Editorial / Countdown to power
Private and unpublished
People / Ranjan Yadav
Letters to the editor

In a week’s time it will be decision time in Assam and West Bengal. People of these two states will vote to decide who will act as their representatives for the next five years and how they will be governed during that period. Elections have an obvious importance in a democracy. It is only when they cast their votes, once every five years, that voters get to voice their preference. It is only the day elections are held that people hold in their hands the fate of political parties rather than the other way round. Apart from this general but not-to-be neglected significance, the polls in Assam and West Bengal might produce consequences whose impact might be felt all the way in New Delhi. In both states an embattled Congress under the leadership of Ms Sonia Gandhi is trying to wrest the initiative it once enjoyed. On the success and failure of this attempt will depend how much clout Ms Gandhi will be able to wield against the National Democratic Alliance when Parliament sits for its monsoon session. Success may lead to a rise in morale and the transformation of the Congress from a lame duck opposition party to a challenger of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition. Such an eventuality might alter the balance of coalition politics and even adversely affect the capacity of the NDA to govern effectively. Failure, of course, will give the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a second wind.

In Assam, the Congress rides on the anti-incumbency surf. That no political party in Assam in the recent past has formed a government for two consecutive terms is more than a mere psephological oddity. It might be an indicator that the Assam electorate votes on performance rather than on ideology and rhetoric. This by itself should be a chastening influence on all political parties. In this context, the charges of corruption against the Asom Gana Parishad will feature as a factor that will deter voters from returning it to power. Its alliance with the BJP, seen by many as being opportunistic, will inevitably alienate Muslim voters. This will decisively affect results in the 30 constituencies that have a substantial number of Muslim voters. Some of these seats will come to the Congress which retains its traditional support base in the tea gardens. In more ways than one, the Congress seems to be on a good and favourable wicket in Assam. This is not to suggest that it will be a cake walk for the Congress. But it is better placed than ever before in the recent past to give the AGP a run for its money. But over elections in Assam looms the violence perpetrated by the United Liberation Front of Asom. The target is the AGP which has spearheaded the counter-insurgency operations. The ULFA militants would like a change of government since a new government would provide them with a breather which they desperately want.

In West Bengal, the Congress hopes to ride on a Mamata Banerjee wave. The Congress is the junior partner in the alliance it has struck with Trinamool Congress. Riding piggyback it will cash in on Ms Banerjee’s immense popularity as the only leader who has made the defeat of the Left Front her one-point agenda. She has touched a chord in the heart of West Bengal’s disaffected. Disaffection towards the Left Front, like loyalty towards it, cuts across social and economic boundaries. Ms Banerjee personifies this disaffection. The depth of this disaffection is a sociological unknown. The articulation of the discontent may well constitute one of the major surprises of this election. The left has ruled the state for 24 years. Its network of power and patronage, and the election machinery of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) cannot be underestimated. It will deploy all its skills and armoury to stop Ms Banerjee from gaining an inch of territory. The election is poised for a photo-finish. Whatever the result, the face of power is bound to alter. Even a left victory will entail a change in the equations within the Left Front. The battle for Writers’ Buildings will be decided by the people many of whom are non-writers. Their preferences may not change the face of West Bengal but it could herald a changing of the guards in a red building.


Almost thirty-five years ago, I was a schoolgirl doing my geography homework with the School Atlas open on the table. My grandmother, who had come for a visit, peered over my shoulder excitedly. “What are these islands?” she asked. “Where are they? What happens there?” I was unaccountably embarrassed: the answers were obvious, and, anyway, how was I supposed to deal with this? “Please tell me,” the older woman said, “I’ve always wanted to learn.”

Among many others, this is a sharp memory of my grandmother. Women and men of this generation have done a remarkable job of remembering women of my grandmother’s kind. Volume after volume of recently published books carry the memoirs, autobiographies, letters, diaries, retold experiences of Bengali women from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries.

The defined boundaries of caste and race — Bengali and generally upper caste — help to emphasize the vastness and richness of the material excavated. Out of it emerges a nuanced and sensitive picture of “society from the inside”, now an inalienable part of social history, of the history of the education of women and the changing history of the family. What also takes shape is the “suffering subject”, a tool without which today’s women’s movement would flounder in its many directions.

Above all, the literature provides the sheer joy of listening to the multiple voices, reflective, humorous, rebellious, resigned, grief-stricken, objective, suffering, questioning, outstandingly intelligent, “modern”, interspersed with the voices of daring pioneers who ventured forth with or without the approval of enlightened men. Some of the tales are told in secret, some on public demand.

