With Mamata Banerjee shutting out the CPM comprehensively in the Assembly by-elections with the wife of one of its most dependable leaders, the late Subhash Chakraborty, losing her seat the sun looks about to set on the Marxist empire in Bengal, something that many people of my generation never hoped to see, no matter how much they may have wished for it. But then again Caesar never thought his empire would end and neither did Queen Victoria.
I belong to the generation that grew up in the Red shadow. I hated it. Not that I understood much of politics as a young kid, but it does not take much of political antennae to detest hours of power-cuts (“load shedding”) which uncles would say was Jyoti Basu’s gift (There was an amusing political poster in those days –it had a picture of Jesus Christ (Jisu) saying “I will take you from darkness to light and then a picture of Basu (rhymes with Jisu..well kind of) saying “I will take you from light to darkness”). If long hours of darkness before Half Yearly examinations and during Chitrahar was not torture enough, it was even more infuriating to see far more reliable power supply being provided to “government quarters” where some “officials” stayed and even to the club-house of the neighboring “local boys” since they drew power from multiple sectors, under the full patronage of the local administration. I realized soon enough that in CPM rule, there were two kinds of people you did not mess with, two kinds of people who are never wrong—–those who had strength by virtue of position and those who had strength by virtue of numbers. And since a middle-class family like mine did not have either, we were consigned to listening to commentary of cricket matches on our trusty transistor.
As I grew up, the pernicious nature of Left rule became even more evident. The local sweet-shop was taken over by striking CPM workers, got red-flagged, their mishti gujiya started having a sour taste, their customers vanished and then the store fell into ruin, a microcosm of the state of industry in Bengal. A plot of land my parents owned got encroached over by “local boys” with the police turning their backs because they belonged to the “party”. With impending Madhyamik examinations (Class 10 exams) I came to understand how entrenched the Party was into the education system and how their anti-English anti-“elitist” agenda jeopardized careers, and how the sanest advice that was dispensed would be “Leave the state. Leave the state’s education system.” From scraps of adult conversation I understood how land in Kolkata’s then-hottest township “Salt Lake” was allocated. And how jobs and appointments were doled out in the land of the Left—from the peon at the door to the Vice Chancellor, from the police constable to the professor.
Then came atrocities like Bantala and Birati. There was widespread outrage. Some isolated protests. Some votes lost.
And yet the Left stayed in power as impregnable as ever. “They can never be defeated in the villages” said an uncle who had strong Leftist sympathies “They have done so much work there”. Said another who was not impressed “Work my foot. They seized land from those who had it and gave it to their cadres who vote out of gratitude.” Another uncle who agreed with him said “They rig elections. Scientific rigging they call it.”
There was truth in all of this. And I had seen scientific rigging myself albeit in a very watered down form where CPM “workers” would coax “bhodrolok” to go home by making them get sick and tired of waiting (and then their vote would be cast by a fourteen-year old voting thirty times in a day) by making them stand in the blazing hot sun and by jamming the queue with fraud voters whose sole purpose was to hold things up. It was well known that in the suburbs and in the villages, the Left techniques were ,to put it politely, even more coercive. But even then I did not understand fully why the CPM had no opposition in Bengal. After all ballot boxes were snatched in other parts of the country, there were areas in India far more lawless than in Bengal .
But everywhere power changed hands.
Why not here?
As I see the Left fort crumble today, I ask that question again. In a different way. What happened suddenly? What changed? Surely elections can be rigged even now. If villagers were so dead afraid of the CPM-police combine in the 80s and 90s why is the entire Left machinery in retreat today, scared to go into vast areas of the state they still rule? People in the rural regions were well used to Left corruption, having seen decades of how bricks, cement and sand would mysteriously arrive at the local CPM dada’s house and how government purchasing favored local boys even when they were selling at many times the market rate. So there is nothing earth-shaking they are seeing now that they have not seen before.
Mamata and her branch of politics has also been here since the 80s and though the Congress-TMC combine consolidates opposition support, it must be remembered that Mamata was once Congress and that there was just one opposition party in Bengal.
What’s new all of a sudden?
Certainly the Naxals are more powerful than ever before providing more sophisticated weaponry to disaffected sections of the population. Certainly many of the old CPM “boys” have changed parties. But that is not the cause merely a symptom of a more basic malaise.
