This article was originally published in The Indian Express on 11 May, 2011.
Some conclusions look obvious after travelling through West Bengal in the last week of the election campaign. One, that we are guilty of exaggerating the Left’s brutalities and understating its intellectual failure to comprehend a modernising society’s hunger for upward mobility. Two, that by presuming that the people of this state would be grateful for blessing them with filled bellies, the Left Front has also been guilty of greatly undermining the entrepreneurship of Bengali people and thereby strengthening the terrible stereotyping of them as lazy, unambitious, non-entrepreneurial. Nothing could be more unfair to an intelligent, politically aware people who, just like the Malayalis and Punjabis, both considered more entrepreneurial, do very well when they go out to work in other parts of the country, and indeed the world. Just look at how Bengalis dominate the world of media, both news and entertainment, marketing and advertising, IT and banking. The Left’s most fatal blunder lies in underestimating this aspirational yearning, in spite of the fact that the remarkable mandate they got in 2006 (defying 29 years of anti-incumbency) emanated from a new promise of growth and industrialisation.
You would expect leaders of the Left to disagree vehemently with this. But it is surprising when that disagreement comes from Gautam Deb, the Left Front’s minister for housing and its rising star and showman. Surprising also because among all the Left Front leaders you meet, with the exception of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, he, the builder of Rajarhat township in Kolkata, is the most candid and realistic. Just an hour earlier, we saw him ask a rally of the faithful that filled the main square in Purulia a telling question: in 2009, if five of our seven voters left us, who do we blame except ourselves? He feeds our very hungry group Monaco and Bourbon biscuits with tea at Purulia’s newly built PWD circuit house and elaborates on this soul-searching. In the 2009 elections, he says, there were three slogans: defeat the Congress, keep the BJP out and set up a third front government and some particular leader’s name was also mentioned as its prime minister. Then, his eyes taking the entire audience in its grave sweep through his MaxMara glasses, he tells you what bombed: The third slogan failed entirely. We were not able to convince people anywhere that we had an alternative. That is why, he still thinks, an assembly vote may be different though the Left has to make very deep introspection. Aberrations have come in. Communists have to again learn to behave like Communists. But that is where his ideological immune system strikes back. You offer to him your basic hypothesis, the Left’s inability to move on from subsistence to aspiration, and he makes philosophically the most stunning claim you have heard in a political campaign, and ironical that it happens to be spoken in Bengal, supposedly the fount of all intellect in India. The reason his party continued to get re-elected and is now on the ropes, he says, is that for 34 years, the heightened political consciousness of the Bengali people was not adulterated by materialistic temptations. Now, has anybody ever heard a more convoluted, cynical and outdated definition of an innocent, virtuous and basic human instinct called aspiration?
Purulia is in fact a fascinating place for us to start a discussion on hope and aspiration. Lack of rain and groundwater (because of laterite bedrock, as Deb explains) renders farming a part-time avocation. The few coal mines are hopelessly rundown. The percentage of BPL population is 55, compared to the state average of 22 and neighbouring Durgapur’s 17. Almost equally poor Bankura, next-door, would still have some recall because of its terracotta art, but Purulia would have remained for ever out of sight, out of mind, but for mercenary thugs like Peter Bleach and Kim Davy choosing its wastelands to make a mysterious arms drop in 1995. The only thing you can say is that they would not have found the district very different from what it is now.
The main square where Deb speaks is ringed by four photo studios. In most cities of this size you’d struggle to find one as that business has more or less gone out of fashion with the advent of phone cameras and film-less, darkroom-less technologies. Not in Purulia. Studio Style does not seem to have had much business but its very verbose signboard is like an abridged CV of its owner Mahadeo Barai, with an award from Rashtrapati and Diploma de Honour from Espain. Next door, we walk around the district collector’s office searching for a PC, but fail to locate one, underlining the Left’s old suspicion of computers. Finding a toilet wasn’t such a problem. You could smell it from 20 yards. And this, you can see, is a valued possession of this office. Read the foundation stone laid by a senior IAS officer, a poor fellow called Kathiresan. Poor fellow, only because he may not have read the inscription on that stone, or I doubt if he would have put his name, etched in stone, to something that lists, among facilities consecrated by him, a cycle stand, a women’s toilet, five men’s urinals (including one that is new) and so on. But not all writings on the wall here are silly, or non-existent, or merely political. In the main market, the Purulia equivalent of a high street, you do see a spanking new signboard of one of India’s largest broking firms, India Infoline.
