West Bengal: Next time, the Volcano
By M J Akbar
The Left may have lost the plot in Bengal, but has anyone found it? The Congress lost the plot between 1962 and 1967, and it was a while before anyone found another narrative.
In 1962, the Communists were on the wrong side of nationalism, since they refused to condemn China as the aggressor in the traumatic October war. The venerable Jyoti Basu spent a few months in jail along with his comrades. The party corrected this error internally; the pro-China extremists moved away, developing their own tactics for revolution. The Naxalites (named after Naxalbari, a small village in North Bengal) proclaimed Mao Zedong as their chairman, although it was never made clear whether Mao himself was enthused by the honour.
The Communists had already split formally. The breakaway CPI(M) found the correct balance. It was sufficiently radical for the first post-Independence generation that had begun to filter into Kolkata's College Street, and non-violent enough for the parents who had jobs that the Naxalites seemed determined to destroy. The classic Indian formula for conflict resolution, after all, has been to stop on this side of conflict.
The Congress was not immune from turmoil. Pranab Mukherjee should remember that age well. He was the principal lieutenant of the man who broke the Bengal Congress, Ajoy Mukherjee, and went on, as head of the Bangla Congress, to become chief minister of the United Front that was sworn in after the 1967 elections. Jyoti Basu was home minister, and for the first time the street lamps of Kolkata were covered in red paper to celebrate the rising of a red sun.
The alliance was unsustainable, because ideology was still alive in the 1960s. The chronic instability of coalition politics brought the Congress back to power in 1971; Pranab Mukherjee moved, deftly, to the centre when Mrs Indira Gandhi split the organization in 1969.
The great game-changer of that decade was the Kolkata riot of 1964, a consequence of violence in East Pakistan and some wildly inflammatory reporting in the Kolkata media. It is often forgotten that Bengal is a Partition province. The CPI(M) won the confidence of Muslims when its cadre mobilized to protect the community in 1964. Biman Bose, now CPI(M) state secretary, was one of the young men who stood at the corner of a Moulali street, daring arsonists and killers to cross the Marxist line. A relationship of over four decades was finally broken when Muslims deserted the CPI(M) in 2009.
The Left emerged out of the chaos and violence that fractured Bengal; as it dissipates, will the vacuum be filled by violence? It is tempting to see the immediate future as a mirror image, with variations, of the 1960s. The Maoists are back, without Mao graffiti on the walls or urban terrorism, but better organized. The images of men and women armed with bows and arrows in Midnapore are eerily reminiscent of the 1960s and early 1970s. They also prove that many parts of our country still live in the bow-and-arrow era.
The battle for Lalgarh (Red Fortress) is both literal and metaphorical. Although they never admitted as much, the CPI(M) and Congress cooperated in the first war against Naxalites, between 1967 and 1973. They are being forced to do so again.
But their political strategies were different. The Congress used state force against Naxalites and thought it had done its job; the CPI(M) finessed the Naxalites politically, through land reform. It is a pity no one remembers Harekrishna Konar and Promode Dasgupta, its architects. They gave food security to the peasant, while Jyoti Basu, as home minister and chief minister, ensured life security. Nandigram is a powerful symbol of departure, because a Left government snatched the peasant's land and then attacked those who protested.
Nature, and political nature, abhors a vacuum. The space vacated by the CPI(M) retreat is being visibly occupied: those who vote are with Mamata Banerjee; those who don't vote in rural Bengal are gravitating around the Maoists. The first category has larger numbers, but fluctuations are a matter of opportunity. Courage and consistency could take Mamata Banerjee to Writers Building, but this alone will not keep her there.
Radical is as radical does, not just as it says it will do. The peasantry, once nourished by Konar, wants the next level of prosperity. This will need phenomenal growth in the agricultural-industrial economy to meet the extraordinary upsurge in aspirations that accompanies generational change. Mamata Banerjee has about a year to prepare for a radical government that will be more than a patchwork of prematurely tired faces. It would also be unwise to forget the game-changer of the 1960s, the riots. Violence is an infectious plague, and demographic tensions always have a fuse in the tail. Bengalis believe that they are not communal. No one is communal, except in that brief moment of madness when the civilized mind crumbles.
The drama of Bengal is full of actors making powerful speeches. We need a plot, very quickly.