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We Don't Need No Lecture
Step back from the Nandigram media maelstrom. Take a break from news channels showing wiry, lungi-clad gunmen stalking Bengal's lush farmlands, irate anchors shouting down stubborn Communist leaders and bhadralok intellectuals teetering on the edge of emotional collapse. Haven't you heard the question ad nauseam by now: how could this happen in Bengal?
Now jog your memory. Flip through some headlines from March 1972, five years before the Communists stormed into power in Bengal and went on to rule the state for the next three decades. The state elections are taking place, and there is absolute anarchy as the Congress rigs the polls. "Indira (Gandhi) calls on toughs to win back West Bengal," says a worried Economist magazine, before talking about how the police "even actively assisted" her party's youth wing leaders. The Economic and Political Weekly from the same month says in West Bengal "the CPI(M) has been subject to organised political terror with the connivance of a pliant governor's administration". Much later, the Communists described 1972 as the year of "semi-fascist terror".
Sounds a bit like Nandigram 2007? History is repeating itself in Bengal. The Communists are doing precisely what their tormentors—the Congress—had done to them in the '70s. It helps them that today's opposition comprises a rag-tag group of some delinquent and disillusioned Congressmen—Trinamul or otherwise. It also helps the Communists that their brute power squashes the opposition much more effectively than the marauding Congress of yore.
The tables have turned. The Bengali middle class and bhadralok intelligentsia that comprised the backbone of the Communist movement seem to have withered away; and the modern-day uber-cadre—who has never seen the party struggle, and is typically a product of three decades of urban and rural blight in Bengal—is the new face of an ideologically confused party. These cadres turn out in huge numbers for party-sponsored gatherings not because of any conviction, but because the party provides for them. In fact, they are very similar to the '70s Congress goons who terrorised the state.
The acerbic Bengal Communist, Ashok Mitra, told me an interesting story earlier this year. When a CPI(M) leader was entering a party class, he overheard a new recruit complaining, "Why should I go for the lecture? I have joined the ruling party." The irony is that Bengal's intelligentsia took so much time to fall out of love with the Communists. This is, in part, because many of them were also beneficiaries of the party's network of political patronage—and, therefore, deliberately kept silent even after the CPI(M) had become the refuge of Bengal's lumpen proletariat.
By '84, disillusionment was setting in with the way the Communists were conducting themselves after being voted to power on a mass upsurge against repression, lawlessness and the authoritarian rule of the Congress. Social scientist Partha Chatterjee wrote in April '84 that there was a need to set the "more popular feeling against repression and lawlessness on more secure foundations". Instead, the Communist leaders, he wrote, "chose the easier path of consolidating their narrow sectarian interests not only by compromising with the entrenched lobbies within the bureaucracy and the police but by actually making their politics dependent upon the use of state machinery". As early as '88, the party admitted that 70 per cent of its members in Bengal had joined it after '77. Over the next decade, Bengal slipped into a coma. And just six years ago, during the 2001 state elections, the party leadership and armed supporters took the lead in regaining similarly lost enclaves in the Panskura-Kespur-Garbeta region. No filmmaker, singer, poet or artist budged then—after all, by producing films, sponsoring cultural festivals, feting friendly academics, the government had won in coopting the culturati
So there is something hypocritical about this indignation by Bengal's bhadralok over the "carnage" in Nandigram, basically a bloody turf war between political goons, with innocent people caught in the middle. One reason is obviously the seductive charms of 24/7 news television where everybody is assured 15 minutes of fame. Yes, the party has lost touch with the peasantry. Yes, by blackballing the governor, daring the courts and spiting the media, the party has revealed its Stalinist core. Yet, none of this is anything new.
Jyoti Basu, the enfeebled patriarch of Bengal's communism, told me earlier this year that he was "unhappy that the Communists had not advanced to other states" beyond Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. "Things would have been different if we ruled India," he said. "We would have then depended on socialism—not capitalism—to attain our goals. India would have been different by now." The mind boggles. While Bengal's bhadralok can now wake up and smell the coffee, the rest of India can breathe easy.