Death cannot be proud in West Bengal. Neither can it be private. Political parties, hungry for mileage and spectacle, appropriate death when it strikes the good and the great. Mamata Banerjee’s self-appointed role in the funeral of Sunil Gangopadhyay is an illustration of the point being made. She was no friend and admirer of the author; neither was Gangopadhyay a part of her so-called cultural entourage. She removed him with some alacrity from the only government post he held and he remained a critic of her brand of paribartan. Under the circumstances, it would have been proper of Ms Banerjee to offer her condolences as the chief minister, to present a wreath and to issue a short statement. But having first remained indifferent to the death of Bengal’s most popular writer, she decided on the day of the funeral to go into overdrive. What followed was an exhibition of sheer bad taste. The chief minister tried to make a spectacle out of a tragedy. The images will fester: Ms Banerjee taking over the arrangements; Ms Banerjee shouting over the mike; Ms Banerjee behaving like a police officer controlling the crowd; Ms Banerjee walking in the funeral procession of a man for whom she had little truck when he was alive. Insincerity became the second name of West Bengal’s chief minister.
Why this drive to seek mileage from every single event irrespective of whether it adds to her own dignity and the dignity of the office she holds? From the celebration of a victory in a cricket tournament to the inauguration of puja pandals to the death of a writer — the chief minister is always there in the role of an event manager. The drive originates in the chief minister’s insatiable hunger for the limelight. It is located in the logic of populism, the only kind of politics that Ms Banerjee knows. Populism does not allow her to make the distinction between the private and the public, between the serious and the frivolous and between the dignified and the undignified. Everything is overwhelmed by the desire to extract cheap popularity, to show an involvement in the expectation that this will fetch electoral dividends. Even the death of a writer is thus bereft of gravitas.
Ms Banerjee, if the unpleasant truth be written, comes out of a particular strand of Bengali culture. It is the culture that makes burning ghats the den of criminals and drunks. It is the culture that made people, in a mad frenzy, tear out hair from Rabindranath Tagore’s corpse as the funeral procession made its way to the crematorium. It is the culture that allowed a drunk mafia don disrupt the cremation of Satyajit Ray. It is this culture that makes a chief minister hijack the funeral arrangements of a distinguished author and then empty the occasion of all dignity and sobriety. It is difficult to be famous in West Bengal but it is even more difficult — if not dangerous — to die famous here. The spectre of politics overshadows the fame.