THE DISCOVERY OF DEFEAT
In West Bengal's collective memory, the political has always been informed by mass restlessness. The shifting of such upsurge away from the Left created a unique opportunity for Mamata Banerjee to seize the moment
Abhijit Kundu & Trinanjan Chakraborty Kolkata/Delhi
"I took to the crowd and the crowd took to me," Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1936. Nehru, in his autobiography, was pointedly indicating the turnaround in the Indian National Congress - the emergence of the second generation of Congress leaders, who constituted the 'we' in Nehru's The Discovery of India. Nehru, Ali brothers or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad belonged to the same political generation, and shared a critical, cynical stance vis-à-vis the older generation of political leadership, while showing the same disdain and desperation vis-à-vis their contemporary socio-political order. It was time of the gradual fading of the port-city politics of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The upper class Indian, from both Muslim and Hindu urban elite communities, constituted the aspiring generation of leadership, who were clearly dismissive of the 'politics of talk' and were searching for a breakthrough. Nehru's writings signalled this shift in abundance.
The shift was from the political realm of oratory and verbal sparring, very typical of port-city-centered politics. The United Province (Hindi heartland/cowbelt) took the front rank in Indian national politics as a consequence of the shifting of the capital in 1911 from the lower- to the upper-Gangetic plains, that is, from Calcutta to Delhi. Oratory skills turned redundant in favour of the coming of the 'masses' and political action - the truths of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's experiment. This mass politics was different from what Sister Nivedita claimed when she said that the ultimate aim of all politics is to provide food to people.
Rather, making people aware of the right to food or any kind of political right, an organic participation from below towards achieving a political goal - this marks 'mass politics' as opposed to politics as rendering 'service' to the people within a 'the provider and the provided' matrix. Thus came the much celebrated rail journeys which took the second-generation Congress leaders to the countryside. As Nehru euphorically wrote to his US-based friend Dhan Gopal Mukerji in a personal letter, "...of a much clearer vision of the essence of our national movement which you have missed in Calcutta or in other big cities." The railways acted as the crucial vehicle of such proliferation of 'mass action'. As he wrote, "...the crowd took to me..."
The era of Calcutta-centric politics was over, and the peripheralisation of Bengal saw the emergence of United Province as the site of nationalist movement. If such a fading away process started in the year 1911, exactly one hundred years later, we are experiencing the demise of the parliamentary 'Left' from that peripheral site of politics.
Interestingly, the image of railways as bearer of change was built into people's perceptions through popular and pedestrian limericks. Mamata Banerjee as Union railway minister is an uncanny coincidence.
Rather than an electoral loss for the combined Left in West Bengal, the demise is possibly a catharsis of the process which started with the redundancy of Bengal in national politics, which, in turn, allowed the development of a unique Bengali political-cultural identity. This identity sustained itself, and was propelled, on the 'difference' that the peripheralisation of Bengal by the United Province offered. The specific collective identity thrived on the question of denials and differences. The subsequent Partition of Bengal and the huge influx of refugees consolidated the social construction of 'otherness'. This was the 'otherness' of being differentially treated on the question of refugee settlement when compared with their counterparts in the western provinces.
The idea of being distanced from the centre of power constituted the very political culture of Bengal in not many myriad ways. Even the immediate post-independence chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy's recurrent verbal duels with Nehru used to be the staple for Bengalis, always insecure of self-pride. The entrenchment of Left politics was actually embedded in such a political culture of symbolically (as well as materially) created boundaries between the Centre and Bengal, with the latter as a pariah.
The material substance of such a denial was graphically authored by historian Ranajit Roy in his The Agony of Bengal, first published in 1971 during the United Front government in the state. Drawing upon the fiscal policy of the central government, Roy focused on the asymmetrical Centre-state relationship and the perpetuation of the British rulers' mindset by bureaucrats in Delhi's corridors of power. The vernacular print media supportive of the Congress even lauded the banning of the book during the Emergency, virtually consolidating the cultural boundary with harsh and hard economic facts.
That Bengal is separate and being perpetually denied its politically correct space, provided the plank upon which the Left gained its momentum and premised its agenda. Riding on the much evocative slogan of 'neglected by the Centre', they could build the Left movement in Bengal, quite differently from that in Kerala (where the Left held power alternatively with the Congress). The success of land distribution or panchayat elections too were couched in a sense of self-pride - of achieving something different from the Centre. Indeed, the hardening of the boundary denied any osmotic relationship with mainland politics.
The prosperity of the fledgling Left rested on an understanding of 'mass politics' that is reminiscent of the early 20th century idea of 'providing food' to the people - a proto chief-clan relationship. The notion of the vanguard party supplemented the creation of a political society. As a misnomer, the communist party tried to operate in a multiparty, 'bourgeois constitutional' set-up, striving to be the only truth - oblivious of the concept of 'party' as a part of political power.
Disdain for the liberal model of democracy was so pronounced in the orthodox Left lexicon, as an enchantment, that in Bengal the Left invested its energy exclusively in absolute political mobilisation. Besides, the hardened ideological-intellectual position had to tread an uneasy path of promoting a 'people's democratic revolution'. Working within the system of 'parliamentary democracy', it simultaneously subverted the participatory spirit of democracy at the ground. The spectre of absolutism haunted the everyday life of Bengal.
