Bengal: Politics As Prop-Up
A ballad of denials and drama underscores the vacuity of politics in contemporary West Bengal. This is the breaking news of the Mamata Bannerjee spectacle
Abhijit Kundu Kolkata/Delhi
An unforeseen spectacle sparked hysteria on the streets of Kolkata last year on May 20, 2011. The masses marched with the newly elected chief minister from the Raj Bhavan to the state secretariat: Writers’ Building. A distance which could have been covered in just two minutes in a high- security convoy was covered on foot. Revelling in the outpouring of love and expectations, Mamata Banerjee marched on after taking oath in the Governor’s House (Raj Bhawan) — an euphoric sight in post-independent Kolkata, celebrating democracy on the streets! The spontaneous crowd symbolising the street-fighting spirit of the fiery leader followed her as she finally made her entry to the seat of power. The denouement of the heady melodrama reached a catharsis as Banerjee waved her way into the citadel of power in West Bengal.
The drama was scripted on the eternal conflict between the powerful and the powerless — conflated on a regimented regime and it’s alter, democratic aspirations. The curtain came down as the masses — the crowd — had to be left behind. Was it orphaned?
They stayed back, but it was quite unlike those bygone years of struggle, when, along with their leader, they would always ‘stay back’ to face the might of the State, confronting the police barricades on Kolkata’s Red Road or Curzon Park. The drama had to have an end, with the protagonist leaving the public spectacle; and yet, the script refused to leave the crusader. She might have just symbolically left the stage.
In the corridors of power, we discover Banerjee, deftly walking in her hawai chappals. Is she carrying the same script? On the stage, in all those years of opposition, the script was eternally enacted as an ‘emotive outrage’, at times filled/coupled with ‘non-logical’ actions, but built on performative excellence. Does the script continue to live beyond the stage?
“We have been working through financial constraints. As much as 94 per cent of the resources are being spent on mandatory expenditures like salary payments and accrual of interests, thanks to indiscriminate loans made by the previous government. How is it possible to manage the rest? Our ability therefore falls short of what we aspired for, planned for and desired. We take it as a challenge. People are the witnesses… The state went through a long period of partisanship, backwardness, exploitation, corruption, lack of planning and oppression. The previous government riddled West Bengal… Some are publicly criticising us without mentioning our good performances. This is unmixed conspiracy…” (Promises Delivered, excerpts, bulletin published by Information and Cultural Affairs Department, Government of West Bengal, April 2012.)
Without a stretch of imagination, one can sense the continuance of the same voice. For all the years of Left Front rule — the agglomerate of unrealised aspirations, along with the critical unfolding of conflict zones of ‘new capitalism’ finally compelled the so-called civil society out on the streets. The events and the participation were made exclusive by the media; the visual media in its phase of ascendancy competed to disseminate the most happening visuals. The public consumed a vision of development with a human face, sold successfully by Banerjee, cashing on deep, repressed resentment. Catchy slogans, rhetoric and seductive promises were the ingredients of a dramatised polity. The drama, especially, rested on the capacity of spectacle-building.
The media observes facts, selectively collects them in order to selectively disseminate. However, the logic of its success depends on its exclusivity. In the age of visual media, the drama of the spectacle becomes the strength of any truth!
Interestingly, Banerjee’s style of politics has an uncanny sync with the new media style: ‘breaking’ news, commemorating/sensationalising/trivialising an event, reconstructing/mythologising an abstract glory. The marker of such a style ranges from naming the historical, in order to valorise a lost hero, or retrieving a past to celebrate, even if that borders on an anathema, or even anachronism.
Swooping down on industrial strikers can go hand-in-hand with an elaborate May Day schedule. The Trinamool Congress regime actually went ahead to organise an impressive workers’ rally on May Day — while it banned an all India trade union strike in Bengal just a couple of months back. Political history embedded in people’s mindscape has to be appropriated, as long as it serves the popular.
The idea of channelising information and facts in a spectacular manner, and all that which can absorb the public and its expressions, is the axial principle of such politics. Banerjee’s success, despite all the flip-flops in the recent past, is exquisitely rooted in its identity with such spectacle- generating acts.
White towel, that wraps the seats of the powerful in the Indian politico-bureaucratic order, symbolises not just comfort, but also power. Junglemahal: that part of Bengal which joined Banerjee’s call for the Left’s ouster, where the question of ‘power to the people’ has more resonance than any other political issue, witnessed a couple of government organised meetings. A politics of provision overshadowed all such meetings as the chief minister marked her presence with a band of ministers and loyal literati.
