| Empty shows
It is impossible to miss the irony in the left’s dilemma over the Calcutta high court’s verdict restricting rallies in the city. Politically, the Left Front — or any other party for that matter — had little choice but to protest against the verdict which could severely restrict the functioning not only of the parties but also of democracy. At the same time, the new image that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is so anxious to project for West Bengal requires that the reckless rally raj, like many other old political rituals, becomes a thing of the past. What he could possibly see as a help for governance is seen as a problem by the political forces he presides over.
If that calls for a change in old perceptions, Bhattacharjee himself had underscored the need for it. He led the front to victory in the assembly elections of 2001 on the slogan “Vote Left for Development”. He was the one who led the New Left’s march to reforms, often in the face of tough resistance from within his own Communist Party of India (Marxist) and from other partners of the front which were still caught in the web of their old rhetoric. It can thus be argued that the chief minister should be bound by his commitment to the people to rule. His new mantra of development should make one think that he would now clear roads for investments rather than block them for political rallies.
Obviously, his party’s strident criticism of the verdict would not please the business community and large sections of the middle classes that he is keen to please. Despite some indications to the contrary, he remains pretty much his party’s leader as well as its product. No one would object to that as long as he draws the line between politics and governance. It is clearly a contradiction, but a Marxist party that runs a government has to manage all kinds of contradictions all the time.
Bhattacharjee can also read in the court verdict a measure of the increasing public impatience with the politics of rallies. It is easy, as the Marxists have done, to see in the verdict yet another attack by the new elite which would like to see an end to strikes, bandhs, rallies or all public protests. It is true that some sections of people have no reason to love rallies or politics because they have nothing to gain by them. Such people are often impossibly insular, talking only to their own types and taking a perverse pride in not caring to know about the rest of the society.
But the left is uneasy with the fact that even people who would be its natural constituency are increasingly frustrated with street politics. Even political parties accept that protests, processions and strikes are all means to certain ends. Farmers would join rallies, hoping that their protests would help them get better farm prices. Workers would take to the street in the hope that it would help reopen their closed factories or get them lawful benefits. Even if it did not have an economic agenda, a rally or a protest would be seen as a legitimate expression of free speech or the right to organize.
Instead, rallies in Calcutta have come to mean empty shows of numerical strength, devoid of spontaneity or direction. The more the rallies are seen as ineffective in redressing popular grievances, the more the public antipathy to this brand of politics. Add to all this the unruly, sometimes threatening, behaviour of the rallyists towards other people and you can see why political rallies are increasingly seen as an abuse of political muscle. If bandhs and strikes have become subjects of ridicule even among the common people, the blame must squarely lie with the political parties which have reduced these to shows of partisan strength. If the court verdict looks extreme, it is a response to extreme abuses of the political process.
In fact, a series of recent court orders have done precisely that — they have held the mirror up to the failure of the political process. Although legal purists frown on judicial activism, the people are turning more and more to courts because governments and political parties are failing them. The parties and the political process are either hated or held up for ridicule even by the common people who have much to lose if political freedoms are curbed.
That really is the danger. There are always groups of people who are waiting to discredit politics and the democratic process because they see politics as an antidote to their unfettered control of the system. Worse still, their subversions of democracy are also carried out in the name of the people. They pretend that they have as much right to speak for the people as the political parties. The failure of the political process makes such pretenders look genuine custodians of the public interest.
No matter what the Bengal Marxists say, political wisdom is not necessarily an attribute of intelligence, education or class. It is always a response to experience and democracy upholds that the majority view approaches the aggregate of people’s experiences. If the public experience berates the politics of rallies, the parties have little choice but to mend their ways. And it remains a test for the political leadership to persuade the people that old ways would no longer work.
Bhattacharjee raised hopes of a new political culture in the left, not so much because he now loved Marx less, but because he seemed more open than his comrades to the new economic realities. It is his government which began a gradual halt to the rally rage, identifying three venues for large gatherings. But it was at best a half-hearted measure because there were no restrictions on timings or on the roads the rallyists would take. A large gathering at any of the selected venues would therefore choke traffic in many other parts of the city.
It is not the court’s restriction per se that is the major issue. It will only be a footnote to the big debate if the Left Front chairman, Biman Bose, is punished for his openly abusive reference to Amitava Lala. The real test remains for the chief minister to prove that he can match his political commitment to the tasks of governance.
It would be naïve to expect rallies to disappear from the streets of Calcutta even on weekdays because of the court order. Strikes by government employees or bandhs have not ceased to being organized because of other court verdicts. But Amitava Lala will have done the political process much good if his verdict helped in forcing a public debate on the abuses that are committed in the name of the people. But it is equally important for the people to guard against dissemblers who also invoke the people’s name but actually have a vested interest in the collapse of the democratic process.