If Deb is looking for aspiration, however, he has to see his own cadres. On the narrow but decent road running from Bankura through Purulia, we find a long, orderly CPM procession. There are chants with the familiar Bengali intonation of ‘zindbad zindbad’ and ‘vote-din vote-din’, but what strikes you is how much better these partymen look compared to the rest. Not rich, but just much less poor. They all sport new, red, nylon T-shirts with CPM symbols, and caps that many wear front-to-back, the usual baseball dude-style. But the more striking thing is their relaxed, un-self-conscious, confident demeanour. Scores pull out their phones and take pictures of our group as we walk around. It is the only time I have seen marchers in a procession taking more pictures of journalists than the other way around: if a gaggle of Japanese tourists had arrived in Purulia, they would have been completely thrown by this reversal. And if a tech upgrade is not aspirational, what is Comrade Gautam Deb up to? Ask him if Communists are capable of changing, modernising, and he asks, why not? I use iPad, he says, and explains triumphantly how he heard about the Anandabazar Patrika carrying a story on Mamata’s shadow cabinet while boarding a plane, and immediately downloaded it so he could respond. I also use GPS in my vehicle, he says. Google helps me take shorter routes, and to also avoid Maoist areas.
But I am not sure somebody has invented a GPS yet to enable you to avoid Maoist areas in the southern Purulia-Bankura-Midnapore triangle, loosely described as Jungle Mahal. And why should you even wish to do that if your idea is to understand the new stirrings of change in Bengal?
You know the political landscape has changed as you drive past newly laid out armed police camps, with their multi-layered barbed wire fences, sentry posts, machine-gun nests. Even the odd, mine-resistant troop carrier with its ugly but life-saving elevated chassis and oversized wheels. Lalgarh was a revolutionary battle zone like no other since Naxalbari, because this was liberated territory for months, and it caught the nostalgic fancy of Kolkata’s genteel, old, creative classes who set up an overground organisation and imaginatively named it the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). Initially, they were partners with the Trinamool against the CPM as their common enemy, but now there is a falling out. Particularly as the PCAPA’s local star, Chhatradhar Mahato, is contesting from the local constituency Jhargram from jail. His brother Sashadhar, a prominent Maoist fighter, was killed in an encounter recently. Under the leadership of its district secretary Dipak Sarkar (more about him later), the CPM has wrested Lalgarh back from the Maoists. But the PCAPA’s articulate, angry and determined support base in intellectual Kolkata is intact.
You find some of them sitting in one neat row under a tree in the village of Barapelia, which has seen intense fighting and killings, along with Chhatradhar’s wife and his party spokesman just out on parole. Much of the talking is done by documentary filmmaker Sumit Chowdhury in his smooth, measured baritone to match his platinum locks tied neatly at the back. Chhatradhar, he says, has expressed total faith in the Indian Constitution and has nothing to do with the Maoists. But what about the Maoist cause? He won’t elaborate, other than to say that there is a problem here. India is governed by an upper crust, upper-caste elite which does not care about tribal people. There is some merit in that, though you could argue about how best to redress that through armed insurgency, or by deepening democracy. But you can’t help noting that even in that small gathering of spokespersons and ideologues, there isn’t a single tribal. Not even Chhatradhar Mahato. Mahatos are OBCs, the local equivalent of the Yadavs. This fits in entirely with the pattern of the larger Maoist leadership in central India. This revolution will be led by non-tribals, and fought, if they had their way, to the last tribal.
The man who won the first round against the Maoists and restored normalcy in Lalgarh would hardly fit that description. Dipak Sarkar, 73, used to teach political science in a Midnapore college until he joined politics full-time. A man of slight build and gentle speech and demeanour, he hardly looks like the one who is said to have led the partymen who threw the Maoists out of Jungle Mahal. His critics say he has been the inspiration behind many massacres. His supporters see him as a saviour. He is a man of a few, carefully chosen words as he chats with us in his district party office in Midnapore, and softly but contemptuously takes apart the Maoists, all the time under the benign gaze of the portraits of the great stalwarts of the Communist movement in India and elsewhere: Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, Ho Chi Minh and, indeed, Chairman Mao. You try to ambush him by reminding him that he was cursing the Maoists under the portrait of Mao, but he is prepared: That Mao, we follow. We are his Maoists. These people are not Maoists, they are Left degenerates. Has he led a counter attack on them by putting local against local, tribal against tribal? I am a Communist, he says. It is my basic duty to organise the people. Mao, I suppose, would have a tough choice deciding which side he would be on.
