| Face of fear
I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New…The New went fettered and in rags; they revealed its splendid limbs. And the procession moved through the night, but what they thought was the light of dawn was the light of fires in the sky. And the cry: Here comes the New, it’s all new, salute the New, be new like us! would have been easier to hear if all had not been drowned in a thunder of guns.
— Bertolt Brecht, “Parade of the Old New”.
I deliberately begin with a poem by Brecht because he is a writer who, I think, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee once read and admired because Brecht was a communist. Maybe he still does read poetry, if he gets the time to read. I chose this poem because it talks about an illusion, and how the old and the new are often inextricably intertwined. Also, more obviously, because it speaks about the thunder of guns. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s promise of a new West Bengal has been drowned by the thunder of guns in Nandigram.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee epitomized the new West Bengal. He projected himself thus, and he was perceived by many (including this writer), as the herald of a new and vibrant West Bengal. What constituted this new' There was the promise that capital and investment would be brought back to the state. There was the commitment that work culture would be revived and greater transparency brought back into governance and public affairs. There was also the promise — more honoured in the breach — that life in the state, especially in Calcutta, would not be disrupted through political rallies, demonstrations and bandhs. Implicit in the last promise was the assurance that cadre power and show of political muscle would be reduced, if not obliterated.
The package of promises was not only new but impressive. It was backed by the style of the chief minister himself. He brought to governance and to policy-making a freshness and forthrightness which disarmed even the critics of the CPI(M): it was a unique experience to encounter a communist leader and chief minister who so readily, and so openly, admitted past errors. Industrialists who met him, individually or collectively, came away charmed by his personality and convinced by his commitment to change the face of West Bengal. It all seemed too good to be true. From the beginning of this year, the cookie began to be crumble. There was a major clash in Nandigram, a site chosen for the building of a chemical hub. Protesting against the acquisition of land, local residents, aided and abetted by Maoists and other political elements, had attacked and thrown out CPI(M) workers and supporters. The latter retaliated and lives were lost in the violence. Nandigram remained outside the control of the CPI(M) and of the state administration. The inability of the state administration to enter Nandigram provided the necessary excuse for the police action that claimed many lives in the area on March 14.
The question that almost immediately comes to mind is, why the hurry' Was it absolutely necessary to send a police force to reclaim Nandigram at this juncture, especially after the chief minister had announced that the project to build a chemical hub had been put on hold, and that there would be no land acquisition'
There was no administrative hurry, but there were political compulsions. CPI(M) workers had been booted out of a turf over which they had political control. They tried to reclaim it in January, they failed. In March, the same attempt was made with the naked use of state power. There was the fear that the expulsion of CPI(M) workers could take place elsewhere, following the example of Nandigram. This could not be allowed to happen. Nandigram had to be made an example of, so that other people elsewhere did not try and act tough with the CPI(M). It was an act of terror. Nandigram is one of a series that stretches back to Keshpur, Nanur, and maybe even further back in time.
This is how the old has suddenly intruded into, and enmeshed itself with, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s project to build a new West Bengal. What constitutes the old' It means the shameless use of violence to establish CPI(M)’s political control. It harks back to a time when the priorities and interests of the party were made to prevail over the demands of governance. It means the blurring of the distinction between the party and the administration. These have been the hallmarks of the CPI(M)’s rule over West Bengal, especially in the countryside.
Very little has thus changed. The CPI(M) has always used terror as a mode of political management. The promise of the new is an illusion, a sham. The expression of regret over the deaths in Nandigram by the chief minister and his comrades was shot through with a certain smugness. The attitude said, “People have died, too bad, it could not be avoided.” The chief minister admitted that resistance had been expected but the scale of it had not been anticipated. Isn’t there a grotesque failure involved in this' Who is accountable for that' Or, is it the case that even the scale of resistance was known and yet the operation went ahead, for, after all, what are a few dead bodies in the path of establishing party control'
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been elected to power. He has not been given a licence to kill. In theory and in practice, there is a distinction between power and violence. The latter is an instrument, by no means the only one, for exercising power. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the last instrument. The CPI(M), because it is a communist party, does not believe this. It follows the Leninist example — made into a fine art by Josef Stalin — of using violence and force to achieve its own ends. Unfortunately for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, he has to function in a democracy where differences cannot be resolved through violence. Nor can political turf wars be won by the blatant use of state terror. History will remember him as the chief minister who attempted to industrialize West Bengal through terror.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was once a Stalinist. Many of his new-found admirers believe that since he is pro-capital, he is no longer a Stalinist. Actually, there is no contradiction between the mindset of a Stalinist and the wooer of investment. If Stalin were to meet Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee, he would greet him with the cry, mon semblable, mon frère — my twin, my brother. A Stalinist does not change his mindset, just as a leo- pard in the forest does not change its spots.