May 25, 2020
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Kolkata Korner

Bengal's Marxists seem set to challenge the CPI(M)'s wooly-headed, dogmatic ideologues like Prakash Karat who have no idea of the complexities and the compulsions of governance and of the requirements of electoral politics...

Kolkata Korner

History in the making?

Will this city create history next week? From some available indications, the answer could be 'yes'. Bengal's Marxists seem set to challenge the CPI(M)'s wooly-headed, dogmatic ideologues like Prakash Karat who have no idea of the complexities and the compulsions of governance and of the requirements of electoral politics at the party's politburo meeting next week. The very fact that the meeting is being held here is indication enough that the pragmatists, including party patriarch Jyoti Basu (who couldn't travel to Delhi and insisted the meeting be held here), want to assert themselves. 

Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has, for quite some time now, been forcing the party to adapt to change. His recent statements underlining the need for nuclear power is at sharp variance with Karat's laboured arguments against nuclear power. In the past, too, Bhattacharjee's pursuit of liberalisation and inviting private capital had forced the party to climb down from its stance of capitalists being 'class enemies'. Hence, the hope that next week, Bengal's pragmatists would be able to make Karat and others like him from the Kerala lobby see reason and abandon plans of withdrawing support to the UPA government if New Delhi goes ahead and signs the nuke deal with Uncle Sam. 

Bhattacharjee and his comrades in Bengal realise (thankfully) that expounding anti-Americanism and dialectical materialism will not translate into the state's, and nation's, progress. And the sooner Karat, Achutanandan & Co realise this, the better. If the CPI(M)'s politburo meet next week results in this important course correction, Kolkata will go down in history as the city where the CPI(M) changed colours and embraced realpolitik.

Bengal's case

The Bengal leaders in the CPI(M) have reason to be unhappy with the politics of brinkmanship being pursued by Karat & Co. Unlike those party apparatchik at A.K.Gopalan Bhavan who've never contested even a panchayat election, Bengal's Marxists are well-versed in the intricacies of electoral politics and matters of governance. Hence, they know—and Karat, Yechury and others don't—that the nuclear deal is not something that the Indian electorate would comprehend. Hence, the Indian voter wouldn't really take kindly to elections being foisted on him on a matter that's far removed from 'roti, kapda aur makaan' issues. 

The CPI(M) cannot realistically hope to increase its influence beyond the small pockets it rules over in India by the next polls. And in these pockets (Bengal included) that it controls, issues other than the nuclear deal will dominate the electoral agenda if polls are held within the next few months. In Kerala, it'll be the shameless jockeying for power within the party and in Bengal, it'll be Nandigram, Singur and related issues. This being the case, the CPI(M) will lose a number of seats it holds now and will emerge from the next polls battered, bruised and shrunken. Hence, Bengal's Marxists want the polls to be held on schedule by which time, they hope, their sins at Nandigram, Singur and Kerala would fade from public memory and other issues would crop up. Karat & Co, however, feel that short-term gains and agenda of survival should not detract from the lofty goal of opposing American imperialism. Now, that's what is called a death wish. Having said all this, I'd add that for once, we in Kolkata ought to be proud of our CM and his comrades here for their common sense and sagacity.

A modest proposal

Anyone who's interacted with ideologues, be they of the right or the left, would know how difficult it is to make them see reason. That's why Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and CPI(M) leaders from Bengal in the politburo would have a very tough time prevailing over Karat and the dogmatic folk. Will they succeed or not is a million dollar question. 

But there's a little something Bhattacharjee could try out. 

He could offer Brinda (wife of Prakash Karat and as rigid as her husband) an important portfolio in his cabinet. She's a Bengali and now represents the state in the Rajya Sabha. She could be invited to handle a subject like infrastructure. She'll soon realise that private investments are a necessity to improve infrastructure and, hence, she'll have to start wooing private investors. That'll make her shed her animosity towards money bags and private capital. Within six months, she'll have to contest elections from some Assembly constituency (vacated, of course, by a sitting CPI-M MLA) if she has to retain her cabinet berth. And then, she'll find out how tough contesting elections is and what are the issues that people actually respond to; she'll soon discover that the nuke deal matters little to the people. Brinda will, no doubt, turn a lot wiser and this will invariably rub off on her husband. And only then would be the first couple of the CPI(M) turn wise and astute. The icing on the cake would come in the form of Brinda losing the polls. That'll deflate the Karats' collective ego and bring them down a notch or two from their high pedestal.

