Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Train to Calcuttagrad

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 bête 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.


Anoop Verma said...

This was another wonderful article from M J Akbar. He has a wonderful way of conveying what should be obvious to everyone, but only too often it isn’t.

Thank God that the left has lost. For the first time in 34 years West Bengal seems to have a future. An intrusive government is the forerunner of tyranny. And the leftist government in Bengal was the most intrusive government of all. They interfered in each and every aspect of people’s lives. That is why the vibrant Bengali literate, art and culture, about which we read about in history books is no longer to be seen in modern Kolkatta. Once Calcutta had been the centre of India’s film industry.

Hopefully things will change under Mamata Banerjee. She must start by bringing about big economic reforms that can help people take control of their own lives.

The condition of minorities in Bengal, as highlighted by Schachar committee report is scandalous. Many of the minorities are migrating to states like Gujarat in search of better jobs. This needs to change.

Once again Kolkatta should become the key industrial town of India.

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

when one on the one hand its good to see the loss of the Left front , the nature of the incoming government worries me on the other hand ! What if this government also becomes as arrogant and high-handed as its predecessor ? what if this govt too surrenders to predicaments -like the fiscal deficit of the state ! we have seen many enormous election victories in the past in our country , which had really given rise to governments worse than the outgoing ones ! I hope that does not happen here !

wakeel said...

This article is an eye catching which has kept us updated with the prons and cons of the two arch rivals of the just conducted assembly election in WB.With Mamata Banerjee swearing in as the first woman CM,it sound political death of left party.Mamata rides a roughshod in WB,decimating CPI(M) as never before.Whether her victory is attributed to her assertiveness or mis rule of 34 yearleft bastion,industralization(sic)Singur and Nandigram kept hauntig as spectre-many lost lives and injured while opposing anti farmerpolicy of the govt,besides sorry state of education and health.
Wakeel Ahmad, Gaya