But what about the women from the same class and background who never wrote? To confront and resolve the schoolgirl’s inexplicable embarrassment, maybe the kind of feeling many of my time have experienced fleetingly, it is necessary to remember them separately. They are taken for granted, as they were so often in life, through the memories and experiences of the ones who wrote. Their voices and feelings are considered implicit in the writings of their more articulate peers.

Yet their access to expression was really easy. My grandmother, for example, was the last but one of a family of fourteen siblings. Her father founded a college and her mother wrote poetry in three languages, one of which was English. Married off during her schooldays because her parents were getting too busy and too old, she found herself in a family of successful professional men with strong links to personalities of the Bengal renaissance and later, of the nationalist movement. Within the family were determined, powerful women who ruled the inner quarters with an iron hand. Her dreams of learning, of singing and playing a musical instrument were extinguished forever.

This is not a personal reminiscence; it is an attempt to see through the experience of one woman the peculiar inconsistency of situations which hundreds of her kind must have experienced: those who shelved their dreams for the greater good and never found the time to regret, or even think about it. Those who conformed, retreated, surrendered.

In a way, they are more intimately known to many of my generation than those who wrote. They are so much a part of our growing up that we tend to forget their presence in our make-up, and recall them routinely in our sentimental meanderings. They were unremarkable, after all, invisible behind the ambience of nurture of which they were actually the strongest force. This “invisibility” of women in the family is an important theme of theoretical and activist feminism. They have their place where they would have least expected. But there is still a need to remember them in other ways, through their “inwardness” within us, the way they remain under our skins.

This is difficult to excavate, perhaps because of the “habits of insensibility” which Rammohun Roy said blinded his opponents to the agony of widows tied down and burning on the pyres of their dead husbands. The insensibility I speak of comes not from the rigid conservatism and gender-interestedness that give birth to cruelty, but from too close a familiarity. A comparatively innocent habit of taking for granted.

They came in all sorts, meek, gentle, dominating, superstitious, unreasonable, demanding, fractious, pernickety, wistful, timid, touchy. But among them those for whom envy was not a dominant force, who had known security and love in some form or the other within the family, touched other lives with an indefinable grace, almost impossible to pin down and explain. This quality permeated the nooks and crannies of the extended family, the most distant reaches of kinship structures with a kind of even light and something deeper and more sustaining than Arnold’s sweetness. Felt but undistinguishable, this quiet influence was richly constructive, a creative force in a dynamic society.

What was the source of this grace? At one level, it was a complete forgetfulness of the self as it is understood today. And the women had no access to the bourgeois sense of self that had evolved over centuries in the West and which was there for the educated classes to imitate. This is a distance difficult to traverse. It is clear that they suffered things incredible to women of similar backgrounds today. At the same time, much of the troubles that the women of the present face and fight would have been incomprehensible, or simply unthinkable, to them.

But is it not the same with happiness? Is it possible to understand fully what made them happy? The content of their happiness must have been very different too. In fighting for their rightful place in history, the fighters themselves may be limited by their own sense of the violation done to their mothers’ gardens.

Why didn’t they write? How deep had the virtue of self-effacement permeated them? Or were at least some of them conscious, afraid of the act of writing, lest the act forced into articulation feelings and observations best left unexplored? Anyone who has come across unpublished, private diaries, forgotten among the family’s detritus, would be aware of unarticulated pulls, silences that seem like self-censorship. Often, at moments of greatest grief or crisis, the cry of pain may be directed at god, and blame towards the self for having lost faith.

It is impossible to be sure of the degree of conscious silence. Security and privilege were treasured and accepted. The absence of the lone voice was a condition of the creative role within the home. The fact that they did not write is essential to our memories of their benignant presence. This lack is supplemented by the additional limitation of class. The caring and empathy could not cross the boundaries of kinship and family. They could only function within the given terms of the order they inhabited.

Out of such layered, complicated and ambivalent sources grew the unambiguous benison of their influence in the lives of many. They ensured shelter and peace for others, the selflessness was also their guarantee of security. Certainly there would have been a kind of contentment, a wisdom and a sense of proportion behind the love they gave. This love seldom included comprehension; it was just a joy in anything “good” that happened to their children, grandchildren and even their young friends, to their nephews and nieces and their offspring and spouses, an overwhelming, often embarrassing, pride in a small achievement by any member of the huge family which embraced younger in-laws.

An invisible web of these women provided a bedrock of values on which the next generation built, and which, partly, it has outgrown. The generous gift came from a dubious mixture, fed by conformities and repressions, sufferings and sublimations, pettinesses and frustrations, by faith, strength, a desire for good, the capacity to love.

