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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

West Bengal after the Saradha Scam: Is it the Darkest Hour in Bengali Life?

Saturday 27 December 2014, by Amitava Mukherjee

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

—Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

Not one but many observers of West Bengal politics had expressed themselves in the same vein after Mamata Banerjee came to power in the State trouncing the thirtyfour-year-old Left Front. Great expectations from her were natural for she had given Bengal the deliverance after 34 years of barren Leftist rule. It was her single-handed achievement as the Congress, the principal Opposition party in the State before the birth of the Trinamul Congress, was content to play the second fiddle to the CPM. However, Mamata’s ability to lead was always under question and there was a lurking fear about which way West Bengal and the Bengalis would head under her leadership—towards salvation or towards perdition? Arguably the second option has now come true.

But blaming Mamata alone for Bengal’s present pathetic condition is pointless. This sorry state of affairs is rooted in the structure of the Bengali middle class which is marked by shallowness, childish optimism and deep despondency at the slightest threat to its aspirations. It is a tale of badly charted opportu-nism and consequent failures which have prevented the growth and development of a healthy and robust outlook of the Bengali society. Mamata Banerjee is only a product of a long chain of misadventures and misconceptions which had started practically from the 1940s.

Prior to the advent of Mamata Banerjee, the greatest damage to the Bengali life was undoubtedly done by the Leftists. In the 1940s this was reflected in the Tebhaga movement which, while embodying a lofty ideal, was often dotted with middle-class chicanery. This trend could be traced in the Kakdwip belt of South 24-Parganas where young Communists, in some cases, did not fight shy of laying their hands on small granaries of marginal farmers as they had to show ‘instances of their revolutionary activities’. Later on, another moment of confusion came when certain sections of the Bengali bhadralok suddenly fell for Ranadive’s line of insurrection. But this revolutionary fervour did not last long and it soon metamorphosed into a sedative trace after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956.

Still this period of confusion and middle class-like flip-flops among the Communists could not hurt the Bengali society and Bengali mind as there was the outstanding leadership of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy till 1962. During this period the State was blessed with a distingui-shed line of Gandhian leadership which had begun with the stewardship of the venerable Gandhian, Dr Prafulla Chandra Ghosh. Apart from them, the Congress presented a distingui-shed line of leaders who left their salutary marks on the political and social life of Bengal.

But it has to be admitted that the Leftist bloc too had its own positive contributions. This had manifested itself in literature, arts, music and in various mass agitations like the food move-ments. The Left had also thrown up a memorable crop of leadership that included Bankim Mukherjee, Somnath Lahiri, Bhowani Sen, Bhupesh Gupta etc. Till the CPI got divided in 1964, its contribution to Bengal’s social life was noteworthy in spite of the fact that middle class characteristics and Communist ideals cannot go hand in hand. This was the reason which destroyed the communist movement and Communist Party-led Government in West Bengal at a later time.

 Today the Bengali life is at its nadir and Mamata Banerjee’s performance can easily be described as the exact representation of the senseless and destructive politics that West Bengal had been subjected to since 1967, the beginning of a long dark period in Bengal’s social life. The gradual unfolding of the Saradha scam and the arrest of Madan Mitra, a State Minister, have brought to the fore the worst in Mamata Banerjee. She used an obscene unparlia-mentarily word against the BJP leadership without realising that mere retraction would not wash her hands off the matter. She also made wild gestures by her hand while castigating ‘attempts to shove bamboo poles’ into a portion of an imaginary structure of the Trinamul Congress.

But this should not surprise any serious watcher of Bengal politics. The rot started in 1967 when a United Front Ministry came to power in West Bengal defeating the Congress. It meant widespread backsliding of whatever sanity West Bengal stood for. Falsehood and canard followed by widespread violence were let loose by some United Front constituents to corner the Opposition parties. In the mid sixties Prafulla Chandra Sen and Atulya Ghosh, the two towering leaders of the State Congress, were made subjects of a false propaganda which depicted them as the ones who had bought the Stephen House, a palatial building in the heart of Calcutta. Nothing was further from the truth. Prafulla Chandra Sen died a penniless man while Atulya Ghosh, after retiring from politics, lived a life of dignity. On the eve of the 1967 general elections a conspiracy was hatched against him and forged documents were widely circu-lated describing Atulya Ghosh as an agent of Pakistan.

The tragedy of Bengal lies in the fact that both the Right and Left blocs, composed of middle class people, made a utopian ideal of ‘progressivism’ their principal prop. Unfortunately a ham- handed application of this principle led to the beginning of the flight of capital from the State since the time of the first United Front Govern-ment leading to the gradual destruction of small and medium scale industries owned by local families which provided the maximum quantum of employment. Anarchy prevailed all over the State and for the first time even middle class localities of Calcutta experienced armed proc-essions by the Left parties

The dislodging of the two United Front governments and the brief interregnums of first the Naxalite movement and then the Congress Government of Siddhartha Sankar Ray made the CPI-M come to the conclusion that the foremost goal before the party was to cling to power by all means and that paved the way for complete ruination of Bengal’s social life. With it the CPI-M evolved another political line: the Left Front Government under Jyoti Basu must not be disturbed and opposed in spite of its many acts of omission and commission. Half-hearted implementation of the ‘Operation Barga’ did more harm than good in the rural sector and deindustrialisation was complete. A new education policy of banning English and substantial watering down of the curriculum gave rise to the cultivation of mediocrity.

This educational policy has changed the present Bengali society beyond imagination. Barring a few centres of excellence, almost all the educational institutions of the State churn out extremely low-grade pass-outs. If the Left leaders today lament over the abysmally poor standard of politics, then the blame must be laid at their door for they have introduced this sub-standard educational structure during the thirtyfour years of Left Front rule. After all, a community always gets the government it deserves. When Mamata took over the reins in 2011, many people had hoped that education in West Bengal would regain its lost glory. But the West Bengal Chief Minister could not get over the ambience which produced her and there is no indication that she has been able to understand the shortcomings of the educational system bequeathed to her by the Left parties.

Bengal, which once witnessed the flowering of the Renaissance in the 19th century, is now only a pale shadow of its past. Bengali literature, arts, music and theatre exhibit signs of deca-dence. None of the universities of West Bengal commands any place or respect at the all India level, not to speak of the international arena. A good number of teachers there, but certainly not all, are sub-standard. This is too natural as the society has been passing through crass politicisation for a long time.

The Saradha scam has completely disrobed the skeletons of the Bengali society. There is no point in blaming the politicians alone. Greed for quick money has taken hold of nearly every nook and corner of social life. The Left failed to provide any inspiring leadership. Mamata Banerjee is only following in its footsteps.

The author is a senior journalist and he can be contacted at amitava_muk@yahoo.co.in