The time is now
March, April and May were awful, stressful months for most of us in West Bengal. We are still not out of the woods yet with the ongoing pandemic and the damage caused by Cyclone Yaas. But the three previous months were marked by a cascade of anxieties and anticipatory dread. In March, the alarm bells already started to ping from the north and the west of the country indicating that the Covid monster hadn’t gone anywhere, with millions encouraged to gather for the wrong-time Kumbh. By the beginning of April, Bengal was firmly in the throes of the cyclical low-level civil war that we call state assembly elections, even as Covid-hell descended upon Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. For those of us who see this BJP-RSS regime as the worst disaster to befall independent India, the fear was refracted multiply— if the pandemic didn’t destroy West Bengal, the Hindutva pestilence would, or vice versa. If all this wasn’t bad enough, May brought jitters about a possible post-election infection spike followed by the approaching cyclone, triggering memories of last year’s Amphan.
One is still not clear about how badly the second wave has hit the state, but it seems that we have so far avoided the fate of Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and Bangalore, not to mention the pandemic-beleaguered but better-governed Bombay and Maharashtra. Those of us hopeful about a cessation of hostilities post the TMC’s resounding election victory would have been disappointed with the BJP-RSS’s continuing shenanigans and blatant misuse of official levers, while the rest of us might have just been dismayed and disgusted while remaining unsurprised.
A few weeks ago, this column had argued that Bengal has a gravitational pull that can dismantle the strongest imperial designs of those ruling from Delhi. If that was framed as a cautionary observation prior to an unknown election result, perhaps now is not too early to put forward the same idea from a more positive angle.
A new politics is desperately needed in the country, one which is inclusive of the most disadvantaged people and which is rooted in the daily practice of a genuine, transparent, fearless democracy. The regime that now squats astride Lutyens’ Delhi has shown itself to be the implacable enemy of these ideas. Having emerged still standing from a horrendously attritional election battle, Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress now have a golden opportunity to lead by example and put into motion a transformative politics, first in the state and then as a major component of the desperately-needed alternative in the national arena.
What exactly would this entail? The word, ‘introspection’, has been misused by Indian politicians for decades now, but if ever there was a time for Ms Banerjee and her party high command to engage in a humble, truthful, no-holds-barred self-examination, it is now. The TMC has to make sure it does not repeat the blunders and missteps, the worst patterns and tendencies of the last 10 years. The challenge before Mamata Banerjee is that she has to forge a clear, perceptible difference between her ways of governance and those of Messrs Modi & Shah. For this, she will have to jettison anything even faintly resembling nepotism. Narendra Modi’s one-man-show and personality cult are leading the country down a hole; therefore, Mamata Banerjee must encourage a broad-based leadership model rather than one based on a personality cult; she must give younger leaders (who are not close relatives) the chance and space to prove themselves and to shine. If the BJP-RSS have taken corruption through a warp-zone into another dimension, the TMC will need to counter the now widely accepted perception of the venality of its second- and third-tier leadership. It will also have to strictly avoid pandering to religious leaders, whether mullah or panda.
The TMC’s rule has been marked by an unfortunate inversion: it has rushed in and taken risks where wiser counsel should have prevailed, and it has been timid, risk-averse and business-as-usual where it should have been more bold. For instance, it is clear now that the ruthless uprooting of all Opposition in the state was a terrible idea, leaving us exposed to the point where the rootless BJP-RSS became the only Opposition in the assembly. Likewise, the attack on all critics of the party, the mauling and undermining of Jadavpur University, the free rein given to local thuggery as long as the thugs were TMC supporters, were all morally insupportable as well as tactically foolhardy. There have been course corrections over the years and there has been the delivery of some much-needed welfare programmes, but now Ms Banerjee and the TMC must dare to imagine a new West Bengal and work to turn that imagination into actual realization.
It’s heartening to see the state government offering priority vaccinations to those working on the street, whether thhela-wallas, food-stall people or sex workers. This is only sensible but also shows common sense that is rare in our country’s politicians today. Similar rational, positive yet out-of-the-box decisions need to be taken across different areas of governance. Covid has battered the economy across the country but perhaps West Bengal is best placed to recover from the blows, especially if the idea of recovery is delinked from unsustainable fantasies of ‘growth’ and unfettered industrialization. Perhaps it is from here that India can recognize the dangers of lusting after a transformation into South Korea or Singapore, or the obscenity of speaking about a ‘five trillion dollar economy’ or the lunacy of planning a hundred robotized, dehumanized ‘smart cities’. We need a different model of a sustainable economy, or perhaps a network of local economies which complement each other while striving to minimize the cost to our fragile environment. This network of economies would need to be built around an armature of democracy and freedom of speech, around proper education and public healthcare, around social, economic and environmental justice. For this, several old definitions will have to be replaced by new ones. We will need to reimagine what culture means, reformulate the relationship between the city and the rural, recalibrate the priorities between different economic classes. It’s a tall order and it won’t be anywhere near complete in the three years till the next Lok Sabha elections, or even in the five years till the next state assembly polls come around. But there is the mandate — and time enough — for Mamata Banerjee and her diverse advisers to gear up this new Bengal into full momentum if they so choose.