The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance would probably have lost the 2009 general election even if its candidate from Pilibhit had not been caught on camera making a provocative hate speech. The significance of Varun Gandhis misplaced show of muscular sectarianism, which was repeated ad nauseam on television, was that it bolstered an existing trend and widened the BJPs electoral deficit.
It is not that the BJP instantly recognized that its Gandhi had scored an untimely self-goal. Despite the tut-tutting of a few, a great many of the party faithful refused to believe that the speech would rebound on the party. The thunderous acclaim at the venue that greeted the threat of Hindu retribution was replicated in many BJP offices in North India. Indeed, many of the senior leaders who made a beeline to visit Gandhi in jail actually believed that the vile speech was a positive game changer. It was, but not in the way the BJP would have liked it to be. In hindsight, that one outpouring of bad taste cost the BJP a chunk of its traditional middle-class support.
Although no two elections are exactly alike, it is tempting to draw an analogy between the Gandhi speech in Pilibhit and the contentious utterances of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) state committee member, Anil Basu, at a rally in the Hooghly district. Just as Gandhi was carried away by his own rhetoric and the applause of the gathering, Basu forgot the important distinction between sarcasm and tastelessness. His comparison of the Trinamul Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, with the prostitutes of Sonagachhi violated every rule of political engagement and forced a harassed chief minister to order a salvage operation. But what is interesting as the video recording of the speech makes very clear is that Basus outrageous assertion was greeted by loud applause. He spoke to the committed and the comrades loved his abusive combativeness.
At the same time, it is undeniable that Basus speech was seen by all those Bengalis with a bhadralok self-image as a complete violation of civil conduct. For the CPI(M), Basus speech was its Varun Gandhi moment. The speech by itself wont be the determining factor behind the possible Left Front defeat on May 13 but it may help widen the existing gap between the forces of paribartan and continuity. With his arrogant exuberance, Basu may have undone some of the gains from the CPI(M)s lavish, post-2009 show of contrition. It is one thing to commit the party to learning from past mistakes and promising people that the follies of Nandigram and Singur wont happen again. The sincerity of the self-criticism becomes suspect when it is accompanied by a high-handed show of arrogance by a functionary who spent enough time in the Lok Sabha to know what is parliamentary and what is not.
To be fair, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was quick to grasp the magnitude of Basus offence and extract an apology within 48 hours. The chief minister, for all his political shortcomings, has always been a model of bhadralok refinement and has desisted from both abrasive speech and the abrupt cussedness that was the hallmark of his illustrious predecessor. But Bhattacharjee is a rarity in the contemporary political world of West Bengal. The four decades of Marxist domination in the state, going back to the first United Front government in 1967, have witnessed a cultural transformation that has seen many of the established behavioural assumptions being relegated to the fringes.
Till 1967, the cultural tone of politics was set by a Congress leadership that had cut its teeth in the national movement. Unlike large parts of North India, where the advent of Gandhian mass politics had also triggered a social revolution, Bengal politics remained in the firm clutches of the upper echelons of the professional classes and the gentry. There was a remarkable cultural continuity between C.R. Dass emergence as the supreme nationalist leader and the 14-year chief ministership of Bidhan Chandra Roy. It was not merely that the main leaders of the Congress the Bose brothers, Tulsi Goswami, Kiran Shankar Roy, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, Humayun Kabir, et al came from the same social strata, but that the district leadership of the Congress, comprising heavyweights such as Atulya Ghosh, Ajoy Mukherjee and P.C. Sen, followed the tone set by the Calcutta elite.
The tone of politics did not emerge in isolation. At a time when Bengal was economically vibrant, the bourgeoisification of public life was a logical consequence. The terms of refinement, public behaviour and even the parameters of what was regarded as avant garde were moulded by a deep commitment to the established order. Social respectability implied emulation of a relatively enlightened bhadralok order, backed by an expanding economy. The only hiccup was an unsettled class of refugees from East Pakistan who were relegated to the margins of a vibrant metropolitan society with disastrous consequences for the settled order.
The communists consciously challenged this inherent elitism. Although many of its erstwhile stalwarts, such as Jyoti Basu, Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta and Bhupesh Gupta, were products of the same privileged social strata, they sought to consciously déclassé themselves. This meant celebrating rebellion, disavowing bourgeois refinement and embracing plebeian coarseness. The communists wanted to turn the world upside down and this involved wilfully violating the norms of respectability and consciously giving offence. As the leader of the Opposition, Jyoti Basu, for example, refused to get up when the assembly stood in silence to pay homage to Nalini Sarkar who, apart from being a politician of standing, was an entrepreneur of repute.
The communists always harboured a sense of Marxist superiority that stemmed from profound intellectual arrogance. They posited their own scientific socialism to the backward mindset of their opponents. The sneering brusqueness of Gautam Deb, the CPI(M) chief propagandist in this election, stemmed from this ingrained sense of superiority. It was this attitude that infuriated the Opposition and was an obstacle to Somnath Chatterjee (a much mellowed man today) functioning as an effective Lok Sabha Speaker.
The plebianization (in its most pejorative sense) of Bengal has also flowed from the sharp economic decline of the state. The sheer lack of opportunities and the debasement of education have created the groundwork for a desperate, often mindless, aggression that has permeated the entire public space. This is reflected in popular Bengali cinema and TV serials. The stereotype of the refined Bengali bhadralok still persists all over India but its reality has increasingly become questionable in todays Bengal.
The Left has been remarkably successful in dismantling an old culture centred on courtesy and, indeed, deference. In its place has emerged a culture that in the emerging Calcutta of the late-19th century was associated with the Battala novel and the khemta dance. An aggressive lack of courtesy, bordering on lewdness, has become the hallmark of assertive and successful leadership.
Nor has the cultural shift been confined to those who were empowered by the agitational politics of the Left. Its tentacles have spread to the Trinamul Congress and even the local BJP. It goes without saying that Mamata Banerjee could not have achieved the level of success she has had her politics not been couched in a pugnaciousness that often mirrors the Left. She has taken on the Left on the Lefts own terms, undercutting its social constituency and even attracting a clutch of former comrades. This may explain why those looking expectantly to the recovery of Bengals self-esteem may have to look beyond one election. Yet, a mandate for paribartan could begin the process of rolling back decades of regression.