It is not just the changed society and changing family structure that has made this grace almost a thing of the past. To recognize and recover the legacy of these grandmothers, aunts and mothers, to establish their rightful place in our inheritance and history, to see the continuity with the struggle for justice for today’s women and tomorrow’s, it is this grace that must go. A harsh fight has no place for gentleness. In its place have come clarity, determination, anger, courage, leadership, a different kind of selflessness and dogged patience, a bonding across class, culture, community — everything that is admirable and to be respected in contemporary women.

This coming is premised on the rejection of one part of the inheritance in order to honour those who bequeathed it. Some of them are still alive and around, out of place in a starkly different society, bewildered and often angrily uncomprehending of their daughters and granddaughters who try to tell them how important they are and why.

This, of course, is as it should be. The women who wrote will live in the future. But the memory of those who didn’t will vanish with the passing of this generation.



Rebel Rouser

It is called stage fright. Ranjan Yadav — now challenging Laloo Yadav as leader of the breakaway Rashtriya Janata Dal (Democratic) — has a long history of displaying his nerves on stage. His right hand has a habit of flapping nervously whenever he lifts it to make a point. On a bad day, he has been known to call off press meets to avoid embarrassment. And in the 11 years that he spent in the Rajya Sabha, he is known to have spoken only once.

But even his fiercest critics have noticed a spring in his step in the last few months. And if there is a hint of stage fright every now and then, he is not letting this weakness cow him down.

“It is a fight of principles,” Ranjan Yadav asserts over and over again. As of now, there are enough takers for his “fight”. At least 12 MLAs have fallen in line with the 51-year-old Yadav, making his cause the biggest revolt in the RJD since the government was formed in 1990. “I am civil and because of my academic background, a bit cautious in approach to political differences. But civility does not mean surrender,” he says.

“There is no one in the party who can distil the many lines of shop-worn arguments against Laloo into something that feels hard and resonant,” adds Shankar Prasad Tekriwal, Rabri Devi’s finance minister who quit the RJD at Ranjan’s behest two months ago.

The cracks in Ranjan’s relationship with Laloo had been visible as far back as 1997. He had got roughed up by his own partymen for raising his voice against the appointment of Kanti Singh as coal minister in the Deve Gowda ministry. Laloo’s friend Ranjan, a contender himself, was hurt that Laloo had projected Kanti Singh although she was a political nobody.

Ranjan Yadav let that wound fester for three long years. In the meantime he was not quite averse to saying a few things “off the record” against Laloo. But matters came to a head in December, 2000 when he was accosted by a gang of RJD leaders in Madhubani district. Slippers were hurled at him and he was abused. The reason: He had publicly declared that development had taken a back seat in Laloo Yadav’s Bihar. That was it. His dismissal, first from the post of working president and then from the primary membership of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for six years late last month were merely the last rites of this increasingly fragile relationship.

It wasn’t always quite like this. Laloo had befriended Ranjan in 1974 when both were major figures at the Patna University. This was during the heady days of the social reform movement of Jayprakash Narayan. Ranjan Yadav was a lab demonstrator. The other Yadav, the resident rabble-rouser.

Soon they found enough in common to become the best of friends. Ranjan, who had been born into a middle-class family of Patna’s Churigali near Nala Road, pursued his academic career even as he participated in social justice movements with Laloo. He completed his post graduation in Geology before becoming a lecturer in Patna University’s Geology department in the early eighties. Fascinated by rocks, on which he even based his post-doctoral thesis, Prof. Yadav’s flirtations with politics dealt with the rocks of feudalism which divided society. The social chemistry of power should change, he always kept telling the handful of Yadav students who came to higher education at that time.

Bihar political folklore has it that a couple of days before the marriage that the bride had some defects in her physical features. Laloo sent Ranjan to Rabri Devi’s house to check out the rumours. Ranjan returned to assure Laloo that she had all the features of a very auspicious bride. Even during the height of the Emergency when Laloo was in jail, Ranjan looked after his family. Hounded by the police, Laloo often used to hide at Ranjan’s residence.

The reciprocity of interests was mutual too up to a point. In the late seventies when Karpoori Thakur was the Bihar chief minister, Laloo often proposed Ranjan’s name for a berth in the Assembly Council. “But every time Mr Yadav would propose his name, Karpoori Thakur would ask who that Ranjan Yadav was and Lalooji would give very good certificates about this man. But for some reason, Ranjan Yadav was never made a council member”, recalls Lakhsmi Sahu, secretary to Thakur. But in 1990 when Laloo became chief minister, Ranjan became the party’s Rajya Sabha member. This was the beginning of Ranjan’s national exposure to politics.

