in West Bengal have now but only one hope — that Mamata Banerjee does a George Fernandes. ‘The Coca Cola Company I had sent packing to the US 16 years ago will be thrown out again when we come back to power’ — pre-1998 election, as a member of the opposition; ‘the Coca Cola Company has nothing to fear’ — in 1998, after swearing in as a cabinet minister of the NDA Government!

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.