By Swapan Dasgupta
For the past 100 years, there have been two sharply conflicting perceptions of Bengalis. The first takes off from Gopal Krishna Gokhale's astonishingly non-prescient testimonial, "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." The second centres on the Bengali bhadralok as the obvious inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's chattering, disruptive bandarlog in Jungle Book.
Few communities in India have been the object of so much simultaneous admiration and disdain as Bengalis. The enlightenment of Rabindranath Tagore, and the artistry of Satyajit Ray constituted a defining facet of the Bengali inheritance. But this awe was also offset by the exasperation with the indolent, over-politicised and disruptive Bengali. Till the early-20th century the Bengali babu was regarded as an epitome of high-minded effeteness—the man who would be Devdas. By the 1960s, he had been transformed into a prickly contrarian, screaming cholbe na—a ridiculous Don Quixote with a Red Book.
For 34 years, the Left Front monopolised, the politics of West Bengal because it engulfed both traditions. It incorporated 'progressive' politics with its earnest concern for the 'struggling masses'—a romantic ideal that, along with the glorification of squalor and poverty, appealed to the lofty Bengali self-image. And in its espousal of endless bandhs, strikes and 'cadregiri', the Left blended a perverse sense of entitlement with cussedness.
The Communist movement did more than merely direct the course of politics: it reshaped the Bengali character. From aspiring to bourgeois refinement, the Bengali in Bengal (to be distinguished from their expatriate cousins) began worshipping at the altar of insolence and bloody-mindedness. In the shift from the stylised but happy rusticity of a Jamini Roy painting to the wall graffiti of angry, gorilla-faced peasants brandishing sickles and the Red Flag lie the story of Bengal's regression.
Election manifestos, as Devi Lal once famously remarked, aren't meant to be read. Yet, it is worth glancing through the Trinamool Congress manifesto for next month's Assembly election to gauge the extent of Bengal's decline. In 1975-76, the share of industry in West Bengal's Net Domestic Product was 19 per cent; by 2008-09, it was down to 7.4 per cent. In 1976-77, it had 7.6 per cent of the total number of factories in India; by 2008-09, it was 4 per cent. In 1976-77, after nearly a decade of Left-inspired turbulence, Bengal still accounted for 13.3 per cent of employment in manufacturing; it nosedived to 5 per cent by 2008-09. Although the TMC manifesto doesn't mention the gold medal Bengal got for the number of man-days lost in bandhs, strikes and closures, it admits "industrial workers…also lost the productivity race during CPI(M) rule."
The story of Bengal has been grim since 1967. As India advanced into the frontiers of the global economy, the state that was second only to Maharashtra in the early-1960s took large, determined strides backwards.
The Left claims it focussed on the regeneration of rural Bengal. The countryside certainly gave the Left unwavering support for seven consecutive elections. This was partly due to the irrevocable security of tenure granted to share-croppers between 1978 and 1981. This empowerment was complemented by the draconian control over rural life by the CPI(M)'s dreaded Local Committees.
Communists hero-worship tyrants like Stalin and Mao because they are control freaks. Starting from the silly notion that all human activity is inherently political, the Left Front sought to extend its control from the state to society. Its rule has seen political intrusiveness in every walk of life from policing to education. 'Cadre raj' has come to signify a million tyrannies perpetrated by the 'party' to control public institutions and private lives.
In three decades—far too long for any one dispensation to be in power—the CPI(M) has fractured Bengali society. In seeking total control it has pitted their cadres against those whose voting preferences were suspect, those who incurred the enmity of local apparatchiks and those who were contrarian. Dissidence could flourish in urban clusters but it needed exceptional courage and fortitude for anyone known to be anti-CPI(M) to withstand the oppressive regimentation in rural Bengal.
The Reds believed that with political control they could also regulate people's aspirations and freeze Bengalis in a state of permanent mediocrity. Fortunately, India's economic growth has led whetted expectations and triggered a realisation that Bengal has lost the plot. For a people that revel in its imagined intellectual master race status, the mere admission that Bengal has ceased to be at the centre of the world is a gigantic mental shift.
The coming election is only nominally a battle between the CPI(M) and TMC; it is a fight between the Left and those Bengalis who no longer want to be left behind. After 1967, Bengal was a great place to leave; after May 2011 let's hope it becomes a better place to live.