Like most things to do with Bengal, its culture and its politics, the story of the region's decline begins in the 19th century. Already in the middle of that century, contemporary journals were writing on the themes of crisis and decline. The decline is like a chronicle foretold. In the very recent past, especially in the grim present, the perception of decline has become a palpable reality. Why this haunting sense of despair, the idea that Bengal is not being governed, and the growing feeling that perhaps Bengal cannot be governed at all?
Without going back to the 19th century, when the people of Bengal could not rule themselves for obvious historical reasons, it is more convenient to begin with the post-Independence years. Up to 1967, the government and the official machinery of the State remained in the hands of the Congress. The latter saw itself as the legatee of the national movement and therefore the natural party of governance. It projected itself as the party of order. It not only dominated politics and the government, but at a more informal level it also wielded enormous influence over some of the institutions of civil society - the universities, the newspapers and some of the cultural fora.
Away from the seats of governance and civil society, a different mode of politics was emerging and becoming powerful. This was the politics of agitation and protest growing out of several social and economic factors. One was the problem of rising population caused by the influx of refugees from East Pakistan. Bengal became an economy of shortages, especially foodgrains and housing. The departure of the managing agencies, the pivot of industrial and commercial activity in the state, and the overall conditions adversely affecting the Indian economy, resulted in industrial stagnation. The number of the unemployed spiralled. In Bengal, the dreams that Independence had brought turned into nightmares.
The mid-1950s witnessed strikes, hartals and mammoth political rallies at the forefront of which were tram workers, bank employees and students organized by the Communist Party of India. The politics of protest eroded the basis of the politics of order that the Congress represented. The mass agitations and opposition to the government led to the emergence of alternative centres of power that challenged the existing structures of governance. As the social scientist, Partha Chatterjee, observed in an essay, "If Writers' Buildings, Raj Bhavan and the Assembly House were the centres from which the destiny of the State was being controlled by those who had the mandate to rule, then Esplanade East, the Monument and the Brigade Parade grounds, lying outside the protective cordon thrown around the citadels of power, were the new rallying points of mass protest".
There are two features of this kind of politics that are worth noting since they have kept on recurring in the politics of Bengal. One is the large-scale destruction of public property by the protestors and the other are the repressive measures - arrests and police firing - of the administration. The momentum of this kind of politics led to the victory of the United Front in 1967 - the first non-Congress government in Bengal. Two other factors contributed to the success: the increasing radicalization of politics, which, in turn, was the result of the influx of refugees and the influence of the CPI (which split in 1964 to form the CPI and CPIM); and the growing perception that the Congress was no longer the party of the people but of the propertied, a party that ruled through machinations and the manipulation of privilege.
The radicalization of politics was intensified by objective conditions: food shortages, rising prices and increasing income disparities. Even sections of the population not normally associated with agitational politics joined bandhs and various forms of work stoppages. Protests frequently turned violent and common targets were markets, rice mills, procurement offices, railway stations, trams and buses. The period also witnessed the emergence among the urban population of a new note of social criticism and radical activism. At the vanguard of all this was a cosmopolitan intelligentsia with the dream of socialism in its eyes.
In this kind of heady atmosphere, in 1967, an electoral victory - the product of a united opposition to the Congress - was seen and celebrated as a socialist seizure of power. This made the United Front forget the responsibilities of running a government. Antonio Gramsci, the most important Marxist thinker after Karl Marx, had written about such a situation, "What is needed for the revolution are men of sober mind, men who don't cause an absence of bread in the bakeries, who make trains run, who provide the factories with raw materials and know how to turn the produce of the country into industrial produce, who ensure the safety and freedom of the people against the attacks of criminals, who enable the network of collective services to function and who do not reduce the people to despair and to a horrible carnage. Verbal enthusiasm and reckless phraseology make one laugh (or cry) when a single one of these problems has to be resolved even in a village of a hundred inhabitants.'' Under the United Front from 1967 to 1969, and subsequently from 1977 for the next 34 years, not to speak of the interregnum between 1971 to 1976, what Bengal got from the ruling dispensation was exactly the opposite of what Gramsci had written. Bengal ceased to be governed.
Immediately after being voted to power, the United Front government announced that its policies would be directed towards "recognizing the rights of workers and peasants to voice their just demands and grievances"; and it pledged itself "not to suppress the democratic and legitimate struggles of the people". Calcutta and its suburbs were the first to feel the impact of these policies. The labour minister, Subodh Banerjee, announced that the government, as a part of the policy of upholding workers' demands, would support gheraos as a legitimate tactic in settling labour-management disputes. There was a drive, led by the CPI(M), to unionize workers, and promises were held out to the workers that all their demands would be met even if they did not perform their duties. Workers were given the guarantee that their wages would rise irrespective of performance. The immediate result was that between March and August 1967, 583 establishments were subjected to 1,018 gheraos. The police, under orders from the government, did nothing. Capital fled and smaller businesses shut down. More importantly, work culture came to be eroded.
Violence escalated across the state from the late 1960s to the early 1970s because of the activities of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and its brutal suppression by the police, who often acted with the full cooperation of the Congress cadre. The repression was masterminded by Siddhartha Shankar Ray (who became chief minister in 1972 after the United Front had been displaced by a Congress ministry) and it spilled over to cover CPI(M) activists.
These years set the pattern of politics in Bengal: attack against capital, open violence by party cadre, the police and the administration acting only at the behest of the ruling dispensation, irresponsible trade unionism and the collapse of work culture. The people of West Bengal were taught by political parties that they could always collect their pay packets without performing their duties. Agitation replaced governance, and the unemployed and the unemployable were given the assurance that they could always depend on the patronage of political parties. Governance became synonymous with populism.
Agitation and populism have made Bengal ungovernable. These two facets of politics also initiated a vicious cycle. They encouraged investment to flee, and this created the conditions of economic stagnation and unemployment, and these, in turn, intensified the politics of protest and populism. The only attempt to bring back investment to the state at the beginning of the 21st century by the communist chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was prevented by an agitation led by Mamata Banerjee, who, as chief minister, has abandoned even the pretence of governing.
In terms of government, colours have changed; in terms of governance and the modalities of politics nothing has changed. Politicians and businessmen desirous of pleasing the government might attend or even climb summits. But Bengal will remain without investment because the state is in the stranglehold of lawlessness and populism. Bengal is an ungovernable state and has been so for a long time. It is a failed state because its political leadership has failed it; and the people, by again and again electing governments that are irresponsible, have also failed the state. The people of Bengal have facilitated the success of failure.