Thoughts on the End of Left Rule in Bengal

I’m glad yesterday is over. Election results came out in my home state of West Bengal yesterday, and a party ruling for 34 years has been voted out of power.

This blog is not a fit platform to extol one party against another. Besides, doing that now would be a tad too late. Especially because now, more than ever, I’m sure I belong to the losing side. I realise this with pain since I have supported and encouraged the anti-incumbency rhetoric through most of my growing up years. Back then, I questioned what I perceived was a mass hysteria in favour of a manufactured theory of “good”. I still do so, with the result that today I find myself trying to explain my political journey to all who matter.

I’m writing this with effort, because this is an organic part of me. I need to form the words in my mind before I type it here, because I’m unlocking thoughts that never needed expression.  And I need to do this because ten years later, I might have a different perspective of events that shaped me. But this post can’t wait that long, because from where I come, history is being created, and I want my version of it.

I have grown up in the Red bastion. Communist rule started in my part of the country before I was born. Suffice to say that my formative years were spent in the heydays of the Left Front government. My family is predominantly Leftist, except for my father, whose ambivalence I share. My father’s oldest brother lost his prized TISCO job on grounds of labour agitation; he used to correspond with a Switzerland-based friend who supposedly helped their underground movement with men and materials back in the sixties. Later, he was to become one of those purists who left the Leftist coalition when it assumed power. I grew up watching them read and debate over “Pashchimbanga” a bi-monthly magazine that featured news and policy decisions of the government. I used to watch my aunt’s daughter (then in college) lead the “gana-sangeet” gang on membership drives. I still hum the tunes of the “Calcutta Youth Choir” that were played and performed constantly before me. Most of the English books I read as a child were from Raduga and Vostok publishers. They made for good reading, with very good paper and excellent illustrations, and were surprisingly cheap.

Therefore, in my childhood imagination, Ivan was as much of a hero as Arjun. Perhaps a wee bit better since Ivan never shared his wife with his brothers. I soaked in the Communist ideology through stories and archetypes. I remember one particular story that disturbed me. It related the case of a lost mitten—several animals in the forest sought refuge in it from the cold of the night—causing it to burst in the end. My father tried hard to simplify things for me. “You should share what you have in excess with others”, he’d say, to which I’d reply, “But they ruined it!”

And so began my love-hate relationship with Communism. As I grew up, I picked on the contradictions inherent in the policies of the ruling Left, and asked my elders for explanations. Of all the answers that I received, one of the most baffling was the unquestioning acceptance of the party diktat—the “Politburo” as they called it—which is an unfortunate relic of Stalin’s totalitarianism. Here is a party, I’d sneer, that talks of empowering the dis-empowered, and they plan to do so by passing orders behind closed doors instead of winning votes.

I can’t overrule history; the Left’s “Operation Barga”—that sought to redistribute land held by landowners mostly under the pre-independence Permanent Settlement Act amongst the actual farmers—was a great success. Bengal also happens to be the only place in India where this has been enforced by law. However, that was ancient history by the time I started college in Kolkata. My anti-Communist views assumed new proportions after I met and interacted with the Machiavellian upper middle classes with Communist pretensions. The problem was manifold—and I could already see the signs of rot. Moneyed people rallied behind the ruling party for trade favours—as they are wont to do—while the actual “proletariat” voted for a hollow dream that the Left had got used to selling – and succeeding at that.

Cut back to the present. After the heroic effort of one man to undo the mistakes of an entire generation; after some experimentation at blending Leftist economic models with private capital; after his failed attempt at changing the mantra of realpolitik in India – Buddhadev Bhattcharjee had been talking economics, and nothing but economics to an electorate that, unfortunately, understands little beyond anti-establishment swear words. After the debacle at Singur and Nandigram; After the people voted in favour of a movement that is a replica of the more than 30 year-old Naxalbari movement…; After it all, the trouble is, I only perceive a mass hysteria for a change of leadership. What it boils down to is a pervasive vote for maintaining the status quo – it seems Bengal voted the Left out because of its economic reforms that teetered towards a more inclusive private-public approach. The vote says “No” to reform and a resounding “Yes” to the economic model that prevailed before Bhattacharjee became Chief Minister.

For someone who is forced to find work elsewhere because of Bengal’s dismal economic scene, this is frustrating. I was willing to forgive the Left its past misadvetures for a future that seemed promising. But that was not to be. It’s a parliamentary democracy out here, and moping is useless.

