The Bengal Paradox
It is now over a decade since I moved out of Calcutta. But watching the news last week, I felt I was back. As I saw those terrible shots of policemen beating up women in Nandigram, as I read about the massacre of innocent villagers, and as I noted the cold, commissar-like response of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to the killings, I remembered what it was like to live in
West Bengal. The following day, as Mamata Banerjee shouted into the TV cameras, as her spokesman Derek O’Brien referred to Buddhadeb as a ‘lunatic’ on TV, and as a Bengal bandh ensured that millions of people were inconvenienced (ambulance drivers were prevented from reaching the sick), I realised how little things had changed.
Like the rest of us, the people of West Bengal get the politicians they deserve. They get the thugs and murderers of the CPM and they get the hysterical, self-destructive opposition of Mamata Banerjee. Small wonder then that while Bengalis prosper all over the world (and in the rest of India), Bengal remains a backwater, always at least a decade behind the rest of the country.
When I first moved to Calcutta in 1986, Jyoti Basu was already India’s longest-serving chief minister and the subject of universal admiration among the middle class — outside of Calcutta. Within the state capital itself, many educated people took an entirely different view.
It wasn’t that they did not admire Basu’s stature — it was the rest of him that they disapproved of. The general view then was that while he was a well-educated bhadralok (unlike the north Indian politicians whom Bengalis love to despise), his reputation outside the state was based on hot air. His credentials as a man of the people were dented by his love of the good life, by the annual trip to London in the summer (always on some pretext; it was never described as a holiday), by his son’s dodgy reputation and by his complete intolerance of dissent.
A couple of years before I moved to Calcutta, Ananda Bazar Patrika, where I worked, had suffered a violent and disastrous strike. The violence had emanated not so much from disgruntled employees as from professional activists affiliated to the CPM. In those days, the group’s Bengali daily was anti-communist and the party had decided that ABP had to be punished. ABP employees were beaten up outside the office and the police determinedly looked the other way — they had orders from the government not to intervene.
But even Jyoti Basu was considered a pro-free speech liberal compared to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the classic humour-less, dour communist. When City of Joy was shot in Calcutta during my time there, Jyoti Basu was broadly supportive of the filming. It was Buddhadeb who opposed the decision. His view was not motivated by any sense of literary high-mindedness (I thought, at first, that he might have disapproved of the idiotically sentimental Dominique Lapierre book on which the film was based) but out of a conviction that evil Westerners had arrived to denigrate his city.
It is traditional now to regard the CPM as being the most honest party in India and, given the financial integrity of the current leadership, this is probably accurate. But when I lived in Calcutta, we joked that the M in CPI(M) stood for ‘Marwari’ because so many of the party’s leading lights were clearly in the pay of the city’s dominant business community.
But the corruption worried us less than the violent streak at the centre of the CPM. Like most successful communist parties, the CPM is cadre-based. And like communists everywhere, its cadres cling to the totalitarian view that individuals are less important than The Cause.
Anybody with some experience of rural West Bengal will tell you that the CPM has done an outstanding job in land reform since it came to power in 1977. But they will also admit that the price Bengal has paid for this is to allow the cadres to take over the villages.
In many rural areas, communist cadres dominate everyday life with the same ruthless efficiency demonstrated by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka. More than the police or the local administration, it is the cadres who wield the real power. They routinely rig elections (though I reckon the CPM would win anyway though perhaps with smaller margins) and impose a reign of terror on the villagers, murdering anyone who dares defy their authority.
In Calcutta we saw the cadres in action when the party required a show of strength. On election day, they would prevent people who were likely to vote for the Opposition from reaching the polling booths. When bandhs were declared, they would ensure that Calcutta shut down.