Last Train to Calcuttagrad
West Bengal celebrates freedom with Mamata's Electric win
By M J Akar
Byword in India Today
May 23, 2011
Democracy is about punctuation marks: disheartening semi-colons, dramatic exclamations and deadend full stops, not to mention expletives deleted. An uninterrupted 34-year sentence must, therefore, reach that moment when it seems like a prison sentence. On Friday the 13th-the Ides of May-Bengal celebrated freedom when Mamata Banerjee capped a quarter century of effort by sending the Left Front into opposition for the first time since 1977.
There is nothing in the history of international electoral democracy to match this Communist marathon. Its founding architects-Promode Dasgupta, Harekrishna Konar, Benoy Choudhury, Jyoti Basu, all dead-were imperturbable men. The cheroot-chomping Dasgupta ran his cadres as a parallel authority from the party office while the charismatic Basu governed from Writers' Building. Politics, they believed, was more important than growth, since the creation of wealth had to be subservient to its distribution.
They accepted imperfections within their thesis, but argued that they were trapped by the constraints of a "bourgeois" Constitution which they accepted once they had abandoned armed struggle as a possibility in India. Their initial impact was spectacular, particularly when they reversed the economic equations of agricultural Bengal. In 1793 the British had altered the landscape through the Permanent Settlement, which transferred vast landholdings from the old Mughal nobility to a new class of ghumushtos, the largely-Hindu middlemen for the East India Company. Nearly two centuries later, the CPI(M) gave Bengal a New Permanent Settlement through Operation Barga, which demolished the old order and empowered the peasant.
Dasgupta and Basu would have been calm on Friday. They had entered public life to serve, not rule, although once they got power they knew how to preserve it. But they would have been devastated by the CPI(M)'s spectacular hara-kiri: lured by false prophets, the party sought to take land away from the tiller in order to transfer it to industrialists. The CPI(M) fell on its own sword. Its bÃªte noire, Mamata Banerjee, merely sharpened this sword from time to time.
Basu lived long enough to see his comrades lost in the fog of illusion after their phenomenal triumph in 2006. My last meeting with Basu, some months before he died, was almost too painful to bear, but he did convey, taciturn to the last, that his beloved party was on its way out. He implied, through heavylidded eyes sunk deep into a sallow skin-tight face, that this setback might even be salutary. But when the sentiment of association and affection is set aside, he must share part of the blame.
Basu's crucial error was his compromise with parochialism in order to sustain his vote base when his economic policies had exhausted their ability to deliver. This retreat was symbolised by his ban on the study of English at primary school level in 1982. He advertised this as a triumph for the mother tongue. It was nothing of the kind. It was a retreat into the narrow mind of regionalism by a party that had lost its imagination. Unable to create jobs, it sought to cynically exploit a barren emotionalism. By the time the decision was reversed in 1999, half a generation from the lower middle class and poor-or, those who needed English most for upward mobility-had fallen behind. Basu's own grandchildren went to La Martiniere, of course.
This ban came during precisely those years when the young began to recognise that English had become the language of aspiration in India; it was no longer "foreign". Modern jobs demanded, increasingly, English language skills. English, once guardian of colonial rule and its fauxaccented servants, has, today, been assimilated to such an extent that it is part of Bollywood's "Hindi" lyrics. The unique aspect of the "item number" Sheila ki jawaani is not that Sheila isn't going to give you her body (there was not much chance of getting it anyway), but that more than half the song is in English. Bengal's young paid a silent price so the CPI(M) could remain in power.
The second swivel-mistake was soft-secularism, the unspoken Leftist assumption that Bengal's Muslims- who constitute over 30 per cent of the state's effective vote- could be taken for granted if you protected their life without ensuring their livelihood. Muslims bought this shoddy deal for a long while, until the Sachar Commission report laid out facts of their unemployment levels in government jobs. Mamata Banerjee is the face of Muslim revenge. The Left bastion could not survive the collapse of its strongest pillar.
The Left ruled longer than it deserved to because cadres filled the chasm created by vanishing ideas and ideology. It was as if by the 1990s the CPI(M) had pawned its intellect, and begun feeding off diminishing returns. By 2000 it was dining off alibis. And yet the gold dust of electoral success persuaded them that power was eternal.
Mamata Banerjee has proved that even in Bengal power is terminal.