A nightly postprandial stroll in Midnapore tells you how the notion of rural decay in West Bengal is a bit inaccurate. The cities, in fact, are in a much more rotten state. Garbage heaps brush your shoulder, desperate insects keep pace even as you break into a panicky trot, and you have no place to hide, from the sights, smells, potholes and puddles of an urban disaster. Then you walk into the railway station, lured by its bright lights. It was declared a model station by Mamata in her earlier NDA innings as rail minister. It is a presentable building, a nice platform with LCD displays and three new ATMs of government banks, underlining the new bonhomie between the railway and finance ministries. But just in front scores of people sleep in the open, sharing the floor with dogs, cockroaches, mosquitoes. Nobody remembered to build a basic shelter for them. And if you turn around, you spot a telling writing on the wall: Sam Higginbotan institute that was formerly Allahabad agriculture institute. Now, under a faux English-sounding avatar, it offers all kinds of technical degrees and people will beg and borrow to send their children there. Read this wall to understand the desperation of aspiration in a land of no opportunity.
Sadly, you find the emptiest walls not in the faraway fighting zones of Jungle Mahal, but in Singur, just 50 km from Kolkata and along the newly four-laned NH 6. The Nano factory never came, but its shell stands, along with the boundary wall around the land acquired for it. Each villager in the zone has his own story: Manoranjan Mullick, in Singur, whose daughter Taposhi was allegedly gang-raped and killed by CPM goons, has his, and so does Bibeko Santra, a Dalit of nearby Joimollah who has no regret having lost his land, all of 40 square metres, for which he got only Rs 4,000, because the factory had employed him in the housekeeping department. The political divisions in the region are vicious. But there is one thing on which they all agree: that the factory should come back here. Look at this baby, says Santra, pointing somewhat dramatically at the six-month-old daughter on the shoulder of his neighbour, with three kohl finger smudges on her forehead to ward off the evil eye and a stone amulet, hanging by a black thread, resting on her bloated, malnourished belly. If she could speak, she would have said the same thing,I want the factory. Singur is where Mamata Banerjee began her resurgence. This is where she will face her first test. Because without industry, this is a zone of utter hopelessness. Yes, the land is fertile, and can yield three crops. But how can you romanticise a farming lifestyle where a joint family of 10 might have to survive on a farm the size of a kitchen garden in a Lutyens zone bungalow in New Delhi? There are no jobs, no money in the pocket, no economics. You come to Singur to discover a sight you left behind with your small-town childhood: a watch repairer’s shop, and you thought the business had disappeared with the arrival of quartz watches. It really has. This shop survives because its owner has nothing else to do. You see many old clocks adorn his walls. But these are all empty shells, frozen in time, as much of rural Bengal has been under the Left for some time now.
But why talk about just the villages? In Kolkata, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks to us in his Alimuddin Street party office, his welcome remarks interrupted by the noon-time azaan from the neighbouring mosque. Once again, he sits under the portraits of the great Communist visionaries, but that’s not news. What’s interesting is the big map of the world in Mercator projection that forms the backdrop. It was printed in 1987. Got the point? It still shows the Soviet Union as one, giant, intact nation-state, dwarfing the rest of the world. Do you still need to go to Purulia’s Studio Style or the watch-repair shop in Singur with empty shells of old clocks on its walls to believe that time has stood still here?
Buddha babu smiles philosophically as his attention is drawn to the map. Is this one more evidence that Communists are incapable of accepting change, and reality? Of course, we are capable of changing, and we are changing, he says. I always say, I am not here to create a socialist state. I function in our constitutional system and, let’s admit, it is capitalism now. But, of all the political leaders you meet on this trip, Buddha indeed seems and sounds the most serene, the most at peace with himself, some times even, in an unwitting display of realism, slipping into the past tense, and accepting the coming change with the equanimity of the great spiritual master he was named after.