SINCE 2009, complex signals are flying out from West Bengal’s political space – and this means the entire state, no less, because nothing in Bengal is sans politics-ending the era of the linear narrative. No longer do people bemoan the invincibility of the CPI(M). The stunning victory of the Trinamool Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha election was regarded as the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Marxists in every institution of public life. The series of vicissitudes which was unleashed by that spectacular election is now hurtling towards a logical climax – the end. The 24-month-long interregnum which would draw to a close on May 13 has only two historic comparisons: Fall of Berlin Wall = German Reunification and, Release of Nelson Mandela = End of Apartheid. Yet, the picture is not about the solution to a 35-year-old malaise; it is about the beginning of a new one. There is no phoenix about to arise out of the ashes of Communist Bengal. A period of terrible confusion is round the corner, threatening to trap the hapless 85 million of that state into a deadly spiral of violence, poverty, loneliness and decadence.
Robert Clive told a biographer that the English East India Company, though the last of the European merchant houses to begin an Indian career, ended up winning the race because it had a huge advantage which was afforded by the wealth and strategic location of Bengal. In 1977, after winning a landslide in West Bengal, EMS Namboodiripad and Jyoti Basu felt confident that an Indian revolution was a matter of time. In 2011, the Marxist-Leninists will lose Bengal, Kerala and India. Wiithout delivering the revolution.
How the Bengalis confront the legacy of one-and-a-half generation-long Communist rule is something all Indians have to worry about. I fear that the demonisation of the CPI(M), which though justified in the context of Bengal, could end up giving the strategists of the Washington Consensus a free ride to the fruition of their Indian agenda which was interrupted after the Indian Left captured 61 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2004. The fall of the CPI (M) and its allies in West Bengal could profoundly weaken the influence of the Indian Left at a very crucial stage of India’s neo-liberal reform programme. The Congress-led UPA-2 government is ready with ambitious plans for divesting the public’s stake in important economic institutions like LIC and State Bank of India in the name of “financial sector reforms.” The shocking confluence of interests between the Congress and BJP in the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill, 2011 which saw its smooth passage in the Lok Sabha on the last day of the Budget session, is only a preview of things of come. For the vast majority of Indians trapped in the penumbra region of the great Indian ‘growth’ story (9 per cent by last count) the future is indeed grim. With the Left weakened and Mamata Banerjee, the last thorn, sitting smug in Kolkata, who will speak for the victims of Manmohanomics?
Let us admit that through a series of historical accidents in the post-Indira age, the Communists had come to straddle the “Left” space in Indian politics, and by 2008 were the only representatives of the interests of organised labour (as distinct from labour), the small saving class, virtually all underdogs. The Congress under Narasimha Rao abandoned whatever was left of the Congress’ socialist agenda after the heady spend-spend-spend era of Rajiv Gandhi. The Lohiaites vanished into caste jungles – or, if you like, dissolved into caste cauldrons. The BJP, instead of consolidating its base through implementation of the RSS’ core socialist economic agenda, went overboard in its attempt to win approving nods from pushers of the World Bank’s agenda. That left the Communists to articulate the concerns of those marginalised by India Shining.
They didn’t do much. But at least they were around.
After May 13, 2011 there will be nothing between Manmohan Singh and his dream of converting India into a bizarre bazaar. Two hundred and fifty Indians will live like nabobs – most of them by borrowing heavily to ‘catch up with the Jones’ – while one billion of their countrymen will survive by servicing them, in progressively lower forms of existence. St. Market will guide us in every step of our lives. Democracy will become the playground of the rich and the corrupt (if it hasn’t already). But so what, India’s backers in global financial powerhouses will pat us for being an emerging superpower. There would be no Left block in Parliament to vociferously protest this. No more crippling Bharat Bundhs and the sweaty imagery of the revolutionary clutching the Cholbey Naa placard. Discarded, debilitated and demoralised by the great Bengal upsurge of the very dialectics which once sustained them, the hunter would become the hunted.