I will not claim I understand everything. At least not now. Maybe perspective will be needed before a fuller analysis can be done. However what I can say is that one of the main reasons, if not the principal one, for the revolution is because Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is no Jyoti Basu.
How he compares to Jyoti-babu as an administrator and a CM may be a matter of debate (I would say Buddha-babu is streets ahead). What however is undeniable is that he never quite had Jyoti-babu’s political acumen and more accurately his knowledge of the psychology of his state.
Jyoti-babu understood the secret to staying in power in Bengal. That of keeping up appearances of being the “little guy”. The underdog. Bengalis, even more than macher jhol and Ganguly, love the ideal of the dispossessed, the simple and the honest fighting against the big bad wolves. If I had a paisa for everytime I heard a Bengali say “So-and-so could have been rich/famous but chose not to” I would have been one of the Ambani brothers. This peculiar aversion for success is what explains why Bengalis are Leftists at heart, why they love nothing more than to see big corporations bite the dust even when it means that their state falls even further behind, which is why they will put their feet on their axe for the sake of “idealism”, misplaced and suicidal it may be.
Jyoti babu knew this and how to play to it. When the Bakreswar power plant got stalled due as much to his government’s intransigence as the Congress central government’s intentional neglect, he painted it as the battle between David and Goliath with drama like “Bangali youth will sell blood to finance Bakreswar” which the state totally lapped up. When industries closed in the State and capital fled, he said “Good riddance ! They want to exploit us and we won’t stand for it”. Bangalis applauded—yes that’s showing those fatcats ! After all as a teacher of mine, with well-known party affiliation said one day with barely concealed pride ” Aare baba. We are not Gujarat”. In personal life, he too never went for the ostentation of a Jayalalitha or a Laloo. People never rolled at his feet or drew his pictures with blood. Appearances of humility were always maintained.
People grumbled about the Left. But when it came to election day, they would still vote for the “little guys”, even though calling them little in Bengal would be like calling Tuntun size zero.
This is where Buddha dropped the ball. In his rush to accomplish “something”, he became associated with the “bad guys”—multinationals, business houses, the ones who grab land and eat babies for lunch. Suddenly Bengalis were able to shake off their ennui, suddenly all the malignancy of the Left became evident to them, suddenly the penny dropped.
When party hacks robbed people in broad daylight, occupying land and property that did not belong them it was “Oho poor people what can they do !” When a retired man whose life-savings had been put inside a plot of land had to see it taken over by the community boys wanted to use it as their football ground, people said “Oho poor boys where will they play?” When family businesses built up through generations of labor and sacrifice were taken by force of muscle, people said “Oho poor workers why should they be deprived?”
Every act of strongarm, every act of violence and intimidation was kosher because the perps were “little guys” or portrayed as such.
But now when the same thing happens (actually not really the same because the Tatas were buying at above market prices from the actual owners who held the titles and not just breaking legs and burning huts [a more detailed analysis here]), the same people discover “property rights” . This is because evil corporations and the big guys are now in the mix.
And who is caught helping them in their capitalist plans of world domination?
As Mukul discovered fake Dr. Hajra’s evil intentions in “Sonar Kella” only when he shot at the peacock ( “Tumi dushtu lok” [You are an evil man]), the people of Bengal have finally stumbled, with similar naivete, upon the villain. Ironically at a time when it has been the least villainous it has been in decades.
I have said this before also on my blog. Mamata is the new Left. The new Jyoti Babu. The new champion of the downtrodden. Who has remembered that one golden rule, the second part of which Buddha had forgotten.
That there were two kinds of people you do not mess with, who are never wrong—–those who have strength by virtue of position and those who have strength by virtue of numbers.
And so the fall of the Left comes close. The Huns are at the gate and Atilla is roaring. The Goths are running loose in the countryside liberating vast tracts of the empire. The Red Legion, depleted and morose, are coming out holding their Communist manifestos and preparing for their last stand.
What I had always wanted to see is now at hand. Yet I feel no pleasure. Instead I am overwhelmed my sadness. Not because Buddha’s Left was good. But because what it is to come will be far far worse.