Sunday, May 15, 2011

There are two Mamatas. Which will prevail?

[This is the unedited English version of the article published in the editorial pages of Ananda Bazar Patrika on May 14, 2011]

By Swapan Dasgupta

During the unrest in France in 1968, some students at the Sorbonne put up a poster: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." The political life of Mamata Banerjee seem to have been guided by this principle. The more impossible the mission the more she has been driven to pursue it relentlessly. May 13 was her crowning glory. She created a surge of hope out of profound hopelessness and overwhelmed a seemingly impregnable Red Fort built by the Left Front over 34 years. For Bengal, it was akin to the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

There were two Mamatas I saw last in the final stages of her campaign. The first was at a public meeting in the largely middle-class Dum Dum Park. There she delivered a measured speech and spoke with passion about the ruin of education during Left Front rule. She referred to how the Left had undermined the learning of English, how the Comrades had missed the IT boom and prevented the spread of technology.

At the Narainpur locality of Rajarhat where she spoke a few hours later, it was a very different Mamata who took the stage. This was a poorer area, typical of the refugee resettlement clusters where until a few years ago the CPI(M) majority was weighed, rather than counted. With a boisterous, youthful audience cheering her on, Mamata transformed herself into the street fighter, ready for a brawl. She warned the CPI(M) that her people wouldn't countenance their strong-arm tactics any more. "Our candidates don't wear bangles", she proclaimed menacingly. The 8,000 or so crowd went delirious.

As West Bengal goes ecstatic, celebrating its 'liberation' from 34 years of Left Front rule, there are concerns over which of these two Mamatas will prevail in the next five years. Will it be Mamata, the sober, bespectacled Didi of the posters? Or will it be Mamata the vengeful Ma Kali?

The rainbow coalition that rallied behind Mamata was forged by different impulses. There were those fed up with 'cadre raj' and the tyranny of the Local Committees'; there were those who rued the uninterrupted decline of Bengal and sought a place in India's capitalist future; and there were those who discovered a nebulous utopianism in Ma, Mati, Manush, particularly after Nandigram and Singur.

The election results tell the story of a mass rising against a streamlined, political machine. Yet, not everyone who pressed the button for paribartan share the same dream about the future. Mamata won over an aspiring middle class that wants new industries, new towns with malls and flyovers, and were disappointed that the Tatas shifted their Nano plant out of Singur. But she also pandered to the insecurities of the small farmer, the beneficiaries of Operation Barga, who are fearful of a future detached from rural life. And, playing a prominent role in her campaign were 'intellectuals' who hated CPI(M) 'dadagiri' but yet saw themselves as fashionably Leftist.

Mamata's electoral strategy was clever. She learnt from a Left that had won seven elections by keeping its opponents divided. In breaking from the Congress in 1997, Mamata redefined the anti-Left culture. First, she maintained a distance from the bhadralok-jotedar alliance that stood in opposition to the 'struggling masses'. She gave political voice to a class—perhaps unique to Bengal—for whom prolonged economic stagnation and decline had forced a lowering of cultural standards. Mamata's victory symbolised the 'fallen' Bengali's revenge on the CPI(M). It had a veneer of refinement but there was also the crude energy of anger and hopelessness.

In every way, Mamata blurred the battle lines the Left had drawn from the 1960s. She chose to actively embrace the disgruntled Left in her campaign. That wasn't because this group was electorally consequential. But their presence in her mahajot muddied the Left claim of Mamata being the representative of privilege and big money. With her austere lifestyle and daring, she created an alternative 'pro-poor' narrative that the CPI(M) couldn't challenge effectively.

Winning an election is one thing but governance is a different ball game altogether. Mamata has come to power not only riding the wave of widespread disgust and hatred of the CPI(M) but also on the crest of hope. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee won a resounding mandate in 2006 because he epitomised Bengal's desire for a better future. At that time Mamata lost badly because she was seen to stand for obstruction. Yesterday, Bengal made her the new messiah and reposed the same faith in her as they did in Buddhadeb five years ago.

