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Bengal stands up to ask for more

And the CPM can't understand why - while Mamata says she is ready to deliver.

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This article was originally published in The Indian Express on 11 May, 2011.

Every teacher in a journalism school and, subsequently, every guru in a newsroom tells you one central principle: never approach a story with pre-conceived notions or prejudices. Yet, every journalist, even one with the vintage of this reporter, does precisely that. Particularly if it happens to be a story as old and contentious as West Bengal politics. And the fact that you hold a strong view on it, as I do, as a critic of the Left doesn’t help. So you can begin by believing every negative stereotype about the politics of a remarkable state that has kept in power one party, and one with which I, and this newspaper, have had an intellectual argument. These stereotypes range from de-industrialisation to forced industrialisation at the cost of farming, massive urban decay and rural deprivation, a reign of terror, total under-development and destitution, and so on. And it is precisely because you begin your travels through West Bengal with all this baggage, reading the writings on the walls, hearing the mood on the street and sniffing the political air for a hawa of some sorts, that it is such a remarkable reality check.

Remarkable, because most of what you presumed about West Bengal under the Left, does not fully measure up to facts on the ground, and that is a surprise. Remarkable also because you learn that Bengal politics is more complex than you had imagined and so might be the reasons why its voters have made up their minds to bring about a stunning change in spite of the reality not quite matching up to your notions of the governance disaster here.

Over four days of travels through Bengal’s southwest, that includes some of its poorest, driest districts (Bankura, Purulia and even Midnapore to some extent), its own Jamshedpur-lite (Durgapur) and an industrial showpiece that could have been, in Singur, one thing you do not see is hunger. Never a beggar, never a human being sitting or lying helpless by the street, even in villages that are nothing but mud-hovels. In the driest zones, deep into the Maoist heartland of Lalgarh, made famous by the siege that rendered it ‘liberated’ for months in 2008 and 2009, you find not just borewells, but even fully functional handpumps. Roads are in excellent condition, and a real surprise. Primary school buildings, health centres all look functional, even if not of the showpiece quality you might find in Gujarat or even Tamil Nadu. Everybody is properly clothed, nobody, repeat nobody, is in bare feet. So why are people so angry?

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Come with us, the usual motley group of journalists, psephologists, economists and financial whiz-kids, the self-styled Limousine Liberals, cross the barrage on the Damodar on the road running from Durgapur through Bankura district where the land gets drier with each mile, and stop at the village of Makurgram. There is a reasonable road connecting the main population set about a mile back from the highway. There is electricity and, most importantly, a borewell and a water tank. Yet, why does everybody complain of water being the biggest problem? You find out soon enough: as the tank was built, the CPM thugs put a red flag on it and announced that only those approved by them — meaning their party loyalists — would be allowed access to. That story then repeats in many versions at every stop you make. At the college in Barjora, where Mamata holds her election rally in a mud-pile playground, you are told of how almost all the teachers are CPM cadres. Ditto for the schoolteachers in Parbellia Colliery in Purulia, in Dharmapur near Lalgarh, and in Lalgarh itself. And why is that such a problem? Because one, it tells you that unless you are a party faithful, you cannot get any of these government jobs. Two, schools and colleges, even district magistrates’ offices hardly function as so many days each month all these party cadres have to go and participate in “michils” (political rallies). Mamata Banerjee has built her campaign as an “azadi ki ladai” on a folklore of Marxist tyranny, of intimidation, torture and reprisals. On the ground, however, it is more a story of politically determined deprivation: an almost George Bush-like if you are not with us, you must be against us, so you will not get water, jobs, hospital admissions, anything. It is not always a narrative of physical thrashing or rape, but over 34 years, the piled-up anger is bad enough, so bad that Mamata can pretty much choose her script, and people will say yes, Didi.

Not that Didi needs much help with her script, or style. Having played the victim for three decades, she now strides on the stage like a giant-killer. You can tell she has this election in the bag even with the enthusiasm with which people, on a burnishing and sultry afternoon in Barjora, receive her helicopter, which lands kicking up a cloud of lung-choking red, haematite dust. Didi has no time to sit, nor the patience. She strides up and down the stage, not looking at anything or anybody in particular, just walking, like a tigress stalking its already-cornered prey, contemplating when to make the killer leap. She absentmindedly gives the odd instruction to a worker or two, totally ignoring the local crowd-warmer singing her praises. Then she takes the microphone.

