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Sup with devil but don’t sip tea with political rival
Dev dips finger in cup, some scalded

Show of respect

March 24: A courteous cuppa is still a poisoned chalice in Bengal.

Dev, the actor and Trinamul candidate, has left a bitter aftertaste not only because of his insensitive reply to a question on elections but also because he dared to take a sip from a forbidden goblet in state politics.

The Ghatal candidate’s decision to pay a courtesy call and have tea with his rival and CPI nominee Santosh Rana has not gone down well in local Trinamul circles.

A section said such a gesture was “childish” and would “demean” the stature of the candidate —a stand that may surprise apolitical entrants like Dev but will be treated as par for the course by politicians who have built their careers in Bengal.

Inherent in the murmurs of discontent appears to be an assumption that good manners will somehow be associated with weakness and lack of loyalty.

If Dev is wondering what the fuss is all about, he cannot be blamed. The actor comes from a field that is no stranger to bitter rivalries but those in the entertainment industry walk the extra mile to be courteous to opponents.

Few actors would want to be seen as inextricably yoked to a particular party, especially since their careers are driven by their popularity among the masses whose political sympathies can lie with different groups.

Barring a few short-lived experiments, the political landscape is littered with the debris of discourtesy dating back to the pre-Independence era.

Veterans cut through the cobwebs and came up with an episode dating back to the 1930s. When a challenge was thrown then at the established Congress leadership of Sarat Bose, Bidhan Chandra Roy, Nalini Sarkar, Tulsi Goswami and Nirmal Chandra Chunder — the Big Five — by Midnapore Congress leader Biren Sasmal, who was from a backward caste, the retaliation was vicious.

Sasmal was attacked not on political grounds — the attack targeted his caste.

In the immediate aftermath of Independence, chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy did not run into too much of vitriol, probably because the Opposition was still getting its act together. After Roy’s death, however, the Opposition became more scathing towards its rivals.

In the mid-sixties, the Opposition would openly call then Pradesh Congress committee chief Atulya Ghosh “kana Atulya” because he was blind in one eye. “Atulya Ghosh was a senior politician and he deserved a bit more respect,” a Congress leader said. “The Opposition leaders would shout ‘kana Atulya’.”

The then Congress chief minister Prafulla Sen was not spared either. During the food crisis in the 1960s, when there was an acute shortage of grain, Sen had suggested that people have kaanchkala (green or unripe bananas). For this the Opposition, mainly the Left, nicknamed him “kaanchkala Prafulla”.

Sometimes, even death did not bring the curtains down on the rancour. Jyoti Basu, who had served as deputy chief minister under Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress in the second United Front government in 1969, did not attend Mukherjee’s funeral in 1986 because of the bitter fallout after the collapse of their government.

More recently, the now-expelled CPM leader, Anil Basu, had made filthy comments against Mamata Banerjee on the eve of the 2011 Assembly elections. The backlash put the CPM in an embarrassing position, forcing the party to pass strictures against him. Recently, CPM leader Anisur Rahman made disparaging comments on Mamata, prompting the party to issue a censure.

Not that Jyoti Basu always allowed political rivalry to get in the way of everyday decorum. The long-serving chief minister, during a trip to Malda in the mid-1990s, called on Congress veteran A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury to enquire after his health.

Discourteous jab

On one of the uncommon occasions when decorum was given its due, a comical — and probably unintended — consequence followed.

In 1984, a young lady touched the feet of Somnath Chatterjee, the then Lok Sabha poll candidate from Jadavpur, and sought his blessings. The CPM veteran was taken aback when he was told that the supplicant was none other than his challenger from the same seat. Her name was Mamata Banerjee, who went on to win that particular election and much more in later years.

Mamata subsequently touched another communist veteran’s feet, creating waves. In the early 1990s, Mamata, then with the Congress, had visited Writers’ Buildings and touched the feet of Basu, who was chief minister then, and presented him with gifts. She was about to take over as minister of state for human resource development in the Rajiv Gandhi government and she offered Basu all cooperation to protect the state’s interests.

Bitterness marked the many political battles that followed since then but courtesy was back on track once Basu ended his long innings in power. Mamata visited him at his Salt Lake residence and sent him flowers on his birthday.

But opinion also existed then that Mamata was trying to underscore perceived differences within the CPM on the industrialisation drive of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who had replaced Basu at Writers’.

Mamata unseated Bhattacharjee in one of the biggest upsets in Indian political history but surprised many by sending senior leader Partha Chatterjee to the former chief minister’s house to invite him to her swearing-in.

Bhattacharjee and CPM state secretary Biman Bose attended and one of the highlights of the day was Mamata greeting them with folded hands. Mamata also invited Bhattacharjee, whose affinity to matters culture is well known, to the Kolkata International Film Festival in November 2011.

However, the summer and winter of 2011 proved to be a false dawn. Arrows dipped in poison and worse are now the norm in Bengal politics — some Trinamul leaders tell supporters not to have even tea with CPM cadres or attend social events such as marriages with the rivals. “Cobra” is a favourite term to describe rivals.

Partha Chatterjee, the Trinamul leader who had once carried the invitation that set Mamata apart from the rest, conceded today that political discourtesy was the “order of the day”. “Showing courtesy is misinterpreted as meekness. But that should not happen. It’s nice that Dev has decided to make a courtesy call on the CPI candidate. The CPM should take a lesson,” he said.

A CPM Lok Sabha candidate said: “This culture of discourtesy has entrenched itself in Bengal politics. But this should not happen.Politicians should desist from making political attacks. What Dev is doing is good.”

Laudable words indeed. But will they be brave enough to sip tea with the “Cobras”?