Soon he became Laloo’s ambassador to the rest of the states and set up the rudiments of an organisational framework which would give the RJD a national identity. Party insiders agree that Ranjan was the key man in setting up RJD units in 22 states after Laloo was sent to jail soon after the formation of the party.

His initiatives in the expansion of the party base outside the state and his total control of higher education in Bihar have their share of controversy too. He allegedly handled education in the state as his fiefdom, appointing “paanwalas and telephone attendants as vice chancellors”, as RJD spokesman Shivanand Tiwari would put it. Party leaders are quick to point out how Ranjan made his wife — a lecturer in Allahabad — a senate member of Patna University.

Despite all this, Ranjan was the sober face of the rustic politics that Laloo advocated. He increasingly became the thinktank of the social justice brigade organising the investors meet in the early nineties for Bihar’s development which led to Laloo going abroad to attract investors.

In the last few years Ranjan Yadav also spent a lot of time in building and relaying roads in Patna. The entry to each such road has a sign which says: “This road was built by Ranjan Yadav with development funds made available to him as Rajya Sabha member”. These roads are his calling card now. Signs that he is really all for the “development of Bihar”.

But there is a lot he has to catch up on. For one he has never been able to dazzle crowds the way Laloo can with his rustic wit. He lacks a mass base and has never won a popular election.

Nagmani, Lok Sabha MP from Chatra, Jharkhand who has defected with Ranjan, is quick to rally to his support when questioned on his leader’s mass base. “Tell me, which chief minister enjoys mass popularity before he actually becomes a CM. Take the case of Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. Nobody had heard of him till he became the CM, although he was the key man behind NTR’s success all along.”

He will have to let the masses in Bihar decide on that.



Peek into a dark future

Sir — Aveek Sen’s “Yawning in the darkness” (April 15) could not have been more pertinent to and topical in the contemporary scenario of our Bengali films, where originality of ideas is noticeable only by its total absence. Support for, or even approval of mediocrity, is acceptable. But when mediocrity begins to be lauded as “the best possible work”, it becomes a little unnerving. It really is time that our Bengali filmmakers realized that an exceedingly slow-paced narrative does not always contribute to a profundity of thought. It more often than not contributes to monotony.

Yours faithfully,
Sipra Mukherjee, Calcutta

Follow the leader

Sir — The editorial, “Rites of reserved leadership” (April 21), is right in observing that the concepts of democracy and equality are yet to strike a root in India. While virtual dictators like J. Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee and Laloo Prasad Yadav have the last word in their respective parties, the long shadows of Sonia Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee loom large over the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party as well. As the editorial notes, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) stands out in the context. Even a stalwart like Jyoti Basu had to bow out of the race for prime ministership to honour the wishes of the politburo.

Though the CPI(M) is not without flaws, the inner-party discipline is worth emulation. CPI(M) baiters were anticipating chaos after Basu. The smooth transition from Basu to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has raised many a brow. Contrast this with Ajit Jogi’s accession to the Chhattisgarh throne which led the anti-Jogi camp to physically assault the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay Singh, who had garnered support for Jogi.

The CPI(M) had also given proof of its inner-party democracy when, in keeping with the majority of its politburo members, it did not join the United Front government. Political parties should look up to the CPI(M) to imbibe a sense of discipline.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — There might be some truth in the statement made in the editorial that Jyoti Basu has not proved indispensable for the CPI(M). But the people of West Bengal know that it is from Basu that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee derives the “authority” to rule. That is also probably why Basu, despite his health, is still sponsoring Bhattacharjee’s election campaign under the strict regimen of one meeting a day. Basu still rules in Alimuddin Street.

Yours faithfully,
G. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Sir — India needs an iron hand and iron will to be governed. The tragedy is that there is not one such iron man or woman to lead the nation to its destiny. There are many and each have a crooked path for the nation to follow.

Yours faithfully,
Geeta Manchada, Calcutta

Treat them as fairly

Sir — Much space has been devoted to the cause of the senior citizens in the print media. The media’s crusade has caused the government to sit up and take notice. The plan to grant senior members of society a higher interest rate under various small savings schemes is one indication (“More sops for aged planned”, April 21). What needs to be remembered is that the handicapped and the widows are just as needy as the above category. They should also be paid an interest which is at par with that allotted to retired persons.

Yours faithfully,
C.V. Sonpal, Raniganj

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