| Rallying for history
In an unforgettable poem, the almost-forgotten genius, Sukumar Ray, spoke of the exploits of Jagai who single-handedly fought the assault of seven Germans. The labours of West Bengal’s chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, often bring to mind the plight of Jagai.
My intention is not to ridicule Buddhadebbabu. Far from it. His concern to rejuvenate industries in West Bengal is almost palpable. No chief minister of this state has ever come across as so sincere and so transparent in his efforts to bring capital back to the state. His is a solitary voice. His enemies are in his own backyard. If the Germans Jagai fought were products of his fevered imagination, Bhattacharjee’s enemy is the past. If Buddhadebbabu has time these days to recall Marxian texts, he must be remembering that famous opening paragraph of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte where Marx wrote about the way the heavy hand of the past hangs over the present.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been speaking eloquently to industrialists in every possible forum to convince them that West Bengal is an attractive investment destination. He is promising them that notwithstanding what his party’s central leadership is saying against foreign direct investment and about disinvestment, he, in West Bengal, supports FDI and privatization. In Mumbai, in a function last month, he went to the extent of telling a steel magnate that IISCO could be revived only if that industrialist took it over.
But what happens in West Bengal' On September 1, a working day, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) organized a massive rally that admittedly did not bring the city to a standstill but did cause major disruption of traffic in the centre of the city. What needs to be emphasized more than the disruption is the fact that thousands of government employees and workers from other sectors were ordered to abandon their work and come out on the streets. How many of these actually applied for half a day’s casual leave' This kind of absenteeism had more than tacit official support since the rally was under the aegis of the ruling Left Front. What does this display say of West Bengal’s work culture' What will potential investors, swayed by the chief minister’s honesty and sincerity, make of the government’s attitude to work' Will any investor like his workforce to disappear every once in a while because the Party wants it to march against or in support of this or that cause'
Doubts in the minds of potential investors will turn to dismay and then to suspicion when they learn that the chief minister himself flagged off the massive rally and thus indirectly gave his blessing to the rampant absenteeism of party loyalists. Party comes first, work comes later — seems to be the message going out from West Bengal. This leads to the crux of Buddhadebbabu’s problem. He remains a proud member of a communist party. The CPI(M), whatever ideological changes may have taken place within it, is still a very disciplined party that commands unquestioned loyalty from its members. Bhattacharjee, as a party member and as a chief minister who owes his chair to the party, cannot do as he wants. Pushed to the limit, Bhattacharjee has to obey the party and its orders. If the party wants him to start off a rally, he is obliged to do so, quite forgetting his earlier anti-rally pronouncements; his assurances to industrialists about work culture notwithstanding, he has to preside over mass scale absenteeism.
Buddhadebbabu’s vision of rejuvenated West Bengal has moved far beyond where his party stands on most issues. His project to change the industrial face of West Bengal is predicated upon his ability to change the mindset of his party. Here is a party which for the last forty years or so has been fed on anti-capitalism. In party classes and cell meetings comrades have been taught that multinationals are the arms of US imperialism. Trade unions have been told that managers are nothing more than lackeys of capitalists and that demands are more important than duties. Cadre have been brainwashed to believe that art and literature that do not conform to the party line are examples of cultural depravity. Above everything else, the party catechism says the party is always right.
The hold and the vacuity of this mindset was evident from the plea of helplessness that Biman Bose, the chairman of the Left Front, made when he was asked about the rally. He said that the people would just have to bear the difficulties the rally would thrust upon them. The rally was anti-war and World War II had begun on September 1 and, therefore, he had no choice in the matter. The chief minister echoed his comrade and said, “The date September 1 was decided by Hitler, not me. That was when World War II started. I cannot change history.” Before going into the disingenuousness of this explanation one should point out to Bose and Bhattacharjee that they have got their history terribly wrong. September 1, 1939 was the day Hitler invaded Poland. World War II began two days later when Britain declared war on Germany. This is more than a chronological quibble. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1 only Germany and Poland were at war. Only when Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd and France followed suit that the conflict acquired global dimensions. If one is talking about World War II it is correct to see September 3 as its anniversary.
Communists, who are too eager to celebrate September 1 as an anti-war day, should also be reminded that on the same day under a secret clause of the Nazi-Soviet treaty, Soviet Union annexed the entire eastern part of Poland. From September 3, 1939 till June 22, 1941 when Hitler invaded Soviet Russia, the latter remained an ally of Hitler and watched Europe (save Britain, of course) being overrun by the Nazi war machine. The Russian people’s heroic defence of their motherland began only after Stalin declared World War II to be a People’s War. But maybe these are not aspects of history that are taught in party schools. Communists should perhaps look at June 22 as a better date to remember World War II.
The confession by Bhattacharjee, “I cannot change history” is a trifle rich given the fact that the left has just changed the dates of World War II. Further, the entire exercise of changing the name of Calcutta to Kolkata was an attempt to change history since the explicit reason for this was the removal of Calcutta’s colonial heritage. The same reason was given for changing various street names that bore the imprint of the days of the Raj. The claim “I cannot change history” is a spurious one. When it has suited communists, they have changed history with scant regard for facts. One has only to think about the crude manner in which Stalin falsified the history of the Russian Revolution and obliterated Leon Trotsky’s role in it. Even today, communists like Bose and Bhattacharjee, and more shockingly others with greater claims to erudition, fed on the staple dished out in The Short History of the CPSU, refuse to accept Trotsky’s contribution to the triumph of Bolshevism and deny that Stalin carried out acts of mass murder.
Buddhadebbabu is battling his own past and is battling it with candour and sincerity. He might discover that this is an utterly thankless task. He might also discover, a la Sukumar Ray, that having wrestled with a shadow, he has aches all over his body.