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HISTORY’S PLAY
- The promise of progress stares West Bengal in the face

Thus I came to you, O men of today, and into the land of education… But what happened to me' For all my anxiety I had to laugh. Never had my eyes beheld anything so dappled and motley. I laughed and laughed while my foot was still trembling, and my heart no less. ‘This is clearly the home of all paint pots,’ I said…

— Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

The first person to speak of the end of history was not, as is usually believed, the failed icon of the of neocons, Francis Fukuyama, but the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. He posited the liberal state as the triumph of Spirit, meaning thereby that the underlying principles of society, politics and institutions would need no further development or progress. It would be, to use Hegelian terms, the end of conflict and contradictions. There would be events without progress.

Progress was the keyword in 19th-century philosophy and history writing. Progress was the illusion of the age — Hegel, Marx, John Stuart Mill and even lesser figures wrote about how to achieve it.

The phrase, “end of history”, had a brief revival in the Nineties through the writings of Fukuyama. His admirers mistakenly believed that Fukuyama saw the collapse of communism as the definitive moment that not only marked the end of history but also marked a journey’s end for man’s political and social quest.

The phrase, in its original Hegelian connotation, has a certain contemporary resonance even in West Bengal. In the most significant set of events of 2006, the state has witnessed an almost desperate attempt to precipitate a series of conflicts and contradictions, and also an attempt to end contradictions once and for all.

Those events only need a brief recapitulation, if only to provide an aid to memory. The chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has been active in trying to make the state an attractive destination for capitalists and investment. His enthusiasm and his actions represent a radical departure from all that his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has preached and practised in West Bengal ever since it came to power way back in 1977. The chief minister’s enthusiasm was contagious, and over 2006, the mood and the atmosphere in the state have undergone a remarkable change. Pessimism has been replaced by optimism. Instead of flight of capital, there is an increased interest among capitalists about West Bengal and its potentialities for profit and investment. Instead of despair, there is buoyancy. The epitome of the changed environment was the decision of the Tatas to set up a car manufacturing plant in Singur, some 45 kilometres west of Calcutta.

For this plant, land was required and the state government acquired the required 997 acres and paid a handsome compensation to the landholders and land-users. This set in train a course of events that was surprising. The leader of the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, who has cast herself as the sole spokesman of all anti-left feelings in the state, launched a movement against the acquiring of land from farmers. When her street-level protests and displays of violence failed, she went into a hunger strike. Her fast lasted 25 days, and she withdrew without winning any of the demands that she had put forward.

The fast itself was irrelevant, but it brought to the forefront a fundamental contradiction that seems to be embedded in Bengal’s society and mentality. Simply put, it is the contradiction between agriculture and industry, and the role that each of these sectors plays in economic growth and development. This assumes that there are people, barring staunch Gandhians, who believe that there should be no economic development in West Bengal, in terms of generation of wealth and employment.

The surprising elements in the contradiction are two. First, the claim that economic development is possible solely through agriculture without industrial investment. Second, the belief that industries can be set up without taking away land from agriculture.

To work from historical precedents, there is no available example of modern economic growth based on agriculture. This is where the industrial revolution stands as a break from all that had gone before. It unbound, to borrow the phrase of a famous economic historian, Prometheus. Even the greatest known critic of capitalism, Karl Marx, acknowledged that the coming of capitalism was revolutionary in its impact on productivity and wealth-generation. For this revolution to take place, the use of land was transformed, and there was a movement of land and population away from agriculture to industry.

Nobody has also argued that the emergence of capitalism and the process of industrialization are without pain, suffering and bloodshed. Marx wrote memorably about how capital emerged, with blood and dirt pouring out of every pore. Significantly, the experiment with socialist industrialization under Josef Stalin shed more blood and caused more suffering than capitalist industrialization.

The contradiction became manifest in West Bengal in 2006 as soon as the chief minister took the first concrete steps to reintroduce capitalism in West Bengal. It appears to have been resolved with the political defeat of Mamata Banerjee. The promise of progress now stares West Bengal in the face. The state is poised to turn away from political practices that masqueraded as communism and as anti-communism. Ironically, both had opposed the economic development of West Bengal. In 2006, a communist leader decided to break out of the stereotype. The anti-communist leader remains cast in stone.

The choice, of course, cannot depend on one political leader. It has to be made by society at large.

West Bengal, one could say drawing from Hegel, stands at the gates of an important epoch, a time to move forward in a leap, transcending its previous shape when all the bonds linking the immediate past are dissolving and collapsing and a new phase of progress is about to unfold. Is the society of Bengal prepared to acknowledge and welcome this while some Bengalis continue to cling to the past and work to make West Bengal the “home of all paint pots”'

Those who welcome it must do so with legs and heart trembling. The promise of progress, history has shown, can be dangerously elusive and the end of history an ever-receding horizon.

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