Look to the West

Posted in Bengal, history, South Asia by jrahman on May 25, 2014

West Bengal (no one uses Paschimbanga it seems!) that is.  While Bangladeshi chatteratti — online/offline, print/electronic — are all agog about what Mr Modi might mean, hardly anyone is talking about what’s happening in West Bengal.  And yet, just as analysing political development of former West Pakistan can shed light on our own failures, analysing our co-linguists to the west can also help charting our path.  And let me stress the word analysis — I am calling for an unsentimental look at politics/society/economy, not another round of dui Bangla / epar-opar tearjerking.

Over the fold are five topics that ought to be explored by serious analysts.

1. Unity of the left

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the left movement — parties, unions, intelligentsia — in both sides of the Radcliffe Line became heavily fractured.  As around the world, the Sino-Soviet rupture was a key issue.  But local factors were also important — after all, Naxalbari is in West Bengal.

After 1971, Indira Gandhi and SS Roy used the full might of the Indian Republic to crush the left in a manner that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Ziaur Rahman could only wish for, for the simple reason that the new-born Bangladeshi Republic didn’t have much might.

And yet, in 1977, a united Left Front vanquished the mighty Congress.  How could the West Bengal left pull it off?  Was it just the mercurial personality of Jyoti Basu?  But Mr Basu was hardly without blemish.  First shots at Naxalbari were fired by a government where he was the Deputy Chief Minister.

Or was it more structural?  If so, what?

2. Left Front in office

Not only did the communist rule in West Bengal last longer than the communist east Europe, i It seems that the left governed with the consent of the people in a way that isn’t matched by any major democracy in history.  Between 1977 and 2006, first under Mr Basu and then his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Left Front won seven state elections in a row.  Over that time, they also repeatedly won most seats from state to the Indian federal parliament, and completely dominated the elected local government bodies.  That kind of electoral domination for so long is unlikely in any democracy.  Was it the so-called pro-poor policies such as land distribution?  Or maybe the Left Front was really good at patronage politics?  What was the secret to their success?

3. Mamata Banerjee

What do we really know about her?  Not just biographical factlets, but rather, what her politics is about.  Is she just about defeating, crushing the left?  Does she have broader ambition.  If so, what?

And similarly, what do the West Bengalis — Calcutta babus and the shikkhito bhadraloks as well as the not so educated and not so genteel folks — see in her?

It was interesting that in their NY Times articles, neither Naeem Mohaiemen nor Arnab Ray spent much time on Mamata Banerjee.  I hope future analyses do better.

4. Calcutta/Kolkata vs the mofussil

In his NY Times article, Mr Ray equated West Bengalis with a particular type of Kolkata people.  Thanks to nearly two centuries of art, Calcutta/Kolkata looms large over Bengali psyche.  But vast majority of West Bengalis are not of the city of joy.  In an electoral democracy, numbers matter.  Millions of rural and mofussil West Bengalis propped up the Left Front for over four decades, and in the past five years they have swung firmly behind Ms Banerjee.  Why?  What has been happening in district towns and urbanising villages around the state?  What are views and aspirations of people there?


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