The continuous rule of the Left for more than three decades baffled the world. It possibly enjoyed the global attention drawn by this unique case of 'communist rule' in one constituent state of a federal polity. It is an exemplar of a regime rather than the rule of a party.
The 1977 victory of the CPM-led Left Front in West Bengal heralded not a mere victory of a party, but a paradigmatic shift towards the coming of a regime. The regime was built on a wide nexus across the middle and lower echelons of society to constitute a monolithic power bloc. The coming of the regime was evident with all voices of opposition being muffled and subsumed by an encompassing ideology of 'truth'.
The regime rested on the power-wielding middle class that was sustained economically and otherwise by State power. De facto patron-client relationships were fostered in the distribution of material and symbolic social capital across the graded social structure. The schism between the stated ideology (also, theory) and the practical (practice/praxis) became inescapable in the post-1990s scenario of a liberalised economy. No longer could 'Left ideology' celebrate the cultural construction of 'different/ denied'.
The neoliberal, liberalised, globalised, privatised post-1990s not only signalled the end of licence raj by opening up the economy, its cultural connotations had more of a global appeal. Any ideological boundary proved to be anachronous - incongruent with the aspirations of a new breed of globalised civil society. The Left strategy of thriving on the consolidated separateness between the Centre and the state was put to test as the purity of exclusion could no longer sustain an insulated regime.
The Left had to embrace the 'opportunity' of the liberal economy as it welcomed the entry of private capital for industrialisation. The visible revolt of the people of Bengal, especially the poor, against land acquisition and the industrial policy of the government, might have given an impression of people resisting private corporate capital, but actually it dissented against the Leftist language of private investment.
Until now, the Left vocabulary constructed and guarded the 'purity' of Bengal as against private enterprise; suddenly, the contradiction seemed so obvious as the same voice, without acknowledging the right to land, habitat and speech, tried to unilaterally subsidise and embrace private capital and enterprise. The voice and language sounded audacious and brute. The inherent incongruity in the Left language suffered a jarring short-circuit as it attempted to tread a path of development that it has itself so vehemently denounced historically.
Since 2007, the voice of steady discontent spread across West Bengal - on the touchy question of land acquisition in what is a fertile agricultural landscape. It was more than an upsurge of a mass - spontaneous - which subsequently revolved around the most tangible alternative chief ministerial candidate, Mamata Banerjee.
The incidental brutalities of the state government were just a logical culmination of an enterprise that had exhausted its possibilities. Possibilities can endure talks and analyses based on facts and figures. While the calculation of figures and swings following the May 2011 electoral revolution in Bengal could form the staple for predictable psephologists, the other side of the coin is the profusion of banal analyses by the recurrent talk-shops on the electronic media representing contending political camps. All allegedly embroiled in deciphering the rights and wrongs of electoral strategies - some even weighing the possibilities of a Left comeback!
Over the last two years or more, we have experienced the same exercise in ritualistic replay, ever since a thoroughly discredited CPM-led Left Front started suffering electoral reverses in various polls. The indomitable Left, especially the muscle-flexing CPM, so astute for decades in managing electoral numbers, claimed of re-assessment, rectification and recovery - a regime never commits suicide. Yet, it fell flat on its puffed-up nose - the margin of defeat kept increasing.
Herein, the hallowed promise of 'possibility' signals a closure. The spectacle of a possessed crowd rejoicing at the passing of Left rule on Kolkata streets defies any analysis of numbers and figures. The crowd is more than a 'mass' as a maker of history; it rejuvenates a body politic in terrible malaise, stagnation, sickness, and baffles an analyst.
In recent political memory, apart from the mammoth rallies by political parties in the run-up to the assembly elections, Kolkata saw a spontaneous deluge on August 4, 2009. People singing, chanting slogans, mourning and marking the last journey of minister and CPM heavyweight Subhas Chakraborty. It was one of the most striking gatherings in the recent history of Bengal. The timing of Chakraborty's demise caught the Left in the most uneasy juncture of its tenure. It was at the crossroads of a palpable dent in its mass base and the death of its most prolific organiser of the political society.
The constellation of events and forces at that point in Bengal's political map made visible an apparent withdrawal of the 'mass' from the hitherto overwhelming Left Front dominated by the CPM. The surge at the last journey of Chakraborty caught political observers off guard, even the CPM possibly. It was thus a moment of euphoric revelation for a party desperate to win back a sulking, angry electorate. As if to combat the Mamata magic - she outshone all Left leaders in her capacity to pull crowds - the shrivelling Left power suddenly seemed to be caught in wish-fulfilling fantasies. And yet, something unimaginable happened. In the by-elections in November 2009, due to Chakraborty's demise, Trinamool Congress's unknown Sujit Bose defeated the late CPM heavyweight's wife, Ramola Chakraborty, in his own bastion of East Belgachia, by a massive margin of 28,360 votes.
(In recent times, after that spectacular demonstration of November 14, 2007, where people came out spontaneously in huge numbers protesting against the killings and rapes in Nandigram, the upsurge had become synonymous with the opposition allies led by Mamata Banerjee.)
In Bengal's collective memory, the political has always been informed by mass upsurge and restlessness. The shifting of such upsurge away from the Left, beset with the complications of the civil society, created a unique opportunity for Mamata Banerjee to seize the moment. If at all it resulted in a political appropriation, it rang not just a victory or defeat of a political party. It seized the possibilities of a regime. A regime overthrown never stages a return in history in the same form.