Monday, 30th October 2017

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An open canvas

What if the jote were to come to power?

By The Thin Edge- Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 29.04.16

Success always has several proud parents and victory, predictably, attracts many supporters, each claiming the longest record of unwavering loyalty to the team that has won. The confluence of old enemies we are seeing in the alliance between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress has already been dubbed "great" and "historic". While the latter might prove to be true, and this could indeed one day be remembered as a crucial historical moment, it might not be for the reasons the Congress and CPI(M) hope and imagine. If the jote is decimated in the Bengal elections the fallout could be massive: it could mean that we are way past the beginning of the end of both these old parties, that we are witnessing two massive political irrelevances well on the way to the junkyard of history. If the Trinamul Congress comes back with some kind of miraculous thumping majority, the backrooms of both Opposition parties could resemble those casinos in the movies where ageing dons and their enforcers are slaughtered by their own gang members.

On the other hand, should the jote win, or even run the TMC close, (a possibility that looks less and less fantastical), then the adage above will apply in turbo mode. We will hear an endless incantation of phrases and words like 'brilliant, radical idea', 'out of the box', 'master stroke' and 'political genius'. An upset win or a neck-and-neck result on May 19 will not, however, provide a real examination of whether the Comrade-Congress sangam is a great game-changer in Indian politics. What really matters is what happens in the lead-up to the next Lok Sabha elections and what happens during those elections. So, a much more rigorous test would be if the jote parties took a massive defeat, but rolled with the punches and still stuck it out together for their larger aim of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Right Parivar. Were the Cong-Comm (along with the others in the secular gathbandhan), to stay the course and continue putting the country's interests above party compulsions then one could indeed say that this alliance in Bengal was historically a hinge moment.

Like a babu pushing away a difficult file after barely opening it, let us, however, move on to less imponderable conjectures, to more tangible intangibles. Let us shove aside all superstition, any notions of nazar (at least those of us who want a regime parivartan in Bengal) and imagine a solid victory for the jote on result day. Let us say the Comm-Cong non-alliance together wins 160 seats; not a massive, bulldozing majority, but one solid enough for Raj Bhavan to once again send an invitation to Alimuddin Street. Let us say the long identified unstable elements in the Trinamul then rush, (unobtrusively, with soft feet, through the narrowest of patli galis) to proffer their fealty to the new ruling combination; let us say the Congress part of the jote, after due consultations with their Red partners, then selectively allows some of these ship-jumpers to do ghar-wapsi, telling the ones they see as more unsavoury to stay on as moles within the Didi-hive, that they will rescue them when the time is right. Say this musical chairs swells the jote's treasury benches to 170. What then?

So far, the signs are not very propitious. As far as one can tell, the jote's campaign has stayed focused on the big target signs pinned to the TMC - the breakdown of law and order, the terror inflicted by the Trinamul Boys' Clubs, the threat to women's safety, massive corruption, aka Saradha and Narada, Syndicate rule and the flyover collapse. There are glancing admissions of the Left's own mistakes in the years preceding the last five, but there is no straightforward checklist telling us 'these are the mistakes we made, and this is what we will not do again, under any circumstances'. More importantly, what we are hearing precious little about is what the Comm-Cong government will actually do if it comes to power, about the shape of their vision - if they have such a thing - about West Bengal. Election exigencies may mean you are obliged to grab the maximum amount of low-hanging fruit in order to have a hope of winning, and heaven knows Mamata Banerjee's regime has been extremely generous in providing a bounty of such fruit, but what happens after your jote dream comes true and Didi goes?

It's not evident that anyone in the jote leadership has any idea what they will do if the miracle upset does come about. If Mamata Banerjee's Plan A, B and C for Bengal are all to hang on to power at any cost for as long as possible, then, likewise, the jote's Plan A through D seems to be to rip that power away from the TMC. Bengal's deep misfortune is that none of our political leaders look like they're actually thinking about Bengal; they seem not to be able to think beyond Nabanna/Writers' Buildings.

Two examples: when asked on television, one of the CPI(M)'s young turks said the first thing on the jote agenda would be to bring those guilty of corruption to book. Given the extent of the rot in Bengal that itself is a massive project that could take years; what happens alongside this delivery of justice? In his speech at Park Circus, Rahul Gandhi said, "We will build this flyover in six months!" No, dude, wrong answer, zero marks. If anything like a proper monsoon hits Bengal this year, followed by the Pujas, you have a minus 50 per cent chance of building anything contiguous to that almighty mess. In any case, the correct, far more difficult thing someone needs to say is this: That whole infernal mistake is now a safety hazard. We. Will. Take. It. Down. As quickly as is possible to do so safely.

Both points are linked to a larger understanding, or lack thereof, about what the state desperately needs. The big-money-big-leader corruption stands on a foundation of a much more widespread cultural cancer that has metastasized over the last few decades, not years. If, as someone told me the other day, 'M not equal to Mamata, M equal to Mod, Maangsho, Meye******der birokti and Motorcycle!' M equal to booze, gluttony, troubling women, and motorcycles, then replace Mamata with the CPI(M), also once simply known as the 'M', and you get a pretty close equation. This culture of the Boys' Clubs bullying neighbourhoods began in the 1980s and will have to be rapidly dismantled by the inheritors of the very party that initiated it. The Vivekananda 'Flyway', too, is linked to a long-term blindness that has brought the state into a great and dangerous environmental fragility. In Bengal's cities, we need far fewer cars and fewer flyovers to service them; in urban conurbations where a vast majority moves on foot, or by bike, bus and train, we need to reduce private motor vehicles, and polluting ones, on a war footing. We need to privilege pedestrians and cyclists, privilege public transport and CNG fuel. We need to have speed limiters on engines, with corruption-proof checks. Sure we need to invite industry back into Bengal, but we certainly don't need more car factories, we don't need industries that add to the country's or our state's own grotesque pollution, we need new kinds of small to medium scale industries using alternative energy, set-ups that can work with the rural areas in which they may be placed, that don't attack the already torn agricultural fabric of this state but enhance it, that create jobs and spin-offs that make it attractive for people to stay on in their villages and small towns.

Bengal is by no means 'a land without a people', not with 90-odd million of us knocking about, and people will always have urgent daily needs from food, sanitation, health and the right to physical and environmental safety. But, having said that, Bengal today can perhaps be seen not as a blank but an 'open' canvas, an open site where so much needs to be done that you can actually be quite radical in how you approach the challenge. All that is required from a party which gets a mandate is: 1. Non-dictatorial, genuinely democratic, transparent team-leadership 2. Total and strict honesty 3. Extreme humility 4. An informed and intelligently open mind, the willingness to think out of the trap-boxes of the past, and 5. Courage. Lots and lots of courage and stamina.