This is the strangest assembly election ever experienced in West Bengal.The Election Commission guidelines have drained this festival of democracy of colour and the usual carnival atmosphere. The evocative graffiti, which used to be the most cost-effective medium of political communications, have disappeared ' outlawed by the application of a little-known law dating back to the time the Congress was last in control of Writers' Buildings. Gone are the buntings, the huge cut-outs of competing symbols and even posters are scarce. If it wasn't for the modest processions through the back streets, the odd padayatra by candidates and the occasional public meetings, you wouldn't have guessed that West Bengal is in the throes of an election. The cacophony of street politics has been replaced by relatively sober duels in the print and electronic media. At the same time, voter turnout is unimpaired.
Maybe the restrictions were overdue. For the past 100 years the stereotype of the fractious, argumentative and over-politicized Bengali has been etched into the national consciousness. Whereas Bengalis debunked Rudyard Kipling's banderlog caricature as colonialist disdain of enlightenment, the rest of India often equated loquaciousness with dementia. From the 'revolutionary terrorism' during the raj and Naxalite adventurism in the Seventies to the unending spate of bandhs since 1966, Bengal has become a byword for disruption. The communist movement must hog most of the credit for protesting too much but, to be fair, the Congress and its offshoots haven't lagged behind entirely. Being dysfunctional has become the Bengali consensus.
The state has paid an unacceptably high price for passing off perversity as common sense. A hundred years ago, Calcutta was the most happening place in India. It was the second city of the largest empire since Roman times. It was the hub of education, cosmopolitan culture, trade and a fledgling industry. It was the citadel of gracious living ' a phenomenon by no means confined to the white man. Above all, it was the epitome of modern India.
In just a century Kolkata has not only lost its pre-eminence within India, it has been relegated to the status of a provincial backwater. In just three generations, a truncated Bengal has squandered away its profound historical advantages and lost out to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Today, it lags behind resurgent India in everything except crowds in cricket matches, lost mandays and voter turnout. West Bengal is a state that has been crippled by the politics it professes.
When the history of West Bengal's decline in the 20th century is written, it is certain to place the communist movement in the dock. Communism in Bengal has always been more than just a formidable election-winning machinery; it is a mindset centred on self-destruction, envy and a reckless disregard of all the laws of economics. Behind the veneer of bhadralok civility, Bengal's middle-class communist leadership has snuffed life out of a people's creative enterprise.
It has happened not because communists are inherently evil. Many of the left leaders are deeply compassionate individuals with a genuine commitment to improve the lives of the poor. They also have high ethical standards ' a reason why the index of corruption in West Bengal has not reached the dizzying heights of, say, Delhi and southern India.
The root of the problem is the communist obsession with control. Starting from the personal lives of their cadres, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) aspired to control everything ' the distribution of land, cropping patterns, the selection of teachers, and the appointments, transfers and postings of government employees. Even areas which traditionally came under the purview of civil society, like the composition of voluntary associations, and, occasionally, business decisions, were sought to be brought under the umbrella of party control.
In its 29-year rule, the Left Front boasts of having empowered those who were previously on the margins of society. At one level this may be true, but a strange corollary of this empowerment of the 'toiling masses' is its emotional subordination to the party. Thus, when the party makes it a prestige issue to ensure 85 to 90 per cent polling in districts such as West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia ' areas where the CPI(M) majority is weighed rather than counted ' the faithful fall in line and do their bit for the local committee. If empowerment, however, also involves the freedom of individual choice and the right to be contrarian, the CPI(M) will have none of it. The element of control may be loose in urban and suburban West Bengal, but in the villages, communities have become frighteningly regimented and dependent on the party for both survival and growth. The space for individual initiative has shrunk.
This is not a situation which can endure indefinitely, and certainly not with the spread of literacy and market economics. On the surface, the CPI(M) strongholds appear completely impregnable. According to the opinion and exit polls, the Left Front is set to replicate its earlier victories on May 11-and that too without falling back on emotional motivation. Despite the stringent measures the EC has taken to prevent electoral malpractices, the opposition parties are just not in a position to take advantage of the wholesome environment. Going by the opposition's own estimates, Left Front candidates will have a walkover in nearly 184 of the state's 294 assembly constituencies. In three decades, the Left Front has crafted a system of one-party dominance.
Yet, ironically, it is this spectacular exercise of intrusive politics that carries the seeds of popular liberation. To many, the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is like a breath of fresh air. In the course of five years, he has begun the process of dismantling Jyoti Basu's crippling legacy. Almost every single tenet of CPI(M) orthodoxy, from the espousal of militant trade unionism to the disavowal of English, has been turned on its head. Bhattacharjee talks the language of Manmohan Singh in economics and shares Narendra Modi's impatience with lax national security. He almost seems like a scientist in a flat-earth society.
That the chief minister has transcended the CPI(M) orthodoxy is undeniable. The question is: why has the CPI(M) given him the licence for heresy' The answer may lie in the party's own recognition that it is impossible to keep West Bengal as a protected enclave much longer. The winds of change sweeping across India are whipping up fierce expectations, particularly a desire to catch up with the developed world. The CPI(M) may be only too aware that it can neither put a lid on dreams of a better life nor micro-manage communities with disposable incomes. In short, unless the party changes its tune and adapts to a market environment, it risks eventual obsolescence. Ironically, this is also a problem that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh faces.
Bhattacharjee has anticipated the process and not left it to the opposition to exploit a creeping anti-incumbency. In good communist tradition, he has assumed the mantle of the reformer and painted Mamata Banerjee as a hysterical populist who has internalized the very cussedness the CPI(M) leadership is anxious to discard. What makes this election unique is that we are seeing the CPI(M) for the first time hesitantly admitting that it has been 29 years of miscalculations and wasted opportunities.
Some three decades after China embraced the market and comm unists in western Europe discovered Euro-communism, Bhattacharjee is trying to make the CPI(M) come to terms with the charms of liberal capitalism. If he succeeds, it will be good for Bengal. For the CPI(M), however, the future is less rosy. History is not just on its side.