Now I have made my living as a travelling reporter dealing with many great rhetoricians and polemicists, people who could light a mutiny just with their remarkable skills at talking to large crowds, the kind of rabble-rouser the subcontinent specialises in producing: Bhindranwale, Kanshi Ram, Benazir Bhutto, Altaf Hussain of Pakistan’s MQM, Assam’s Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan in their better days as student leaders, and far away, even Bill Clinton. Each of them had a distinctive style, but had one thing in common: their ability to keep eye contact with their audience, an elementary skill any school of public-speaking will teach you first. But don’t say that to Mamata.

She grabs the wireless microphone and continues to stride across the stage and back, talking, never looking at the audience, and yet getting it to respond as I have seen nobody else do in an election in years. She looks at nobody, in fact, just the floor now, the ceiling then, or just the odd cloud hanging low here and there. She just strides the ten yards to the other end, and does a quick turnaround like a lonely sentry in some commando comics kind of movies, the microphone her rifle, and just recites a script that her audience knows by heart already. And, more importantly, believes in.

To be fair, she has worked on her message. It is not merely an old harangue about Marxist tyranny, though that is not missing either. She has picked up real issues, those that bedevil the people of her state. She attacks the Left for having banished from government primary schools and robbing an entire generation of Bengalis of all competitive opportunity. “All your children were forced to sing…” she says, and, anticipating, the crowd joins her as she chants the popular Bengali popular kindergarten equivalent of A for apple:

‘Aw-e ajgar aschhe tere

Aa-e aamti khabo pere…’

It is tough to translate this, but it would be something like, “A for ajgar (python) which is chasing after you, Aa for aamti (that is mango which you pluck from the tree),” and so on. And while your children were chanting this, she asks, what were the children of the Marxist leaders singing? Twinkle-twinkle little star,the front rows answer. “Now your children are begging for peons’ jobs, and theirs have gone to England to become barristers.” She rests her case. Or, as a mathematician would have said, QED.

She knows the pulse of her people, and their pain. She promises modern schools, colleges and new specialty hospitals so you won’t have to run to ‘Madras’ anytime somebody in your family falls sick. For the first time, you also hear a mainstream leader make environment an election issue: illegal, unregulated coal mining, totally illegal sponge iron factories have destroyed your air, I will clean it up in six months. And then, her condemnations, indictments and promises delivered, she finally turns to her audience, fist raised, Netaji style, and sets up a chant of “CPM aar na” (CPM no more), and then quickly disappears after making the shortest possible introduction of the candidates you have seen any campaigner make. They are not important in this election, you know, as Didi makes ten stops a day, each time lighting a fire in a region so much the CPM’s it even defied her storm in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

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Off the campaign stage, though, Mamata is more cautious than you have ever seen her to be. Election in the bag, she is not willing to take any chances, no false step, no false statement. “Shekhar da,yeh jung hai,ajaadi ka ladayee hai,abhi kuch bolega nahin hum… yeh CPM log mere workers ka murder kar dega,” is all she will say even when you congratulate her on her ‘victory’.

Decent roads, functional schools, electrification, food in the belly, clothing, footwear. So if the Left rule answers your basic needs of roti-kapda-makaan and even bijli-sadak and padhai to a reasonable extent, what are you complaining about? The state has reduced poverty faster than most of the country, has literacy levels above the national average. Search for evidence from the writings on the wall. In vast rural parts of this region, the walls have nothing to sell to you, the clearest indication of this being a zone where people have nothing left in their pockets after filling their bellies. No factories, no offices, no sign at all of that new phenomenon, private engineering, management and medical colleges, springing up elsewhere in the Indian countryside, holding out the comfort of higher education, promise of jobs higher up the value chain than subsistence on your miserable half-acre farm of paddy, okra or sesame, or as a NREGA labourer. There is nothing, nothing at all, to signal hope, opportunity, the promise of a better future.

Where the Left has gone wrong is in internalising unquestioningly the idea of a Marxist Utopia, of a non-urbanising rural population where everybody should not only be satisfied but also send you thank you cards for not being made to starve or exploited as share-croppers, unlike their forefathers. They missed the fact meanwhile that this is not North Korea, that people here change, their desperation yielding to aspiration. It is for this reason that the Left now faces the double-blow, the one-two punch, whatever you call it, of politics of grievance (because of its cadres’ excesses) and politics of aspiration. Its self-serving notion of a perfect, minimalistic, subsistence-farming rural Bengal where everybody has enough for his “needs” now lies in a shambles. In four days of travels in mostly farming countryside, I searched far and wide for that one symbol of agricultural success and surplus, the tractor. I found one, in desperate Lalgarh of all places, and its owner told me he had been contracted to transport barbed wire for the CRPF. And who can you blame? Most landholdings, post Operation Barga, are just like a kitchen garden in an old Gurgaon house, too small to even justify a pair of bullocks. And people of Bengal will no longer be satisfied living off what it yields, and the humiliating NREGA handouts.


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