Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bengal-a political saga

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”- goes the saying. And living proof of this has been the left front government, or erstwhile government which has been in power in Bengal for 34 years, and was recently ousted, no routed by the Trinamool Congress- Congress alliance, and comprehensively booted out of power after 7 consecutive terms- a record by any means!
There are various stages to this story- for those who are uninitiated, misinformed or plain disinterested (which I suspect will be the majority!)- and to begin we must go back to our freedom struggle. During the later stages of our freedom struggle, when Netaji and some other leaders broke away from the ruling section in Congress (Gandhiji et al) owing to ideological differences, and an anti-capitalist anti-establishment feeling (Bengalis are anyways prone to these feelings!) started to take root in the Bengali intelligentsia, was laid the foundations of a Marxist movement, one which was pro-poor and pro-peasants, and which ideologically veered completely away from the primarily elite Congress leaders of the time.
Many decades passed, but this movement was still restricted to a few groups here and there, and would have remained so, but for the emergency imposed by Smt. Gandhi on the nation in the 70’s. The period ’72-’77 saw an extremely turbulent and violent era in Bengal, where the foundations of the Naxal (present day Maoist) movement was built, and thousands of brilliant and idealistic youth of Calcutta took up arms against the excesses by the then Congress government in Bengal. Hundreds of lives were lost, many more irreversibly destroyed, and from that fire arose the Communist movement- on the premises of equality (which people craved for at that point), justice and power to poor, notable the peasants. Given the times and the background, they got massive public support, and the Congress government was crushed in the ’77 elections, bringing to power a CPI (M) government which was to rule the state for 34 long years!
We are talking here of a time when Calcutta was among the most progressive of the metros, leading the way not only in art and culture (which was natural, given the artistic inclinations of the average Bengali), but also in business and investments, which though were mainly state controlled at that time. But then started the stagnation. There was no slide or decline, really, just that the city remained still in time, a poor caricature of its former glorious self, while the others surged ahead. While ’91 opened the doors of the country to foreign investments and private enterprise, Bengal kept its doors firmly shut, with a mix of botched up economic policies of the left government and some misplaced ideas of social justice.
But where the problem really lay, and which will also be the legacy of this failed government, is the systematic destruction of the Bengali mind. If you don’t like a policy, call a bandh, stall work and force others to come to your terms. The obvious results- businesses started fleeing, and no new businesses entered.
So how did this government survive 7 terms? A very common, and understandable question. Well, the answer is systematic rigging of elections. The magic of the promised land had started to fade by the 90’s, but owing to the entire state machinery being in their hands, and grabbing of the rural votes by a mix of coercion, force, blackmailing, empty promises and doling out money, the left front managed to drag on the government. And in the process, with every passing day, they became more and more arrogant, unconnected with reality and indulged in one failed policy after another.
The setting was ripe for a new movement, a new face and so came the rise of Mamata Banerjee. Probably the most ridiculed leader at the national level (right up there with Lalu), it is interesting to trace her rise. She first came into political prominence in 1984, when as a firebrand youth Congress leader, she defeated political heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee, which was the equivalent of Holland beating Australia in cricket! This created huge ripples in the Indian political scenario, and she was spotted and picked up by Rajiv Gandhi, who was entering the fray at that time after his mother’s assassination in 1984. thus started the rise of Mamata Banerjee in Indian politics. This entire period saw her transform from a raw, theatrical, emotional leader to a true leader of the masses in Bengal. All through this phase, she was involved in several newsworthy events, but the tide really turned for her one fateful day in the early 90’s. She was surrounded by several CPM goons on a Calcutta street, and beaten to within an inch of her life with bamboo sticks in full public view! She survived the incident, and came out as a true rallying leader of the common public, who by now had started losing their faith in the left front government. She rose inside the Congress, broke away and formed the Trinamool Congress in 1998, got into alliances with the NDA at the centre, became the railway minister, came out from the alliance and joined the UPA, became railway minister again. But all through this period, she kept her eyes firmly set on the throne of Bengal and kept plotting the downfall of the left. The chance finally came in the 2009 parliamentary elections, which dealt a decisive blow to the left. The myth of their invincibility was shattered, and 2011 was an event waiting to happen- only the scale of the defeat crossed all expectations! And this was also aided by the Singur and Nandigram incidents. The first where Mamata scored a victory in the eyes of the people by driving out Tatas (whether she was right or not is a matter of further debate, but the fact remains that the fertile land was given away to the Tatas, while there was arid land available at not some great distance away!), the second where the state used violence on its own subjects- a sure-shot sign of nervousness and losing control. What has also mattered in this long battle is the fact that Mamata remains to this day, one of the few politicians in this country who boasts of a clean image!
Now that were done with the elections, and a new government being sworn in, what are the chances of things changing? Well, let me admit, it’s a long road ahead- investments need to be brought in, a better work culture needs to be created in this bandh-prone state, infrastructure needs to improve, the impoverished state coffers need some filling, and the right balance needs to be struck between industry and agriculture. Whether the new government can do all this, and how long all this will take, is anyone’s guess. But at least a beginning has been made, and what is that saying about you never know how good a person/team/group is unless you give them a chance. And that my friends, is something that the people of this state really deserve- a chance at redemption!

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