Open Essay

West Bengal: Marx Is Dead, Long Live Mamata

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Revolution is relentless in West Bengal—but at what cost?

I CANNOT UNDERSTAND the hue and cry over West Bengal’s election results. The scale of the Trinamool Congress victory may have somewhat exceeded expectations, but victory was never in doubt. As Mamata Banerjee said not long ago, she was the candidate in all 294 constituencies. The vote was for her, the one known face in the fray. A Marxist win would have brought a virtually anonymous Surya Kanta Misra to the fore. Nobody knew if Congress dared to dredge a chief ministerial candidate from its ranks of drab mediocrity. The Bharatiya Janata Party is still only a spectre lurking in the shadows of bigotry. Pitted against anonymity and nonentity, Didi—elder sister—walked into victory.

What now? She can go on distributing largesse to the needy, but that won’t enrich their lives. She can build more replicas of European landmarks like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, but that won’t transform Calcutta into London or Paris. The city will soon run out of pavements for hawkers. Nor will there be any vacant space left to paint blue and white. The challenging consequences of success awaits her.

The election drama was a one-man show, and that man was a dumpy woman of seemingly indeterminate age, wrapped anyhow in a crushed cotton sari, flip-flopping her way through politics. Mamata Banerjee is as much the TMC (hoi-polloi’s name for the Trinamool Congress) as Narendra Modi is the BJP. Both can repeat L’etat c’est moi, ‘I am the state’, after France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. Aides languishing in jail, ministers serenading voters with songs or astonishing Singaporeans with obsequious tributes to Didi, and lieutenants accused of strong-arm tactics and running criminal syndicates are small-time players with walk-on parts. Her association with dubious characters hasn’t tarnished her image. Even the revered Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, Bengal’s Chief Minister from 1948 until his death in 1962, had a formidable muscleman in the legendary Gopal Pantha (a pantha being a castrated he-goat whose meat is locally relished), so called because his family owned a butcher’s shop. People know the place-seekers and hangers-on crowding round Didi need her more than she needs them.

That is the way in India. Cherchez la femme, ‘look for the woman’, may be the appropriate signal in contentious situations in France. Here, you must look for the job at stake, the hoped-for asset that is in the government’s power to bestow. Look at the Central ruling party’s nominations for diplomatic assignments, public sector appointments, to the Rajya Sabha and to various supposedly honorary committee positions. Inquire if the incumbents would have attained the same status through diligent service to the Congress or one of the Communist parties. Loyalty begins and ends with payment for services rendered in the cynically fragile world that is globalised India. I knew a BJP stalwart who was for years a fixture at 24 Akbar Road in Delhi. He even published at his own expense a eulogy of Indira Gandhi. But Madam was unresponsive. So, like a rejected lover, he turned his attention to greener— or rather, saffron—pastures that proved more rewarding.

As Mamata Banerjee said not long ago, she was the candidate in all 294 constituencies. The vote was for her, the one known face in the fray

The only people to be proved wrong about the Bengal results were the opinionated few who presented wish as analysis and hope as prophecy. Since they predicted in English and commanded media space, their prejudice spread across the country as the authentic voice of Bengal. It never was. As in everything else, honest appraisal has to inquire into the personal position of each jaundiced critic. Only then will come tumbling out the truth with tales of jobs denied, licences and permits granted and refused, squabbles over land and property. When the Angry Young Man literary genre of novels, plays and poetry erupted in England in the 1950s, a sceptical Somerset Maugham wondered if the writers’ anger would survive an extra thousand pounds a year.

Lacking in vanity and ambition, village Bengal didn’t follow the urban elite. In fact, the modest repair shops, wayside stalls and eating houses that give Bengal an edge over the national average in entrepreneurial growth are denounced as a public nuisance. Saradha and Narada made little impression on the poor. Like all sting operations, Narada proved little beyond the slickness of the operators. Saradha’s impact was blunted by the energy Didi displayed in the aftermath of the scandal by instituting an inquiry commission and setting up a Rs 500 crore fund to ensure that the low-income investors who constitute her principal vote bank were not driven into destitution.

She doesn’t need to cultivate the common touch. She operates on the basis of the class divide. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, West Bengal’s last Congress Chief Minister, once told me that Atulya Ghosh, the portly party boss and powerful syndicate member in dark glasses, had advised him that any prospective leader had to enjoy the support of The Statesman. Ghosh also worked the class divide. He knew that in his era, The Statesman, being British-owned and edited, was not suspected of furthering family and personal interests like newspapers owned by local businessmen. The paper’s neutrality enjoyed the trust of the bhadralok multitude of middle and even lower middle class Bengalis.