However it has me thinking. My thoughts revolve around the seemigly canny and politically conscious people of Bengal – Why did people fail to see the fallacy in the Trinamool Congress’s electioneering pitch? Any child will know that an economy can’t grow simply riding on the railways. It is probably too early to begin understanding this, but taking a cue from my experience with the highs and lows of Left rule in Bengal, it seems that this subversion in political choice is the work of Frankenstein. The people of Bengal have done to the erstwhile government what they have been taught to do – break the ranks of authority through organised rebellion. And it is probably too much to expect finesse of judgement in public opinion.

My political views have come a full circle after I left Bengal and began to see things more objectively. I’m based in Maharashtra now where the people and politics are very different from Bengal. Land acquisition is not much of a problem – even if it is the fertile land of a dissenting landowner. The landowner is offered a price, I’m told, or the entire region is earmarked as “green land” by a vengeful government, which effectively puts an end to alternative ambitions of settlers since no activity other than agriculture can be legally performed on “green lands”. Besides, people here are more driven by caste and religion than by alternative economic models.

On the contrary, the political discourse in Bengal actively created space for non-conformists. Non-conformance was a way of life. It was perfectly fine to be anti-establishment, they’d tell me, because questioning gave birth to dialectics, and dialectics powered constructive change. In my travels outside Bengal, what strikes me most is the absence of questioning – and a consequent absence of dialectics. I have always been proud of the urbane political environment in Bengal. In many ways, it defines me and a lot of people from my generation – we could separate politics from hogwash. Or so I thought. Yesterday’s poll result changed some of my perceptions about my people. Now I know that celluloid and rhetoric works where common sense doesn’t.

The wound is probably yet to be discovered. But the rot is evident.


Hi, I'm Sampurna and I'm from India. I love to write, paint, and play with my dogs. Catch up with me at Halfastory's Blog. Happy reading!

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7 comments on “Thoughts on the End of Left Rule in Bengal
  1. shan says:

    @samparna,Looks like you are in a state of mental turmoil. Dislocated from your roots , in an alien hostile place. I am in the same boat ,only that i am 5000 miles away , in a small island with a massively proud history.Voltaire said”Literature has taken the rough edges out of man”. This literature has been the doing and undoing of Bengal .
    Post Nobel Prize , every bengalee wanted to become a poet or an author. It did make bengalee the only Indian language with literature worth reading , also the vocabulary it created is now used by AAJ TAK and STAR NEWS.But it had a downside. It hated enterprise ,commerce and agriculture.The partition was like the biblical exodus. Search internet for Nemai ghosh and CHINNAMOOL.
    This educated unemployed is a ready fodder for left wing politics. Also in your DAD’s generation Left Politics was what we would now term metrosexual.You couldn’t impress a girl by saying , you support congress.
    It has always baffled me , benglees having come in contact with english , emulated so many of their culture , did not emulate the core value of PROTESTANT ETHICS.
    So casteism may have lost its venomous edge , yet still alive and kicking, just read he matrimonial columns of vernacular papers.
    As to land reform , THIS WAS A BARMY IDEA. There was so much enthusiasm amomngst the ruling comrades ,BECAUSE NONE OF THEM HAD ANY AGRICULTURAL LAND, most of them refugees from East Bengal.
    It doesn’t matter if you can get aliens from outer space to till the land SO LONG IT HAS HIGHEST YIELD. Rice production per hectare in japan in 6 tons, in WB it is 2.
    This POSTAGE STAMP size land uses stone age technology,for that matter modern machinery cannot be used. The devoloped countries are light years ahead in farming.As they say PETEY KHELE PITHEY SOYE.
    The cpm had become a party sustained by goondas .Hypocrite to the bone,I dont need to tell you chandan basu married his own daughter’s class mate.
    In Kasba ,there is a goonda ,who broke his leg , not in armed struggle ,but having fallen in a ditch while walking in drunken stupor.The party paid for his treatment in a posh private nursing home.Also CPM is all that is indecent , irrational(removing english from curriculum) ,arrogant ,and manned by people who would struggle hard to land a menialjob ,due to small intellect.
    As to green revolution , not a great deal will happen ,but atleast there is a change in brand identity ,just like union carbide could not function with that name .It changed its name, else the ghost of bhopal would be chasing them forever.
    Farming is light years ahe

    • Sampurna says:

      Although I would disagree with you on some scores, I like what you said about “change”. Hope is like adrenaline. And, like you, I hope that this change turns out well for Bengal.

