A bridge too far
Who are you condemning? Bow your head. The sin is mine, the sin is yours. — Rabindranath Tagore
The themes of crisis and decline have haunted the consciousness of educated Bengalis. These concerns first manifested themselves in the middle of the 19th century, the high noon of Bengal’s cultural efflorescence, when contemporary journals and periodicals devoted considerable space to these themes. It can be said that from the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one another theme has come to preoccupy the intelligentsia of (West) Bengal — this is the theme of change, first the lack of it and then the nature of the change itself.
From the late 1990s, when West Bengal had an octogenarian chief minister heading a communist government that had enjoyed unbroken power since 1977, people began wondering if political change would ever be possible. An entire generation had grown up in West Bengal without knowing of any other political dispensation than the one the Left Front represented. The departure of Jyoti Basu from Writers’ Buildings did not end the rule of the Left but brought forth the possibility of a change in attitudes and policies. To many it seemed, and there were good reasons for this optimism, that in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Bengal had at last found its Prince Charming. Disarmingly frank about his party’s past mistakes, Bhattacharjee held out the promise of an industrial renaissance. He spoke a different language — referring often to Tagore, Joyce and Proust — and he became quite the darling of even those who are not known for being supporters of communists — businessmen and industrialists. “Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is like a breath of fresh air,” was a compliment that was frequently heard in Calcutta, Delhi and elsewhere.
By 2008, the promise of an industrial renaissance had evaporated with the Tatas taking away their small car project from the state. That exit was the direct outcome of an agitation that was opposed to acquiring agricultural land for industry in West Bengal. The agitation was thus opposed to the idea of economic change and growth. The danger such opposition represented was overwhelmed by the slogan of change that captured the imagination of the people of Bengal, who voted the Left Front out of power. This was the first concrete political change in 34 years. The sheer thrill of bringing about this change obscured a paradox: the lady who had prevented economic change by opposing the Singur project was the same lady who was propelling West Bengal to the promised land called change.
What were the elements that constituted that promise? First was the end of more than three decades of Left rule. Those who held out the promise felt Left rule had been oppressive, and many of those who voted for the change believed that a new government under a different kind of political leadership would not be a bad thing. West Bengal deserved an alternative at long last. Second was the expectation that the change would be for the good — there would be clean and better governance, law and order would improve and so would health services and education. Third was the very personality of the new chief minister, Mamata Banerjee — down-to-earth and with a no-nonsense attitude, known for her simple lifestyle and honesty, courageous and passionate about Bengal. It was not surprising that Mamata Banerjee brought with her hope and expectations.
Of course, the inauguration of the new era was not free of scepticism. Would the chief minister, known for her mercurial temperament, make the transition from being a street-smart political campaigner to being an astute and responsible chief minister? Would she be able to forsake her natural propensity for populism and take hard and unpopular policy decisions? What would she do to attract investments, given her hostility to taking over agricultural land for manufacturing units?
Nothing has happened in the nine months that Mamata Banerjee has been in power to quite dispel the questions that the sceptics had raised. Support for her may not have noticeably declined but the number of sceptics has increased. Yesterday’s admirers are today’s critics and many industrialists and businessmen are wringing their hands and shaking their heads. The question being asked is: has change taken place, and if it has, is the change good for West Bengal? Does Bengal continue to be under the shadow of crisis and decline that had concerned the intelligentsia from the middle of the 19th century? Is the promised change no more than a variation of those seemingly enduring themes? Is Bengal a victim of that memorable epigram, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they are the same)”?
Why do these serious doubts persist? The more important answers to these questions are not difficult to locate. It is obvious that potential investors are getting increasingly disillusioned with the present government. At the root of this disenchantment is the chief minister’s intransigence regarding acquiring land for industry. She believes that the State should not acquire land, the industrialists should acquire it on their own by negotiating with individual holders. This disregards the nature of landholding and agrarian relations in West Bengal. Landholding is fragmented and, apart from the original owner, there are innumerable other stakeholders in land. The process of acquiring a large consolidated holding would entail a prolonged process of negotiation which no entrepreneur can afford to get into, especially if he has better opportunities elsewhere. The chief minister seems unable or unwilling to grasp this point. The question that faces the people of West Bengal is: will West Bengal remain an agricultural and therefore a backward economy? Will there be no change in this regard?
In health, despite the chief minister’s flying visits to a few hospitals and shows of temper there, no improvements are visible. The increasing number of deaths of babies, in fact, suggests that things have not changed. In education, steps have been taken to depoliticize the system. But there seem to be no schemes afoot to raise standards. One Presidency University, even if it is allowed to become an institution of international excellence, will not change the system. The chief minister’s thinking on education remains vague at best. There is no perceptible improvement in law and order and there is the apprehension that the incidence of crime and violence is on the rise because the police are often taken to task for trying to stop violence and are prone to act in a manner designed to please the chief minister.
The reiteration of the words “chief minister’’ in the previous paragraph is deliberate because every single aspect of governance and administration has come to be focused in the persona of the chief minister. Nothing happens without the consent of Mamata Banerjee and the best proposals can be set aside if she disapproves of them. Ministers, bureaucrats and police officers have lost their initiative and their independence. A one-woman demolition squad of the CPI(M) has now become a one-woman government. This is exactly the opposite of the promise of a transparent and efficient democratic government.
The dangers embedded in this situation were evident in the slew of irresponsible statements that have emanated from the chief minister. The worst of these was her announcement that the Park Street rape case was entirely fabricated to defame her government. And the most comic of these was when she was asked in New Delhi about the killings in Burdwan and she replied, “Ask the state government.” She forgot, she is the state government.
If West Bengal is poised for a change, the character and direction of the change will continue to stalk analysts. However paradoxical it sounds, West Bengal faces the crisis of change. The present history of West Bengal is the story of a decline foretold.
Did Bengal deserve better? Perhaps not. In seven successive elections the people voted for communists. In the eighth, they replaced the communists with a lady who knows her votes but doesn’t care for the future. The blue has replaced the red. The people are implicated in the meaningless replacement and they cannot escape responsibility for the decline.