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.