Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is this Bengal's moment of awakening?

The brick apartment with a red-grill facade near Lake Gardens would have been in mourning; the 'mishti dahi' counter would have shut shop; the tanawaala by the milk booth would have refused his services, and the hijdas by the Central Park would have ignored their social ostracization. As someone who had grown up in a political milieu which revolved only around Jyoti Basu, I couldn't but help feel a tinge of regret in the passing away of the Communist stalwart.

For a family with a vocal Centrist ideology - which in recent times has shifted to being moderately right of centre - my grandfather had been an exception. Bengal society was probably to blame for it. In the late 80s and the early part of the 90s when I had a smattering of Bengali words in my arsenal, you were either a Communist or didn't possess even a passing interest in politics. The best part of my childhood was spent in a household which belonged to the former category- a household which I have come to understand since was frequented by the likes of Somnathda.

In many ways, the Communists have come to represent all that is good and bad about the Indian polity. For all the hoopla about coalition formations when Morarji Desai managed to cobble together an anti-Congress formation, "marriages of convenience" became a reality once that "farmer from Hasan" assumed the highest mantle thanks in no small measure to the Communists. Basu might have called it a historic blunder but in actuality, it is probably the only reason why the Communists still have a standing in Indian politics. So, while they have evolved to help in putting together the numbers for successive governments, they have also come to symbolise all that is wrong with coalition governments: ideological bickering and creation of narrow-minded interest groups making governments operate on the maxim - no change is the best change.

As much as I respect the Communists for they were the only formation- at least till the late part of the previous decade- who could take a moral high ground when it came to corruption and discipline, they are second to none when it comes to hypocrisy. Communists have always talked about public healthcare and the oft-used proletariat's dominance of the bourgeoisie, yet it remains that there is probably no single formation in the whole of India that has contributed to the neglect of education and healthcare institutions in the public domain as much as the Left has in Kerala and West Bengal. Jyoti Basu's sojourns abroad have always been well documented and so have his posturings for the sake of his son.

For all the pragmatism that the Indian Left has come to stand for, Basu will probably have to be placed right up there with the likes of Castro, Chavez etc for the control that he has wielded over West Bengal for such a period of time; it is only the passionate anti-imperialist (read anti-USA) , anti-free market pleas that have enabled them to stand the test of time. Basu was also different because world history is replete with instances of democracy having collapsed under the weight of communism whereas he managed to legitimize leftist ideology. The election machinery that the Left managed to build up had been the cynosure of many eyes until a woman with her group of activists managed to expose it all through Singur and Nandigram. Basu shall and should be remembered for his land-reforms and reforms of the village level administration but he should also be remembered for having driven industry, art and science out of what was not long back considered the intellectual capital of India. Rasogallas and Mishti Dahi are still their favourites; the metro rail network wears the same paint; the Hooghly bridge and the Victoria Terminal are still the only objects of envy; and Alimuddin Street still houses the blocks of power. Take out the trams and the tanas, you would hardly realise that the world has moved forward twenty years in time.

But in death, all faults have to be conveniently forgotten. It is a pity that it took the unusual concoction of India's tallest corporate magnate and the "wronged daughter" from Bengal to bring them into public conscience. The fact that the Communists have lost their identity all of a sudden will probably be Jyoti Basu's legacy in Indian politics if a dispassionate obituary were to be written.

Meanwhile, I wonder what the next generation discusses over lunch on Sunday afternoons in that brick apartment near Lake Gardens. Basuda is no more; Dada is history in a different way; however, politics is as much about the lady in the white saree and her cloth jhola as it is about Buddha Babu. Is this West Bengal's moment of awakening?


Akshay Rajagopalan said...

The future looks bleak at best. If the Communists win the next assembly elections, they might prefer a hardliner CM; if Mamata wins, she'll realize the leader of the Opposition is a much more comfortable position to occupy than CM. Either way, Bengal will regress. They need Buddha -(Mr. & Mrs.Karat + Bardhan)

S J Mayank Srivastav said...

Excellent observation!!1