Monday, 30th October 2017

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Win or lose, why jot is ticking

A lifetime with Left vs fear and loathing

  • Published 27.04.16

Hooghly, April 26: Bonani Mukherjee was a young student at Taki Government College in the small town of Hasnabad in South 24-Parganas when she participated in her first political march. The year was 1967, Bengal was in ferment, the "food movement" at its height.

She got married a year later, moved to a small town on the banks of the Hooghly, became a schoolteacher, raised a family - and took part in innumerable marches and processions, rallies and street-corner meetings, shouting feisty slogans against the "bourgeois" Congress, holding aloft, always, the red flag.

Today, nearing 70, Bonani is busy campaigning again. Even two months ago, she admits, it was unthinkable for her to support the Congress. An "active CPM sympathiser" all her life, Bonani imbibed anti-Congressism with her mother's milk, as it were, and to vote for the Congress was a taboo she never imagined she would transgress.

But as electioneering reaches fever pitch in Hooghly district, Bonani is busy criss-crossing two adjoining constituencies - Champdani where she lives, and Chandernagore where she taught - with equal zeal.

In Champdani, the candidate is veteran Congress leader Abdul Mannan, and in Chandernagore it is the CPM's Gautam Sarkar.

It helps, of course, that Mannan is one Congress leader who never joined the Trinamul Congress and, in fact, took up the Saradha scam in a big way in the courts. But even if Mannan had not had these credentials, Bonani would probably have campaigned for him - so great is her fear and loathing for Mamata Banerjee and Trinamul.

And it is this fear and loathing, more than any thought of a "tactical alliance" or "electoral arithmetic", that is driving hundreds upon thousands of grassroots workers like Bonani to make " jot (alliance)" not just the newest buzzword in the Bengali vocabulary but a living, throbbing reality.

If Trinamul men instil fear with their unabashed " tolabaji (extortion)" and the impunity with which they walk the streets and leer and jeer at women of all ages, Bonani reserves her loathing for their leader and her antics.

"As a Bengali," she says, betraying her " bhadralok" roots that the Left movement seems to have only reinforced, "I feel ashamed that Mamata Banerjee is our chief minister. From B.C. Roy to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, our leaders had a certain standard. Bengal was known for its culture. Now we have fallen...."

Her views are not unique. Many people we meet, who invariably insist on remaining anonymous, keep talking of the sharp decline in "values" and "culture" over the past five years - never mind the overdose of Rabindra Sangeet and the visible sparkle in Calcutta streets that outsiders are wont to admire.

"Yes," they say, "things were going bad under Left Front rule too. The promoter culture had entered in their time. But it was confined to the lower levels; it did not emanate from the very top."

Another person rues that if the Left's decline took place slowly over three-and-a-half decades, Trinamul's fall has been far steeper and "in double quick time".

If Trinamul supporters are confident that "development" and the slew of freebies offered by the government will guarantee them a handsome win, their opponents are united in bemoaning the ascendance of the "lumpen" from the peripheries to the very core of government and society.

Many CPM leaders, in Calcutta as well as in the districts, have been taken by surprise at how smoothly, how spontaneously the jot has worked out on the ground. But they have also come to realise that even the worst critics of Mamata's rule have no desire for status quo ante.

CPM leader Mohammad Salim, for instance, took pains to emphasise that the " jot" was not just an electoral understanding among the Left, Congress, RJD, JDU and the NCP.

"The jot is much more than that. It is a coming together of all forces who believe Bengal must be saved, Bengal must be reconstructed... reconstructed not just in the physical sense but in terms of values, culture, ethics."

Exuding confidence about Trinamul's defeat, Salim is quick to underline that Trinamul rule will not be replaced by CPM rule. Instead he offers a "broad, inclusive, responsive, democratic, secular alternative" that will be "people-centric, citizen-centric." In other words, something the Left Front did not manage to be.

A jot victory may still be a far cry, but one thing is certain. The experience of working together as closely as they have done is certain to have a lasting impact on the workers and leaders of both the Congress and the CPM, especially the latter.

Whether the leadership admits to it or not, the party's rank and file know that only a new Left can build a new Bengal.