With her unerring finger on the public pulse, Didi knows the social balance has shifted. There is nothing any longer to compare with The Statesman’s role of a disinterested but benevolently informed observer of the Indian scene. Reading, especially in English, is a dying habit. Television is more dynamic than the print media. Entertainment matters more than information.

With his taste for good whisky and civilised company, Jyoti Basu, Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000, was never more than what the English call Parlour Pink or a Champagne Communist

I see her occasionally visiting a film star in one of the floors above the flat we live in. She walks in alone without an entourage, indistinguishable from the building’s many other female visitors. She comes, I suspect, because the star is not only supportive but—more to the point—is attractive, successful and commands a wide public following. Until recently, three generations of stars were housed under the same roof. The beautiful and legendary grande dame; her daughter; and two vivacious granddaughters. Suchitra Sen’s lasting illness and passing enabled Mamata Banerjee to mingle grief and reverence in a very public demonstration of care and mourning. While the chattering classes may have scoffed, Bengal at large saw and was impressed. Here was a leader who shared their faith in a woman who had brought elegance and romance, heartbreak and triumph into the lives of profoundly grateful generations of star-struck Bengalis.

The stars have also helped Didi ride piggyback to a different kind of stardom. Moon Moon Sen’s very presence in the TMC is enough to convince millions of fans that this is the path to follow. Her constituency overlaps Didi’s. A star weaves dreams and creates illusions. So does a politician. Both point the way to a better life. The triumphant youths who daubed their faces with green paint after the results were announced and danced jubilantly in the streets believe they have glimpsed Elysium just over the horizon. They are grateful for additional rations, free bicycles, a regular flow of potable water, electrified villages and good roads. They have helped the second coming of the only leader to stand out in the wasteland that is Bengal.

Modernity began with the 1967 election when Ajoy Mukherjee, leader of the breakaway Bangla Congress, and the Marxist Jyoti Basu dislodged the Congress for the first time in the state. It was the end of history. It was also the beginning of history. Those were the frenzied years when Bengal added the word ‘gherao’ to the English language, and a zealous minister wanted to haul down statues of the Greek muses, imagining them to be the memsahibs of long departed British governors. Ray’s chief ministership from 1972 to 1977 was Congress’ last fling. The Left Front overwhelmed it in 1977, making Basu Chief Minister, a position he held until 2000, a record 23-year term.

With his taste for good whisky and civilised company, Basu was never more than what the English call ‘Parlour Pink’ or a ‘Champagne Communist’. He chided me for suggesting that his stated aim of dealing directly with villagers instead of having to go through district magistrates and sub-divisional officers could be served by following Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s example in Sri Lanka. She had appointed a party functionary as political officer in each district. Basu was horrified. “That would be unconstitutional,” he exclaimed. “It would lead to all kinds of overlapping, duplication and confusion!” He preferred to deal with villagers through women’s organisations, welfare societies, student bodies and the trades unions.

Didi was 22 when Basu embarked on that experiment. It suited her purpose to build up Communists as ogres and monsters, but she must have seen through the theatre of mammoth Marxist rallies on the Maidan with flaming torches and revolutionary songs. Whatever the party believed in at its inception, by 1977 it was an ideological version of the flash- in-the-pan Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis) movement. The nearest to Amra Bangali was Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena, but the Bengali equivalent was nowhere as ruthless. Its parochialism ended with scribbling over English shop signs. The CPM was a little more sophisticated. But it, too, resented New Delhi’s domination, and saw Ray as Mrs Gandhi’s obedient lieutenant. Ray could have redeemed his reputation and revived Bengal with his imaginative plan for six growth centres, but neither objective featured among Mrs Gandhi’s priorities.

So Bengal was left to gnaw the bone of discontent with Mamata Banerjee taking over the mantle after a decade of mellowed Marxism-and-water under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. The Economist called him ‘the Capitalist Communist’ while others said he was better at translating Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian-born novelist, than chanting revolutionary slogans. Like Ray, Bhattacharya, too, might have succeeded in both the personal and public fields if his plan for a Tata car factory had been allowed to fructify. Again, it was a woman who foiled the scheme. Didi’s virulent campaign against the Singur project never bothered with a credible explanation. She desperately needed a populist plank. Nothing else mattered.

Revolution, inquilab, was never more than a bombastic slogan for Bengalis whose ambition runs to little more than a safe job, a modest home and a sound education for their children. Given her own background, Didi can have no difficulty grasping those modest goals. In her second coming, she will be expected to redeem the poriborton—change—promise of her first, and go where neither the Congress nor the CPM has set foot before. Has she a vision of that future she alone can shape? Can she summon up the sustained cooperative organisation needed to create prosperity? Can she plan? Can she execute? Five years of erratic flamboyance still leave many essential questions unanswered.

She has proved again she is a fighter and a winner. She has yet to prove she is also an achiever.