Diary of a reformed "Bhakt"
Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here to read
Like many Bengalis, I was hugely hopeful when Mamata Banerjee stormed into the Red Bastille, as it were, ending over 30 years of Left hegemony in Bengal. Disillusionment and cynicism set in quickly as it appeared to be the same old local "Bangla" brew being poured out of a green instead of red decanter. Then, came the light whiff of the Modi Tsunami of 2014 - raising right-wing expectations of a saffron surge in Bengal (incidentally, the birth-place of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee) to wash off the remnants of its Leftist past. I belonged to the last lot.
The enthusiasm was further fueled with BJP upping the ante post Lok Sabha elections and the Mamata government getting mired in scandals like Chit-Fund scams with heavy-weights like Mukul Roy threatening revolt. Though far from a revival of any sort - with a change of guard both at the centre and state CPIM was beginning to show some signs of recovery. But, soon the local bodies and Municipal polls - proved (allegations of violence and rigging notwithstanding) Mamata still held complete control of the state's political nerve-strings.
The biggest disappointment was, of course, the BJP. In any case, one expected little from a truncated Congress with its band of diminutive leaders and very few would like a return to the cadre-raj of CPIM. Besides, even the new CPIM leadership in the state - was well past their sell by date - hopelessly caught in a time-warp - both in their thinking and ideas. BJP's fizzled out in no time - for reasons that were a mystery to most. Whatever might have been the consideration of Modi-Shah leadership to go easy on the Trinamool government in West Bengal (perhaps, the need for support to get crucial legislation passed in Parliament) - the current BJP leadership in West Bengal cannot inspire any 'right-thinking' individual to vote for them. In these 2 years - no attempt has been made to build an organization or attract fresh talent into the party.
The less said about the current state leadership the better. Sensible central minders like Siddharth Nath Singh have been pulled out and replaced with absentee land-lords of dubious distinction like Kailash Vijavargiya. For all practical purposes, BJP has given up West Bengal not just for the present but the foreseeable future. For now, Mamata looks invincible - straddling from the constituency abandoned by the Left across the "secular" divide to minorities vote-bank a la Lalu and Mulayam in the "cow-belt".
But, my vote for Mamata won't be a default option for the lack of other alternatives. Truth be told - for the first time in perhaps 50 years - Bengal has a Chief Minister - who displays a sense of 'ownership' (not entitlement) and in her own way cares for the development of the state and its people - which is something that couldn't be said even for Jyoti Basu. Popular sops have become the order of the day and it would be unrealistic to expect any government to get out it in a hurry. But, when she takes up fights or drives a hard political bargain with the centre for funds - it is not solely to channelize it for party cadres like the CPIM. True, she hasn't turned Kolkata to London - but she must be credited with some sense of aesthetics for her well-meaning efforts at giving the city (and some other parts of the state) a facelift and makeover in the last 4 years. And, I would venture as far as to say - there is a soft glow of pride beginning to show on Bengalis, who were slipping into an identity crisis of sorts a few years ago.
The primary criticism against Mamata would, of course, still be her failure to attract any sizeable industry to the state. This is a much more complex problem than one of land acquisition alone that would have thwarted any other government as well. The biggest issue is work culture that was systematically destroyed by the Left Front over 50 years (starting with the first United Front Government in the 60s) resulting in pathetic productivity of both white and grey collared workforce - that makes investors to shy away from Bengal. A workaholic and woman of action that she is, Mamata is not one to tolerate lethargy. But, it will take time to reengineer the DNA that has degenerated over half a decade.
However, industry alone can't be a solution in such a densely populated state with pressure on land further increasing with influx of population from across its eastern border. The days of labour intensive factories are long one. Today's automated production processes will create little direct employment. The challenge of re-skilling farm labour in other vocations is often glossed over. Given the work averse nature of the Bengalis - at least in the short term the ancillary employment opportunities will be taken over by migrant workers from neighbouring states - that will further compound the problem of agriculture displacement. This is a conundrum that successive governments will have to deal with. If at all, Mamata will be best placed to bite the bullet and take a tough call in her second term - than either the BJP or CPIM if it were to return to power by any quirk of fate.
There is a lot of talk - much of it true - about the deteriorating law and order in the state and rise in corruption. Those who have some first-hand idea of the Left rule - when the police was subservient to the party command structure, know it is as much of an exaggeration as reports on communal violence and intolerance on the rise since BJP came to power. I for one don't believe Mamata - being a stern disciplinarian -will allow the situation to get out of hand. Corruption has become a corollary of electoral politics. CPIM with its large cadre base had a "low-cost model" of running the party and fighting elections. The same cannot be replicated by others - not even CPIM now that their cadre base has dissipated. The scale of corruption is many times larger in states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. But, it doesn't show - as there is simultaneous "value-creation". In West Bengal and other less affluent states of the East it hurts - as the 'rent seekers' have to draw upon the already dwindling resources of the people.
Above all this, Mamata is - arguably - the first Bengal CM who has made a place for herself on the national political scene on her own merits. Jyoti Basu owed his position largely to his stature in the party and S S Ray to the benevolence of Indira Gandhi. B C Roy was content to be a Bengali icon. Apart from arousing Bengali sub-national pride - people trust her as the only one capable - more than any other party's leader - of extracting a rightful share for Bengal - a state, they feel with some justification, that has been given the short-shrift by successive governments in Delhi since Independence.
That's why my vote will go to Mamata in the coming elections - with an apology note to Modi and Amit Shah.