“…we think we are gods… The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery.’’ — Giuseppe de Lampedusa in The Leopard.
The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce — call it what you will. But what is undeniable is that this is the second time that a prominent politician leader from Bengal — if truth be told, a leader accorded the status of an icon — has completely misread a Gandhi.
The first time was certainly more celebrated and definitely more significant and tumultuous. It occurred in 1939 when Subhas Chandra Bose was reelected president of the Congress. He had won the first time the previous year at Haripura where he was taken to the Congress venue in a chariot drawn by 51 white bulls. Haripura represented the coming together of Bose and Gandhi, “the warrior and the saint’’ in the phrase of Bose’s biographer. Neither, it appeared at that moment of euphoria, was willing to acknowledge that their differences were irreconciliable. Haripura and the year that followed marked the high noon of Bose’s work within the Congress. But this by no means made his reelection a certainty. On the contrary, his unrelenting opposition to British rule, his refusal to brook any compromise with the raj and his commitment to an agenda of socialist reconstruction of an independent India raised hackles among the conservative elements, led by Vallabhbhai Patel, within the Congress working committee. They opposed his reelection.
As is well known, Bose won that election against Gandhi’s hand-picked candidate, Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Bose believed, somewhat naively, that after this it would still be possible to work with Gandhi and to win back his confidence. He wrote immediately after his reelection, “It will always be my aim and object to try and win his confidence for the simple reason that it will be a tragic thing for me if I succeed in winning the confidence of other people but fail to win the confidence of India’s greatest man.’’ It did not occur to Bose that Gandhi, persuaded by the clique around him, had no intention of working with him and would, indeed, through methods not particularly savoury, tactically isolate him and force his exit from the Congress. Bose, in retrospect it is quite clear, had completely misread Gandhi and had thus been outwitted.
The second incident is more recent, if less dramatic and far less momentous. It concerns Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to get Gopal Gandhi to be a candidate for the next vice-president of India. It ended in a failure as Gopal Gandhi refused to be a candidate. But this was a foregone conclusion to most people except, of course, to the chief minister of West Bengal. It required no special insight or knowledge to realize that Gopal Gandhi would never agree to be a candidate for any post if it involved seeking the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party or any organization tainted by Hindutva. His lineage and his convictions make this an impossibility. His grandfather was, after all, murdered by a man claiming allegiance to Hindutva. So it is utterly inexplicable how Mamata Banerjee expected Gopal Gandhi to agree to her proposal. (There are many among Gopal Gandhi’s admirers among the intelligentsia of Calcutta who are wondering how he could agree to be sponsored by Mamata Banerjee even without BJP support. But that is a separate matter.)
Both incidents, separated though they are by more than seven decades, have one common thread. This is the failure of politicians from Bengal to understand politics as a process, as something that emerges out of convictions and certain compulsions and not always as certain bargaining ploys or even personal affinities and attractions. This is one reason why, historically, Bengal has not produced any politician with the ability to command the national stage. In politics Bengal has produced just fiddlers, no violinists.
Bose believed quite nobly that he needed the support of the person he considered, like most of his contemporaries, to be “India’s greatest man’’. He refused to accept that the paths of the warrior and the saint could never converge. Politically — however tragic the consequences — this was not possible. Gandhi not only had his beliefs, he also had his own compulsions which made it impossible for him to act against the wishes of Patel and G.D. Birla.
Mamata Banerjee, quite farcically, believed she would be able to persuade a grandson of Gandhi to not only go against the Congress but also to do so with the support of the BJP. She reckoned without the fact that unlike her there are some people who will have no truck with the BJP, even for power and office. It is perhaps difficult for someone like Mamata Banerjee, who has held cabinet posts under both the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, to quite appreciate this.
Politics as a series of bargains or politics as an instrument to settle scores — this is how Mamata Banerjee sees politics when it is stripped of rhetoric. It will not be unfair to suggest that if the Central government had agreed to her financial demands, she would have readily agreed to any names the Congress put forward as president and vice-president. She so overplayed her hand that she ended up ensuring that Pranab Mukherjee — the person she least wanted to see as president — ended up being the Congress’s nominee. The last straw was her decision to vote for Mukherjee even though it caused her pain, as she confessed. Through the entire process, as the rest of India watched in dismay, she appeared to be boxing at a level far beyond her reach and league — the proverbial small fish in a very big pond.
Supreme self-confidence — to the point of being smug — is Mamata Banerjee’s strength, it is also her singular failing. Her belief in herself allowed her to oppose the rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) when the chips were down and no one gave her a chance. But that success has gone to her head. She harboured pretensions of being a president-maker. But neither a former president nor a former governor was willing to pander to her ego. She suddenly appears exposed with little else to cling on to save her populist rhetoric.
West Bengal thus has a chief minister who will not govern. It has a political leader who on any given day can bring Calcutta to a standstill but counts for little in the wider field of politics.
This does not bother the people of West Bengal. They are happy to be winners in the loser’s plate; happy to resent any criticism; happy to live in a backward state; happy to be populist. For them, all said and done, there is the past when a master politician from western India patted Bengal on the back and declared Bengal’s today is tomorrow’s India. In the 21st century, Bengal has neither a today nor a tomorrow.