It is the time for West Bengal to create landmarks. First, the denial of a rape; second, the arrest of an academic for circulating a cartoon; third, a public circus with the winners of the Indian Premier League; fourth, the mimicry of the prime minister on television; fifth, the announcement of sop after sop even though the state is bankrupt; sixth, the announcement in the hills of being “rough and tough” and, most recently, the reprimand to the security staff with the telling words, “You lot should be whipped,” followed by the threat to photographers that they should be slapped. Violence has become such an important marker that even an expression of frustration is laced with it — “[s]hould I go and beat up the prime minister?” the chief minister had asked in a public meeting. These are some of the landmarks. The list could be lengthened and so could the shadow of Bengal’s shame.
One way of coping with such statements is to laugh them off as pieces of comic relief or to ignore them completely. It hurts to do the former and to do the latter would be irresponsible. Such statements are evidence of a sharp decline in the political vocabulary of West Bengal, a kind of lumpenization of political culture.
The process of this degeneration can be traced back to the years when communists ruled the state and when they were dominant in public life. There are still people around who will remember the kind of language the communists used to attack Congress leaders like Prafulla Sen and Atulya Ghosh. The Naxalites, often exalted as heroes of a generation, were particularly crude in the abuse of those they considered ‘class enemies’. But to be fair to the communists, abuse and the vocabulary of the lumpen were not the only kinds of discourse available when they dominated public culture in West Bengal.
In this context, one needs to remember the poetry, the theatre and a certain intellectual ambience that the communist party fostered and, for a long time, encouraged. Even in straightforward political discourse the descent into abuse is a relatively recent phenomenon among communists — one has only to recall the erudite oratory of Hiren Mukerjee in Parliament and in the course of election campaigns, the urbane sophistication of Somnath Lahiri when he spoke in the Constituent Assembly and later to the public at large or even of Jyoti Basu when he was at his best in election meetings.
The difference today is that a lumpenized rhetoric is the only one that is available. And like water it flows downwards from the top. There are too many political figures of the ruling dispensation who are using words and epithets that are abusive and have seldom been heard before. Even the more educated members of the ruling party are not entirely free of this particular tendency. On rare occasions Left leaders, as if in retaliation, have also used abusive language. But on one notable occasion, the leader concerned earned a reprimand from the party.
Not surprisingly, the abusive language is complemented by the threat of physical violence and, on quite a few occasions, violence has actually taken place. There is the growing fear in West Bengal that violence lurks just below the surface. It is ironic that those who had made complaints against ‘leftist terror’, the staple of their critique of Left Front rule, are now the perpetrators of violence. Goons enjoying political patronage often take law into their own hands to settle personal and political scores. In parts of Calcutta, shooting in the streets is not an uncommon occurrence. Thus while Tagore’s songs play at traffic lights a lumpen raj prevails on the streets. What could be more charming and more revealing about the antinomies of Bengali culture?
It would be facile to link this degeneration in the use of words to the social origins of those using them or to suggest that the phenomenon is a consequence of the deepening of democracy because of which groups in society unfamiliar with niceties of democracy and parliamentary language have now entered the political arena. Politics in West Bengal has long ceased to be the preserve of the bhadralok elite. The deepening of political participation goes back perhaps to the late 1930s with the emergence of Jogen Mondal who by no reckoning belonged to the bhadralok section of Bengali society. In fact, there are many in the present ruling party who have lapsed into abuse of their political opponents but will be shocked to be described as non-bhadralok. I would suggest that the debasing of political vocabulary is a symptom of an alarming malaise.
One feature of the contemporary political culture is the restriction of the space for the three Ds — difference, debate and dissent — that lie at the very core of the fourth D — democracy. The political culture, especially, has come to be dominated by intolerance, the obverse of the three Ds. It is an intolerance that is directed not only at political opponents of the ruling party but at anyone who voices an opinion that is different from and critical of the views of the chief minister. Any criticism is seen as an expression of the views of either Maoists or the CPI(M), even when they are voiced by a young college student just out of school. One immediate result of this is the complete supineness of the bureaucracy and the police who are over-eager to please the chief minister. This led, notoriously, to the arrest of an academic who had circulated a cartoon. In that particular case, the police acted with surprising alacrity. But the same police force is rendered inactive when Trinamul Congress supporters manhandle television cameramen and reporters or, most shamefully, when a police officer is shot dead and the killer flees in spite of the presence of a posse of policemen.
The narrowing of the democratic space and the imposition of an individual’s will on the institutions of governance are the first signs of a turn towards authoritarianism. “I am the State,” appears to be the principle according to which the present chief minister operates: to this end promises can be made and ‘facts’ about achievements doled out. Woe betide those who dare to differ.
There have been occasions in the past to bemoan the political fortunes of West Bengal. The people of the state voted overwhelmingly for change but not a change for the worse. The hopes of a change for the better now lie in a shambles. The emergence of a lumpen political culture manifest in words and deeds, directed by the unashamed exaltation of an individual leader carries within it the seeds of a political formation that is the exact antithesis of not only democracy but also of any kind of civilized existence.