The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Poetics of Village Politics: The Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism By Arild Engelsen Ruud, Oxford, Rs 550

If there is one factor that explains more than others why the Left Front has managed to retain power in West Bengal for more than a quarter of a century, it is the Marxists’ rural strategy. Land reforms and the panchayati raj are generally accepted as the two principal tools in that strategy of rural mobilization. Hence the ever-expanding literature that tries to capture, understand and interpret the nature of this mobilization and its effects on the state’s politics, economy, society and culture.

Ruud, a senior researcher at the Centre for Development and Environment in Oslo, tries to explore this “rural communism” in the manner many other scholars have done before him. He lives for a time in two villages in Burdwan district in the late Nineties, comes to know the actors in village politics as well as the political and cultural traditions of the community and tries to relate them to the larger ideological contexts.

The result is a refreshing addition to the literature. Ruud avoids the stereotypes, thereby demystifying both the politics and the players in it. His is an ethnographer’s story that brings the focus back to the village society and thus helps explain why and how that society changes in a particular way at a particular point in history. Institutions, laws, political parties and ideologies play as important a part in that process as oral traditions, poetry readings and theatrical performances, linguistic changes and even gossip.

The main thesis of the book centres around how village politics and the larger society run parallel courses, even as one influences and changes the other. Unlike some scholars who believe in a seemingly unchangeable dichotomy between the political cultures of Indian villages and those of the urban elite, Ruud has no doubt that the village society has “an ability to change”.

And he does not agree with those who argue that the communist mobilization in Bengal’s villages is all a matter of a particular ideology. He offers a rather unfamiliar view of what the Marxists did to village politics: “The CPM did not infiltrate itself in village politics. The specific features and nature of the movement, to a considerable extent, grew out of village politics.”

It is largely true that the Marxists had a cautious entry into village politics, which led to mutual accommodations and adaptations. The ideologues did not come like marauders to sweep village politics off its feet, forcibly transplanting themselves on the soil and making the villagers blindly submit to them. Ruud traces the cultural changes in village society that are captured in the novels of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Manik Bandyopadhyay or Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay and suggests that the communist mobilization owed much to those changes.

The Marxists were aided by history and ideology to carry forward the voice of change articulated in modern Bengali literature. They made the new, educated middle class in the villages — typically represented by the new generation of school teachers — their principal agent of change. Ruud may be stretching it a bit too far but he makes an important point when he says, “if the rural middle class had not adopted the ideas and values of the radical urban class, little would have come out of Bengal’s exceptionalism.”

The lower classes, who form the vast majority of villagers, ultimately gave the Marxists the strength of numbers, which is so crucial in mass politics. But the party ideology, as enunciated by the middle class that the common villager traditionally respected, gave the inert masses a new life of political action. It could not be a patron-client relationship between the party and the people, as in old village politics. To be effective, the ideology had to be translated into the language of village politics. It became something like what Paulo Freire, in a different context, had called the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” The corrupt panchayat pradhan or the party leader-turned-middleman is the flip side of this politics of mobilization. After all, this rural strategy is for electoral politics and not for any kind of revolution.

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