Her first priority has to be the management of anger. For 34 years, the Left practised a form of politics that was based both on the control of government and the regulation of society. The Left politicised every arena of civil society. Nothing—not education, not arts and culture, not business, and in some cases not even social relations—was too small for its attention. Even Lenin's birthday was declared a public holiday.

This emphasis on control has led to a Bengal that is dotted with localised tyrannies which in turn has generated local grievances that in course of time has evolved into anger. In the aftermath of paribartan, there will be a determined clamour for 'badla'. Mamata may have warned against the spirit of revenge but she may well be powerless to control it.

Yet, she must discard a flawed inheritance. Can a non-Left government afford to have its programme of governance sabotaged by the Coordination Committee-controlled government machinery? Effective and non-partisan governance demands a thorough political cleansing. The only issue is how ably manages it. She can't afford to convey an impression that tyranny has been replaced by chaos and vindictiveness.

Mamata has a one-year window of opportunity to ensure that Bengal moves from anger to creative optimism. For that to happen, she needs to create the environment for economic activity to take place. If she gets bogged down fighting political fires—which can abruptly turn fierce—she will lose the momentum and destroy the political alliance she has patiently built.

Since the 1960s, the Communist movement has successfully created a citizenry that was saw empowerment only in terms of political awareness. It was not supplemented by economic empowerment. The Left strategy of agriculture-led growth failed to meet rising expectations. By 2000, even the Left Front recognised that there was no real alternative to boosting manufacturing and services. Unfortunately, the political culture it had nurtured—marked by bandhs and militant trade unionism—proved a road block. In a non-regulated economy, where states competed with each other, Bengal just couldn't convince investors it was better, if not as good as, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Tamil Nadu.

Can Mamata reverse the tide? Like Buddhadeb, Mamata will be haunted by the legacy of Nandigram and Singur. The problems associated with the acquisition of fertile agricultural land have meant that governments will find it difficult to facilitate the purchase of cheap land as a sop to industry. In opposition, the CPI(M) will invariably rediscover its lost radicalism and ensure that Mamata too is prevented from doing what they tried to do and failed. Politics has reduced the government's room to be pro-active in wooing industry.

If Bengal is to take advantage of its natural advantages, it will have to bank on two things: a wholesome environment and a shift away from the 'cholbe-na' culture that has defined Bengal. In wooing Nano away from Singur, Narendra Modi may have made the Tatas an offer they just couldn't refuse. But this was only the icing on the cake. Gujarat has succeeded in wooing large, medium and small industry because its collective mindset is geared towards enterprise and growth. Bengal has to rekindle the spirit that was snuffed out after Dr B.C. Roy. Mamata can do her bit by putting an end to the competitive politics of self-destruction. But unless society is receptive to a new mood, nothing can work. After all, no one is obliged to invest in Bengal.

Curiously, Modi and for that matter Nitish Kumar holds out important lessons for Mamata. Like these two successful chief ministers, Mamata is her own boss, fiercely independent, passionately committed to her state and scornful of internal opposition. The resounding mandate she has received gives her the space to run a one-woman administration. This may run counter to the text-book standards of collective functioning. But experience has shown that India's best state governments are those that can operate single-window systems of decision-making, propped up by a core team of professionals insulated from political pressure. At the risk of being called a dictator, Mamata can rise to the challenge by being true to her personality. She should remember that the people didn't vote for her MLAs but voted for her to both slay the demon and redeem Bengal's lost pride.

Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali), May 14, 2011

1 comment:

Arjun Sanyal said...

Dear Swapan Dasgupta,last night I saw on Times Now I the way you and Chandan Mitra took on that imbecile Singhvi. I was really delighted to see how you could make singhvi realize that its not at all modish to sings praises of the Gandhi family all the time and at all places. I also went into your website and this much can said for certain that the left-liberal ideology is like a sun-dried tomato- way past its prime. A resident of Kolkata and a regular watcher of the Newshour shows on Times Now I really like the way right-wing spokespersons like you present your views and its really commiserating to see people like singhvi or manish tiwari or sitaram yechury clutching at straws to extricate themselves from the miasma of pristine rightism. Goodbye-Arjun Sanyal