On the stage, in all those years of opposition, the script was eternally enacted as an ‘emotive outrage’, at times coupled with ‘non-logical’ actions, but built on performative excellence. Does the script continue to live beyond the stage?
The Lalgarh meeting on April 24, 2012 stands out. It was not just a trumpeted public display of offerings from the government to the landless, it also threw up a strong visual of Banerjee initiating the ‘throwing’ of white towels (ostensibly the covers of the chairs on the dais), followed by the rest on the dais throwing their share of towels. The cinematography of ‘transference’ of power may as well be located in that uneasy visual of white towels being thrown from the top of the new power apparatus to the hapless ‘powerless’ below.
Once in the seat of power, if the protagonist continues to stretch a drama, it runs into competition with the media. The act of channelisation of views and news facilitated by the media and civil-society activism marked the resistance to the erstwhile Left rule in West Bengal. Interestingly, it had a strong symbolic identification with the Metro Channel, in the heart of Kolkata. In fact, it was here that Banerjee led a 26-day fast which galvanised many cultural activists to finally capitulate to the clarion call for ‘Poriborton’ (change).
Ironically, immediately after assuming power, the Trinamool dispensation decided to shut down this ‘channel’ where the prime scenes of rebellion and dissent were staged. Such an act of omission negates not only the public and the opposition, it denies the media as well.
A channel, in particular or otherwise, caters to a flow of sight and sound. Performative brilliance in any drama is enhanced by elements of excess and surprise. What the media purports is to relentlessly bombard and surprise the viewers with events abound with grandeur and a spectacle, however pseudo or shallow it might be in its essence. The new government, de facto Mamata Banerjee, too, has embroiled herself in such similar acts of news dissemination in a shocking manner, almost in the format of ‘breaking news’. In all her press conferences from the state secretariat, the statements are sprinkled with rhetoric — the common refrain being the ‘undoing’ of the last government. The present dynamics, virtually, is to assume the role of the media. As if ‘Didi’s regime’ is in competition with the media to build the spectacle.
In a situation of mediated communication, backed by a strong visual component, the participants are normally not sure precisely who they are in dialogue with, so the media heavily invokes para-social imageries. It seems this government is basically imitating the media style in its pronouncements: “In our 11 months of rule, we have completed 100 per cent of our promises…” (among other such astounding, unproved, unaccounted claims). Thus, now we understand why the West Bengal government proposes to launch its own television channel and newspaper.
There are two important fall-outs of such a post-drama script. First, as a marked contrast to the Left-Front coming to power in 1977, the present government of ‘change’ announces less of what it is going ‘to do’ for the electorate that hugely backed its ascendance to power. Instead, it is obsessively embroiled in its bravado of ‘undoing’ the misrule of the previous regime.
With all its acts of omission and commission pertaining to newspapers/visual media/library material, the government has only been successful in making the media its rival. That makes the opposition party irrelevant in West Bengal
Second, in such acts, it merely assumes the role of media. The government, de facto, Banerjee’s proclamations, are more like that of another media apparatus putting all its energy in creating a grandiose show. Surprising the people, at times shocking them, it is infiltrating into the media domain, often lambasting and threatening it. With all its acts of omission and commission pertaining to newspapers/visual media/library material, the government has only been successful in making the media its rival. That makes the opposition party irrelevant in today’s West Bengal. That space is being replaced by a strong section of the media.
Indeed, political capital has been confined to the question of spectacle- generation only.
Replacing the images of politics, the politics of images has come to dominate in today’s West Bengal. Certain images of potent politics were in circulation since the Left Front wrested power from the Congress in the late 1970s. The Left at the level of ideology actually could cast a spell of potential politics. The political idioms and imageries, however, lost anchorage in the existing political reality. Beyond initial land reforms, the Left dabbled in the facts of discrimination and protracted stagnation. By positing the Centre-State dualism as an encompassing one, subsuming all other contradictions of social-cultural living, a state of non-politics was legtitimised as real politics.
As it is bound to happen, in ‘real politics’, the fundamental contradiction of oppressor-oppressed got substituted by an interminable drama couched in idioms of denials. Such a ballad of denials could actually underscore a vacuity of politics. Thereafter, the ascendance of the aspiring to power out of this vacuity of politics could only be logically sustained by the politics of images. And propaganda. A similar specter seems to be haunting Mamata Bannerjee and her party — chasing the illusory spectacle of Poriborton.