| Great divide
In the fortnight before Diwali, Calcutta hosted some unlikely visitors from the heartland of global capitalism. They came to the city for two reasons: first, to get a feel of a state that has monotonously elected governments headed by one of the most antediluvian Stalinist parties to grace bourgeois democracy; second, to experience the interesting story of a chief minister who has embraced market economics with the passion he earlier reserved for socialist inefficiency.
On both counts, the visitors had reason to return satisfied. Never mind the oddity of the American consulate being located on a street named after Ho Chi Minh (the renaming was done as early as 1969), Calcutta was a far cry from the drab, grey provincial cities behind the Iron Curtain. On the surface, it had all the symbols of cosmopolitan modernity; Stalinist austerity, if present, was definitely a receding phenomenon. The important thing was that West Bengal was burning with a fierce desire to be an integral part of the Incredible India story. On his part, the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, lived up to his reputation as an enlightened pragmatist with a definite vision for West Bengal. “If you hadn’t warned me, I would never have guessed he is a Communist,” was the telling remark of one distinguished visitor who has first-hand experience of an evolving world.
A week, unfortunately, is a long time in politics. Had the dignitaries returned to Calcutta after the Kali Puja fireworks, they would have noticed a city seething with anger at the same CPI(M) and the same chief minister. They would have experienced the latest of the interminable bandhs that have made life so painful in West Bengal. Turning on the television, they would have witnessed local celebrities — each one of them proudly flaunting the “progressive” label — abusing the chief minister as a “liar”, and even comparing him to the ultimate “fascist” ogre, Narendra Modi. They would have heard self-professed “intellectuals” (an endangered species that thrives in Calcutta) denounce the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as a “terrorist” organization hell-bent on appropriating the poor and enriching blood-sucking capitalists. For the children of the Sixties, there would have been the additional attraction of protesters singing a local version of Bob Dylan’s immortal “Blowing in the wind”.
A spark, the Great Helmsman pronounced, can light a prairie fire. Were the events of the past week in Nandigram the proverbial flashpoint for an outpouring of accumulated grievances against a dispensation that is now perceived to be arrogant and intolerant' Coming within weeks of the middle class rage over the death of Rizwanur Rahman, there are grounds to indicate that after 30 years of uninterrupted dominance, anti-incumbency is finally catching up with the Left Front — and with a vengeance.
What distinguished the CPI(M) dispensation in West Bengal from other ‘normal’ state governments was its pretension of moral superiority. Any other government with such an abysmal long-term record of economic mismanagement would have been an object of ridicule in circles where these things matter. Yet, in a country where intellectual discourse till the mid-Nineties was dominated by a spurious deification of ‘equity’, Jyoti Basu became the icon of political sagacity on the strength of an Operation Barga that yielded windfall electoral returns. The other facets of his 23-year legacy — the destruction of education, infrastructural collapse, deindustrialization and the exodus of the professional classes — were expediently glossed over by an intelligentsia that revelled in the celebration of morbidity and cussed militancy. A consummate practitioner of banality, Basu reduced a once-vibrant centre of cosmopolitanism into a provincial backwater, regulated by puffed-up, petty tyrants in local and coordination committees. Under him West Bengal became a nice place to get out of.
His successor was, by contrast, much more audacious. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was among the few Indian communists who correctly saw in the collapse of the Soviet Union the larger failure of Marxist economics. On assuming office, he began the slow process of reversing the Basu legacy. He wooed private investors of all shades assiduously; he realized the importance of a vibrant Calcutta in the process of economic regeneration; he tried to undermine the mindless glorification of a political culture centred on ‘struggle’and disruption; and he accorded tacit intellectual validity to the principle of self-betterment — the driving force behind India’s economic resurgence.
Judged in terms of Stalinist orthodoxy, Bhattacharjee was undeniably a heretic — maybe even a non-Leninist. However, in the aftermath of China’s endorsement of the free market, that did not constitute a heinous offence. Where the chief minister came to grief was in contesting the grievance-guilt syndrome that became the hallmark of Bengali ‘progressive’ culture since Independence. Although remarkably austere in personal life, he saw nothing wrong in associating the symbols of vibrant capitalism with economic growth. His logic was simple: if West Bengal was to be a partner in India’s resurgence, it had to accept the embellishments of modern capitalism, including lifestyle disparities.
To an intelligentsia nurtured on the romance of poverty and suffering followed by the exhilaration of struggle, it was not merely Bhattacharjee’s policies that were construed as wrong; his values were deemed to be offensive. For those who had lived their adult lives shouting slogans at the gates of closed-down factories, the suggestion that ‘peasants’ should allow factories to be built on their pocket-sized holdings was a travesty and too reminiscent of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Dui bigha jamin”. An anti-CPI(M) blogsite of an ultra-radical Bengali “intellectual”, for example, equates parasitic decadence with New Town, Rajarhat.
The opposition of villagers in Singur and Nandigram to absorption into a manufacturing hub was based on fear and uncertainty — traditional peasant responses to modernization. Their protests needed to be handled with care, sensitivity and even generosity. But Bhattacharjee was in a hurry and this urgency rubbed off on the CPI(M) local committees. Intoxicated by the monopoly of power, they reacted in the only way known to them — with an astonishing show of high-handedness. In the past, this approach had always paid returns; in the age of intrusive 24x7 TV, however, this was no longer possible. Apart from its known political opponents, the CPI(M) now has to confront the fury of the very intelligentsia that was a co-conspirator in its crusade to transform Bengali Enlightenment into Bengali Endarkment.
Do not, for a minute, mistake the aesthetic repugnance of CPI(M)-inspired terrorism in Nandigram with the old-fashioned liberal outrage. The intellectual divide in West Bengal is largely spurious; both sides mirror each other.
It was the Left that introduced the culture of bloody retribution in West Bengal in 1967. Yet, the Bengali intelligentsia’s support for the Left and its demented offsprings was most pronounced when it coincided with relentless violence. The Naxalite movement received more intellectual, celluloid and poetic endorsements than any other murderous cult. The most important theoretical contribution of its bhadralok mentor was in advocating the elimination of the “class enemy” with a knife or axe (rather than a gun) because physical contact facilitated a more meaningful outpouring of class hatred. The record of post-1947 Bengali intellectualism is disagreeable.
The spark from Nandigram may or may not engulf the formidable CPI(M) apparatus. However, its fallout on West Bengal is bound to be catastrophic. A vision for the regeneration of the state has been dragged into controversy and stands indicted for its underlying thuggishness.
West Bengal needs change. A change in political culture is, of course, obligatory. But this has to be preceded by a decisive rejection of the dominant intellectual legacy of the past 60 years.