Princeling Stars in a Bengal Ghost Story

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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The illicit alliance against Mamata in West Bengal

WHEN THE AESTHETE comrade of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, utters words such as “a historic moment”, we had better take note. He said that without a touch of irony (something even aesthete comrades are not allowed to use in their social-realist narratives). The occasion that prompted such hyperbole from one of Bengal’s once-beloved Communists could not have been seen by people who still live within a whirl of history without comic disbelief, if not irony. There he was, stepping out of hibernation, sharing a stage with a political tourist who continues to discover India with simulated anger. Rahul Gandhi has returned to Bengal, and this time to join the fallen Communists in the struggle against Mamata Banerjee, who has taken over the sub-rural ‘soviets’ and shows no sign of vacating them.

Last time, he was angrier. It was five years ago, and his anger matched his idealism. It was one of those mood shifts, or maybe it was the weather, but the princeling behaved as if he was provoked by the ghosts of Bengal. “The ideology of the Communists, which has become obsolete in the rest of the world, still exists in West Bengal,” he said then, and predicted that the Marxists of Bengal too would be “uprooted” soon. He was prophetic, and he saw the impulses of freedom swelling beneath the manufactured idyll of one of the longest surviving Communist regimes in the world. It was one of those transitory moments when he looked literate enough to read the fine-print of the zeitgeist—and bold enough to call the ideological bluff.

It was a time when Bengal was home to the last aficionados of a ghost story, and, even a decade after the exorcism in East Europe and the unravelling of the Soviet empire, they were happy to be haunted by the orphaned spectre. It was a time when the last guardians of the Book in Bengal and Kerala blamed proofing errors in socialist texts for that rupture in the Revolution, and believed that electoral corrections in Malabar and Midnapore would compensate for the setbacks in faraway fatherlands. History passed by them, ruins of a lie accumulated around them, but Indian comrades remained unshaken inside the last residues of a superstition. So it was wonderful to see the princeling, for once, talking sense that even surprised his own party.

That was then. India is a different place today. Bengal too. The sight of the doddering Marxist and the angry Congressman, united by desperation, seizing the ‘historic moment’ only highlights the extent to which Bengal—and India—has changed. The Trinamool Congress, in its geographical as well as social profile, is not that different from what the CPM was in another time, in another India. The difference is in leadership: Mamata Banerjee does not follow the Book, she follows her instinct, and it is not ideology but emotion that powers her politics, which is as raw and intimate as the Bengal countryside. The Trinamool has replaced the CPM as the natural party of the shirtless after the comrades began to retire from reality.

The bonhomie at Park Circus Maidan in Kolkata was the last defence against extinction. Indian Communists, over the years, have perfected the parasitical art of influence peddling, and the Congress was always there as a wilful source of nutrition. For a party fed on the wisdom of the maximum leader, a secret admiration for the Dynasty was perhaps natural. The anti-Congressism of our comrades has historically been suspect. There was no empire at stake for them, not even an original slogan to lose, but there was a lot to gain by the so- called politics of power without responsibility—and that alone explained their ‘outside’ support to Congress governments. They may have lost India long ago, and its class wars and caste wars, but the apparatchiks of AKG Bhavan in New Delhi knew how to rule India as an ‘anti-imperialist’ watchman in the marketplace by riding piggyback on the Congress. (Even someone as stoic as Manmohan Singh could not take the burden beyond a point.) The brotherhood at Park Circus Maidan was inevitable. It could not have shocked anyone except the comrades of Kerala, who cannot afford to think of such ‘historic’ alliances yet, for BJP is far from being Trinamool here.

Buddhadeb’s historic moment is historic only in one sense: a princeling without a purpose and a party without relevance are coming together in the wrong place in the wrong country, an India no longer haunted by the holy ghosts of the Dynasty or the abandoned spectre of ideologies.