But don’t get me wrong. None of this will happen because the Bengalis gave the Communists the kick they should have got at least 20 years back. It would happen because the Communists did not do their job. But when they are routed some of us would realise that they should be back, if only for their ability to give wordy ripostes to the free marketers.
The fall of the CPI(M) in West Bengal is expected to constitute the biggest political earthquake since 1977, necessitating the rewriting of many an established givens in Indian politics. Most importantly, it would permanently erase the last memory of the 20th century in the 21st. Which is to say that no longer would idioms born in a setting of the past century be used to define the trends of today. The Indian Left itself would have to reinvent its tools for survival, but one prays it will not go the way of the British Left under Margaret Thatcher (they simply closed shop declaring themselves irrelevant). By 2020, India will be the world’s youngest nation, with the median age hovering in the mid-20s. The already palpable disaffection to neo-liberalism (Maoism being the crudest manifestation) is expected to grow manifold by then because the march of “jobless growth” and the painful rich-poor hiatus. It’s plain that there is tremendous latent demand for a political stream which gives articulation to the concerns of those who the juggernaut of hedonistic growth will necessarily crush. The question is: will the CPI(M) even begin -leave alone finish – a rethink on its vision so that it can regroup to take up the burden of the new dispossessed?
There are indications that it won’t. And that message is already clearly written – in Bengali. The election manifesto of the CPI(M) for West Bengal is full of discarded ideas from the 1980s. Some of them are even stolen – from all people Mamata Banerjee. In 2006, when the lady was fasting for 26 days demanding the return of agricultural land stolen from farmers in Singur for the Tata Nano project, Buddhadeb & Co. mocked her for “reversing development”, “preventing urbanisation and industrialisation”, and what not. Now, the Central Committee of the CPI(M), at its Vijaywada session, not only vindicates Mamata Banerjee but also stresses the need to reverse land conversion!!! I am not saying that its bad to own up to a gospel truth and certainly don’t wish to stand in the way of reforming Communists. But what is moot is, am I being practical in expecting the same lot of unoriginal thinkers to deliver us from the vanity of Manmohanites?
Though their politics was hateful and their agenda full of chicanery, the “Leftist” politician somehow represented our last link with sanity. Individuals among them, like the stentorian Indrajit Gupta, the near-Gandhian Benoy Choudhury, the barricading Gurudas Dasgupta and motley others reminded the people of India by their Spartan ways and unbending principles of the original ideas of our nationhood. There was a time when the BJP filled this space, but no more. Curiously, the person who has upstaged the Communists has actually done so by stealing their agenda. Let us not forget that Mamata Banerjee was part of the Narasimha Rao government and lost no sleep when Manmohan Singh extended his early, hesitant hand towards deregulation, privatisation, cronyism, nepotism and brazen mercantilism. She resigned from the Congress only because it was soft on the hated CPI(M), not because the Congress’ policies robbed banks and snatched jobs. It took her 10 years (1997 to 2007) to realise that the only way to beat the Communists was to break their ranks. And what better way to do so than by wearing the original mantle yourself? That is precisely what she did at her lowest moment – the defeat in the 2006 election when Trinamool finished with 35 seats compared to the CPI(M)’s 235. While Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee emerged as the toast of India Inc. for his shameless (and needless) toadying, Mamata evolved her Plan B – Singur and Nandigram. The rest is history.
One hears that the Bengalis are conscious of Mamata’s game. That is what makes up the next quiz about Bengal. You have heard of the “there is no alternative” (TINA) factor working in favour of an incumbent government. Now, in Mamata Banerjee we see TINA working the other way. Buddhadeb and his beastly pack are already discarded. But folks also view Mamata as a goner from day one. But what to do (ki korbo bolun? – the quintessential Bengali refrain) they would say with a deep sigh. In the existing universe of Bengali politicians, nobody can hold a candle to Mamata for her commitment of purpose, strong willed determination to reverse the rot and her aloofness from the seamy reality of national politics. In the same breadth the Bengali would tell you: Dada we have no alternative!!!
