When West Bengal’s chief minister blew his top on the bhaiya prime minister’s Calcutta speech — 24 hours too late — I thought wearily, “Ah! These Bengalis! So red-skinned — I mean, so thin-skinned! So excitable! So ineffective!” Worse, I was silly enough to express one of these thoughts in mild terms to some of my Bengali friends, and they rounded up on me. “How dare you call us thin-skinned! How would you feel if we pointed out how you guys have treated your Muslims' How if we said you Gujaratis were crooks and money-grabbers' You are just as thin-skinned as we are, only you don’t show it.” I examined my skin, ascertained that it had not been pierced by these silly pellets, and said, “Well said, my friends!” In fairness, though, one Bengali friend said, “Of course you are right. The Bengalis have nothing to boast of; they are living on past glory. No wonder they are livid if someone puts up a mirror to them.”
So let me begin by saying that I am grateful to the government of West Bengal for rehabilitating Qutubuddin Ansari, the Gujarati whom other demented Gujaratis were out to kill but who somehow escaped. His is a shocking story. It is not the only one. A year ago I got a message from a friend in Baroda that a large number of Muslims there had had their houses and businesses burnt, and did not have the money to send their children back to school and college. I did whatever I could to help. Amongst others, I approached Baroda residents. Some were prepared to give money, but did not want it to be known. Gujaratis are intimidated by gangs of communal hooligans who can hold sway because the authorities let them.
All traces of a large number of Muslim tombs were removed during last year's riots; amongst them, that of a famous Baroda poet. Some of my friends felt bad about it. They did not think of rebuilding the roza; they only wanted to hold a peace march. They approached the collector for permission. He told them they would be better off not asking for it. He said he would have to refer their request to the state government in Gandhinagar, and it would refuse permission. So the peace march never took place. The government of Gujarat is a blot on the face of India; if the same party had not been in power in Delhi, Gujarat would long ago have been taken under president's rule.
But let me come back to the government of West Bengal. I do not want to raise any Calcuttan hackles; but I thought there were better ways to handle the prime minister than Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee found. I can imagine the thoughts going through his mind as he listened to Vajpayee. He thought, “Here I am trying to set up a working relationship with the Centre. I have been sweetening up Lal Kishenchand Advani. There are billions of rupees at stake; just see how my bearded counterpart from Andhra Pradesh goes to Delhi and gets whatever he wants, while my finance minister gives thundering speeches in Delhi and comes back empty-handed. We are living in a democracy, and Lenin is not at hand to help us destroy it. Although these guys speak incomprehensible Hindi, civilized discourse should be possible with them. At least one should try. This fellow is an old codger whose brain works at the speed of a snail. His attention span is thirty microseconds. He fumbles even when he reads out a speech written by his clever flunkeys. But he has built a government out of the most crumbly elements and held it together for five years. He has not done it with ideological correctness or towering intelligence. All he does is to talk politely to everyone and ask them to do the same thing. Maybe I should take a leaf out of his book.” So he did, and kept mum.
And for that he got into boiling hot water. His political colleagues were shocked. The next morning they held a Condemnation Conference — no, no, not to condemn Vajpayeeji — but to haul Buddhadeb over the coals. They were scandalized: here was a communist given a golden chance to be rude to his class enemy, and he passed it up. A true Communist-Party Marxist did not miss an opportunity to be rude even when there was no occasion; this gentleman (what a term of abuse!) could not even think of a good insult. He realized that unless he could quickly summon a healthy dose of invective, his throne was at risk. So he sailed forth out of the meeting and had a go at the prime minister.
It was not a bad riposte, but it could have been better. Buddhadeb said that growth in the last year was higher in West Bengal than for India, and that West Bengal’s per capita income was now higher than India’s. He complained of discrimination — that the Food Corporation of India did not buy enough grain from West Bengal, that Eastern Railway had been divided, that Central enterprises in West Bengal had been closed down. He attacked Vajpayee: “The person (Vajpayee) who is accusing us of dogma has one arm on the shoulder of the RSS and another on the VHP. He lives in a world of dogmatism and fundamentalism. We are still suffering from the pains we received from the Babri Masjid and Ayodhya.” And he displayed truculence: he said that only Bengalis could ask why they had done badly.
That was a silly line to take; and while there could be useful occasions for an attack on Vajpayee, the 150th anniversary of the Bengal Chamber was not one. Either of the other lines — refutation and complaint of discrimination — might have worked; mixed up all together, none of them did. Obviously, Buddhadeb should have answered Vajpayee on the spot, or kept quiet; making a statement the next day meant that he missed the national media. And in the answer, he should have chosen his line.
The most natural line for a politician is an ignorant, polemical line. In that vein, Bhattacharjee could have gone on about Gujarat, Ayodhya, Tehelka, the petrol pump scandal, etc, etc. The other line, about discrimination, promised more. Buddhadeb could have said that he was as concerned about West Bengal’s economic performance as the PM, and would the latter, when he gets back to Delhi, please get him a favourable resolution of his grouses against the Centre'
Then he could have gone on with an interminable list of them. But if I were Buddhadeb, I would myself ask the question the PM did: “Bengal was the undisputed leader and promoter of industrial culture in India till the late Sixties. Why did it lose its way thereafter' From a position of number one in the early post-Independence period, it declined to a position somewhere in the middle by the close of the century. As recently as 1981, West Bengal’s per capita income was above the national average. Two decades later, it fell below the national average. Why did this happen' Why did businesses leave Bengal' Why did new investments skip Bengal'”
And I would not seek the answer from the people of West Bengal, and certainly not from the sycophants with whom the government of West Bengal has populated its public institutions. I would go out and look for people in India, outside, anywhere, who have thought about development in a wider context — and who would tell Bengal the truth.