  2. Hey, I found your website from digg. This isn’t not something I would regularly read, but I liked your thoughts on it. Thanks for making a blog post worth reading!

  3. dikgaj says:

    Delighted to find this post of yours. There is – perhaps coincidental, a peculiar 30 year and a longer term 90 year cycle of politics that seems to play out on India, and Bengal is no exception. ….1827, 1857, 1887, 1917, 1947, 1977, 2007…(smile).

    But the overturning of official Leftist rule was a long time coming. Bengalis seem to vote strategically. My hunch was that until the middle sections of society felt sure that they would not be penalized too much by losing both the “state” and the “centre” they would not take the risk. As long as CPI(M) was seen to be connected to “central” power, this societal majority would not vote the Left out of power. When the Left walked out – and Mamata Bannerjee linked up with the Congress, they felt reassured that they could now safely chuck the Left out – something they had been wanting to do for a long time.

    This was not any Naxalite starry-eyes at Nandigram (of course there is a lot of that within the state among very elite and very well-off sons and daughters of the establishment). But a tiredness with the regime. Perception of the Leftist local politics as arrogant and reminding of the decadence of late 60’s and 70’s Congress.

    The “economist” CM should have looked at his youthful lower ranks who worked and politicked in his name.

    Any organization that uses numerical majority internally to decide who gets power at each level of the org – eventually will have leaders who bring in members more likely to be dependent personally on him or her. Personal dependence on large scale starting from scratch, can be ensured in general (unless one is a Gandhiji or a Bose) only by having followers with weaknesses that can be used to manipulate, threaten or blackmail them. To ensure power, each level of leadership brings more of the less qualified, or those less connected to the people and reality. Higher ups remain cozy in the knowledge that they have devoted lower rungs who however send up a false picture of the ground. Eventually, the org gets completely detached from the people.

    That is what happened to the Left.

    However, next term they will recover a lot – as some kind of mutual understanding will surely be worked out with the congress. Congress wants the two factions of Bengal politics to weaken each other so that the entire stat’s politics runs finally to Delhi for arbitration and thereby submission to Delhi. This was the standard method even pre-independence.

    Thanks for your wonderful posts. Keep on writing.

  4. Sampurna says:

    To be honest, I had noticed the 100 year milestones in our history, but not so much the 30 year churnings.
    The period around 2035 – 37 should be interesting according to the thirty-year-watershed hypothesis because it would mark 30 years (or more) of the uprising of the middle classes that’s manifested in the Anna movement, the candlelight vigils for Rizwanur, and Kejriewal’s politics. I also presume that by that time, the world will come to terms with the de facto hegemony of China in world politics… which is bound to realign forces in a big way.

  5. dikgaj says:

    Well, the Rizwanur case was iconic given the contrasting record of Bengali “bhadralok” not coming out in their street revolutionary droves to protect Tasleema Nasreen. The Bengali middle class, still remains silent if things happen in Murshidabad or elsewhere along the border that might jeopardize their glory in the secular naamavali draped for public consumption.

    The Naxalite movement, and its counter-reaction led by the grandson of the great C.R.Das, [who himself had been an avid introducer of those Muslim politicians, like Suhrawardy into political legitimacy- who would eventually form the core of the separatist violence in Bengal under the Muslim League], probably finally broke down the real radical, revolutionary spirit of Bengal.

    What the British were unable to do entirely, the Leftist politics and its Congress handmaidens, managed : that is the courage and spirit of the Bengali to rebel against authority or organized large scale coercion. The spirit of the individual Bengali – who formed the earliest nuclei of resistance against foreign occupation – often on very individualistic and small-group basis, the spirit of challenging “established” norms, of individuals standing up to organizations, was lost. Both the Naxalites as well as their opponents, systematically broke down all the previous moral and ethical value-systems by which Bengali society largely governed itself. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore – friendship, kinship, dignity of women, sanctity of social and public roles and relationships – that between the teacher and the student, parents and children, restraint in family and public behaviour, all the older values that characterized the Bengali bhadralok, were thrown out of the window.

    So when Rizwanur was made into a street issue, but Tasleema was allowed to be hounded out by the Mullahcracy – the Bengali spirit showed what it had become. A whole society wide bunch of moral cowards, who have forgot how to take up independent positions on issues, who have no inherent value-system within their individual self to judge things by, who pretend a moral supremacy that they do not have, and who decide on what to protest and what not to – based on possible retribution from organized violence, whether it be ideologically or state power motivated.

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