Mamata will inherit a poisoned chalice like none other. The economy of West Bengal is in ruins. Every public institution is corrupted, thanks to three decades of indifferent administration and cynical politicisation. The bureaucracy, when senior, is hopelessly unprofessional and when minor, still the bloodhounds of the CPI(M). No police force is as useless and lazy as West Bengal Police. The fire brigade’s fire fighting force has the average age of 55 – as seen in the Stephen Court fire. The revenue department last worked in the late 1970s, which means that the entire network is in advanced state of disuse. The state has a huge agro economy but no processing facilities. The ancient business channels of Bengal, in whose admiration the Greek traveller Ptolemy wrote gushing paragraphs, is finished, thanks to frenzied destruction by the Comrades. Bengal’s financial infrastructure exists in only Kolkata and its agglomerate. It’s a state whose teachers have forgotten how to take classes; whose once skilled craftsmen have fled to distant states; whose educated boys and girls take the first train out of the state on grabbing their graduation certificates. At least Malayalis, the other great skill sellers, make it a point to send money back home, but the Bengali who gets out, stays out.
Yet, after all this, there would certainly remain nostalgia for the CPI(M). Gautam Deb, whom the party is grooming as the successor to a tired Buddhadeb, and on whose shoulder would rest the aspirations of a rebound, is already going around promising heavens would fall after May 13. In the last week of March, the Communists gave the people a foretaste of their coming role as barricaders. Seizing the opportunity afforded by the UPA government’s decision to reduce tariffs on hosiery garments, the labour wing, CITU, mobilised hundreds of thousands in a massive show of protest. The generation of the 1960s well recalls the ferociousness which was the trademark of the CPI(M) as an opposition force. In a deeply polarised state, all that Gautam Deb would be required to do is recall the original promise of the Communist movement in India. The support base of the CPI(M) in the form of frontal organisations and unions in every branch office of the state government are still intact.
“Even in the worst case scenario we would only trail by 11 lakh or so votes,” says Deb. “In 2009, the Trinamool may have won 20 seats, but in terms of votes polled they were ahead by only 11 lakh. All that we need to ensure is that only 10 of the voters who had left us should return. That is all that we need to bounce back – and we will.”
But what Gautam Deb forgets is the 33 lakh new voters who have emerged. This new generation wants change, if only for its own sake because 18 year olds are not terribly interested in reading party agendas. Once the floodgates of true Manmohanomics are opened – with the Communists weakened and Mamata out of the way in Kolkata who will stop them? – all that Gautam would need to do is secure the collecting pits into which would fall the silent rage of the marginalised majority would fall. The patience of the youth voters would be an early casualty for Mamata. After all, by sticking on with the UPA, some of the angst would rub off on to her.
A parable now told on the tramcars of Kolkata goes like this. Gautam is the early name of the Buddha. So too is Gautam Deb certain to be the inheritor of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s legacy. The Bengal media is already giving him a build up and the CPI(M) apparatchik, never famous for promoting ‘most likely to succeed’ personalities, is manifesting indulgent silence. Maybe the ageing warhorses in Alimuddin Street, the mid-Kolkata street identified with the “party office”, have finally relented to the concept of promoting a future leadership with the faint hope that maybe that would sway the youthful voters away from Mamata.
It’s the summer of change in Bengal. Parivartan is on everyone’s lips. Few election slogans in recent history have caught the imagination of the people in such a bipartisan way. While Mamata claims she is the fountain of parivartan, the CPI (M) claims there can only be one parivartan – a new, improved Left Front. As the rival sides get caught in semantics, it becomes amply clear that May 13 would ring in nothing special. Yes there would be a new set of rulers in West Bengal. But despondency, decay and despair would hang over the lives of Bengalis.