The other side

Over the past few weeks, Kolkata's newspapers have been replete with stories on rash bus drivers mowing down innocent people, murderous bus conductors assaulting passengers and auto drivers flouting every traffic rule. The drivers and conductors have been vilified to no end and made out to be monsters with deep homicidal streaks. But there's another side to this story that needs to be mentioned. 

Bus drivers and conductors put in about 18 hours on an average, with little breaks and virtually no holidays. In return, they get ridiculously low salaries and have to depend on the commission system based on the number of passengers they can pick up. Every human being strives to increase his earnings, especially when the earnings are so low. Hence, there's a rush to pick up as many passengers as he can and for that, he needs to speed and race against other buses. It's hunger that drives him, not greed. 

If we, as a society, and the government that we've put in place, want the mayhem on the roads to end, we have to ensure that the owners of buses replace the commission system with decent, regular salaries for the drivers and conductors. All it needs if administrative will; owners who refuse to pay salaries can have their permits cancelled. There are, I'm sure, many who would be more than happy to get fresh bus permits, put new and non-polluting buses on the roads and pay their employees decent salaries. 

As for the autorickshaws, let us put ourselves in an auto-driver's sandals. These men drive autos since no other avenues are open to them. But the problem is that there are just too many autos on the roads and hence, these are driven rashly to pick up as many passengers as they can. Now, who's to blame for so many autos plying on the roads? A large number of these autos don't have valid permits from the transport authorities, only permission to ply from CITU leaders. Who's to blame for this mess? The autorickshaw driver is a poor, unemployed man who's trying to earn an honest living; if he's denied, he'll definitely take to extra-legal or illegal means to put food on his table. Let's mull on these issues before we condemn auto and bus drivers and conductors.

Pedestrians & passengers

And by the way, what about pedestrians and passengers? Can they be absolved of wrong-doing? Kolkatans have this propensity to walk on the roads, cross even high-traffic roads whenever they feel like it, flag down buses, autos and taxis at any convenient place and demand to be off-loaded at their doorsteps. A bus ride I took from Sealdah to Minto Park on Friday was illuminating. 

Soon after the bus commenced its journey from Sealdah station, the conductor came around asking for the fares. At least five men and two women irritatingly waved off the conductor, saying they'd pay later. When the conductor insisted they do so right then, the passengers turned abusive and showered the conductor with the choicest expletives. The bus had to wait a few traffic signals and this irritated the passengers to no end, triggering a round of abuses and even threats of physical violence against the driver and conductor. An elderly lady wanted to get off at a scheduled bus stop and as the driver veered to the left lane to drop the lady, other passengers started protesting loudly and said the old lady ought to be dropped off in the middle of the road. Of course, when their turn to alight came, they demanded that the bus stops at the left edge of the road. Throughout the journey, a majority of the passengers kept on demanding that the bus speeds, overtake other buses and not even stop at bus-stops. They forced the driver to drive on the right lane instead of the designated bus lane on the left. 

I saw first-hand how the driver had to weave in and out of traffic and avoid hitting pedestrians who had rushed to cross the roads. Some passengers tried to board the bus even while it was traveling down the middle of the road. As the bus neared every stop, people came rushing towards it to board it, oblivious of queues and their own safety. At the end of the journey, I am left to marvel at the fact that more people don't die on Kolkata's roads. Had drivers been bloodthirsty, the body-count on our roads would have been many times the current figure. And I'm not left with any doubt that in most cases of road accidents, it is the passengers and pedestrians who are to blame.

Cause for cheer?

Last week, I had lamented that Hilsa may soon become extinct, or at least prohibitively expensive. But disaster may be averted. That is, if Bengal accedes to a request by the Lucknow-based National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources to adopt the Hilsa as the 'state fish'. If Bengal agrees, as it definitely should, the Bureau will carry out studies on the population and genetic structure of the fish, devise strategies for targeted conservation of Hilsa and build a gene bank. All these measures will go a long way in stemming the alarming decline of the Hilsa's population and ensure that we continue to relish this delectable fish for ages to come. Amen to that!

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