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THE MIDDLE KINGDOM - The challenge for a new order in West Bengal will be daunting

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 1.04.11

In 1971, shortly after writing my final school examinations, I decided to abandon Calcutta for Delhi. My reasons were pragmatic: I wanted to complete my degree in three years. In Calcutta, then in the throes of competitive political violence, completing a BA degree took at least an extra 16 months which, in effect, meant wasting two academic years.

A venerable grand-uncle was horrified by my plans. “Are there colleges in Delhi?” he asked superciliously. To him, there was only one place — apart from Oxbridge — for a student wishing to read history: Presidency College. He had neither heard of St Stephen’s in Delhi nor did he care to be enlightened. For him, as with generations of proud Bengalis, it was Bengal über alles.

It would be interesting for a historian to try and locate the moment the Bengali bhadralok first started viewing itself as the intellectual master race of India. Did it follow the collapse of the Maratha confederacy and the decline of a culture patronized by the Peshwas? Was it an offshoot of Raja Rammohun Roy’s varied theological interventions and, particularly, the outpouring of pride over his journey to England to parley on equal terms with Englishmen? Or did it have something to do with the accident of having the longest exposure to Western culture and civilization?

Whatever the origins of this cockiness, it is undeniable that Bengal entered the 20th century with an enhanced notion of self. Even the Partition of 1947 didn’t puncture Bengali pretensions. Dispossession and hardship did, however, contribute immeasurably towards a change in intellectual priorities and fashion.

Just as the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi triumph in Germany radicalized British intellectuals and drove some of them into an alternative barbarian camp in the east, the famine of 1943 and the subsequent loss of East Bengal unsettled bhadralok intellectuals. The drift to what is called ‘progressive’ politics may have been a global current but it led to two fundamental distortions in Bengal.

First, with their innate distrust of capitalism, Bengal’s intellectuals detached themselves from the wealth creation process. During the nationalist movement, there was a conscious attempt to inculcate the virtues of swadeshi entrepreneurship in Bengalis. After the 1950s, intellectual consensus gradually swung to the other extreme. While socialism was projected as the preferred alternative, the reality was less appetizing. The romance attached to deprivation and even squalor by the ‘creative’ Left meant that ‘progressive’ social attitudes were often dictated by a profound sense of envy. Ashok Mitra’s notorious description of gentlemanly conduct as un-communist was eerily reminiscent of Gibbon’s observation that “the decline of genius was soon accompanied by the corruption of taste” in classical Rome.

Secondly, it wouldn’t have been that damaging had ‘progressive’ thought been just one of the significant intellectual currents in Bengal. The final decades of the raj, for example, witnessed a lively engagement among loyalism, nationalist conservatism, Hindutva, Muslim separatism, Gandhism, revolutionary terrorism and Marxism. After 1967 and the steady erosion of support for the Congress, the debate became a tussle between shades of either socialism or Marxism. This Left stranglehold created an ideological straitjacket and contributed to an intellectual ossification.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who led the ephemeral Congress fightback between 1971 and 1977, didn’t paint himself as an inheritor of B.C. Roy’s no-nonsense conservatism. He sought to outflank the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Naxalites through a combination of muscle power and ‘progressive’ posturing. Such posturing was also the hallmark of Mamata Banerjee’s disastrous 2006 election campaign. In the ongoing election campaign, the Trinamul Congress has tried to regain some of the middle ground she abandoned during her opposition to the Tata Motors project in Singur by promising political sobriety and development with a human face. But the mere fact that she had to genuflect before Left populism to achieve her electoral breakthrough in the 2009 parliamentary election is indicative of the communist movement’s success in making the political culture of West Bengal drearily monochromatic.

A consequence of the Left stranglehold over all facets of present-day Bengal was the state’s insulation from both national and global developments. In its first term, the Left Front did succeed in transforming power equations in the countryside. Operation Barga, which granted security of tenure and de facto ownership of land to erstwhile sharecroppers, did lead to the empowerment of the poor. This was complemented by militant trade unionism — a phenomenon that triggered the nervous flight of capital from 1967.

The irony is that developments in the Left bastion coincided with the deregulation of the economy nationally. Whereas the rest of India jumped at the new opportunities offered by market-friendly policies and provided meaningful avenues to satisfy the explosion of entrepreneurship, Bengal basked in the self-fulfilling glow of empowerment which, more often than not, meant the freedom to be insolent and play street cricket during enforced bandh holidays.

The Left Front’s belief that the establishment of a more equitable rural society would trigger a new wave of industrialization turned out to be utterly misplaced. Bengal was left far, far behind in the race because the environment for investment was not thought to be conducive. The marginalization of Bengal wasn’t due to any ethnic prejudice: at an individual level, Bengalis benefited from the resurgence of India. The problem was Bengal.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wasn’t a reincarnation of Hare Krishna Konar, the man who provided muscle and organization to peasant militancy. In another environment, he would have been perceived as a Left social-democrat, maybe even Bengal’s Kautsky. But his inability to persuade a party wedded to the cholbe na culture made his courtship of corporate India seem less persuasive.

What is particularly bewildering is that Bengal’s unending economic slide took so incredibly long to be realized. For nearly three decades, Bengal lived in denial. When Rajiv Gandhi described Calcutta as a “dying city” he was being both prescient and politically imprudent. But the anger which greeted his flippancy was an outburst of a sub-nationalism that was cocooned from a larger sense of reality. Jyoti Basu’s sneering description of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government as “barbarous” wasn’t a simple rhetorical flourish; it was based on an assumption of innate superiority. For the Bengali Left, West Bengal was indeed the Middle Kingdom. It may have been deeply aware of what was happening in the wider world, but was the least influenced by it.

Maybe it was the departure of Tata Motors to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat that marked the moment of realization. Maybe it was the visible lack of opportunities coupled with rising consumerist aspirations that made the penny drop. Whatever the trigger, it is significant that the popular discourse is now centred on the grim reality of a stagnant Bengal in a country that is banking on a nine per cent annual gross domestic product growth. Those committed to the regeneration of Bengal may find it reassuring that the Trinamul Congress manifesto has documented the decline of the state in relation to the progress of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and even Orissa.

As voting day approaches, Bengal seems to be in a state of readiness for change. If that change does happen, the challenge for a new order will be daunting. An over-politicized and inept administrative apparatus, a sharply fractured society, accumulated anger at three decades of ‘cadre’ tyranny and an intellectual culture still wedded to a spurious ‘progressive’ consensus are formidable obstacles to progress. The reshaping of Bengal will necessitate enlightened political leadership. But it will also necessitate a full-fledged counter-revolution — at least in the mind of Bengalis.