Calcutta, Dec. 11: There is a big story in the demolition of the squatters’ colony along the Beliaghata canal that may not be immediately apparent. It is about the convergence of political opinion and popular consent for change in Bengal.
It is no mere coincidence that the demolition drive was the first-ever joint venture, so to say, in Bengal between the CPM and the Trinamul Congress. Mayor Subrata Mukherjee of Trinamul and urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharyya of the CPM were not just partners in the exercise; none could do it without the help of the other.
If most new beginnings have some element of drama, Beliaghata had it in the sudden sickness that forced Mamata Banerjee to her hospital bed at the time the shanties were being pulled down. At other times, it would have been a typical Mamata show — the fiery leader jumping out of her sick bed and rushing to the demolition site, giving photographers the right angle to capture her silhouetted against the wind-fed flames by the canal.
She did none of that. All that her camp followers did to keep the anti-CPM flag flying was routine rhetoric in the Assembly. A far cry from her fierce opposition to the eviction of squatters from the banks of Tolly’s Nullah or of those holding up the construction of the Lake Gardens flyover.
So what has changed' Why did Mamata do the unthinkable by allowing her party’s rebel image to be sullied by supping with the Red devils' That the Beliaghata eviction would pave the way for an Asian Development Bank-funded project for the Trinamul-controlled corporation is the immediate explanation.
But it misses the big story. Which is that a strong, if also slow, consensus is emerging in the society at large that things must change in Bengal. And it is deeper than the politicians’ usual change game.
This acceptance of change, still grudging and often half-hearted, has not come through a sudden change of heart. It is a response to a back-to-the-wall situation that seems to be persuading people in politics and other fields that any further resistance to change will mean total and irreversible disaster. The complaint hereafter will increasingly be why things are not changing fast enough.
That is not to say that politicians will agree all the time. More likely, Mamata will seize the next opportunity to play ball with the Left. There will be others, like ultra-Left groups or even some within the Left Front, who will call it all a conspiracy of consensus. And there will be plenty of issues on which they would sooner disagree than agree.
That is what is happening with the government’s proposal to raise the court fees, education fees or hospital charges. But even on these, there is the unmistakable sign of the changed popular perception. The bar council may have been successful this time in stalling the functioning of the courts. But, more and more sections of people are accepting the fact that there is a strong case for revising the fees that have not been revised since 1970.
More and more people are accepting that the annual fees for medical education or the hospital charges are ridiculously low and need to be raised. Who in his or her right senses could defend a monthly tuition fee of Rs 10 for college/university education' It is all right for the government to subsidise the fees of a poor student. But why should the taxpayer subsidise the education of a student from an affluent family'
But if the people had not thought like this before, that was because the politicians fooled them and themselves into believing that things can go on like this. That make-believe world is clearly crumbling both for the people and the politicians.
Politicians who now oppose change will be increasingly isolated from the people because they will no longer reflect the popular will for change. Taking anti-change positions is no longer popular politics. Even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee can survive the test only by being both an agent and a mirror for people’s readiness for change and their growing willingness to pay for it.