Mainstream, VOL LIII No 31 New Delhi July 25, 2015
West Bengal Politics Recycled: Retrospect and Prospect
Sunday 26 July 2015
by Pratip Chattopadhyay
“Ek je chilo raja, tar bhaari dukhh...ahaa raja, kade raja...dakho raja ...bechara rajar aj bhari dukhh....”
(There was a King immersed in sorrow... poor soul, the king is in tears...it’s a pity that today the King is sad...)
The famous Bengal film maestro, Satyajit Ray, in his film, Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen (1968), composed a song (a part quoted above) that has been utilised by Ray to observe that even a powerful ruler is not immune from the emotional hazards of a commoner and undergoes a complex inner struggle to keep up a brave face even in odd situations frequently taking contradictory steps. The West Bengal Chief Minister is reflecting such inner struggles, first by her frequent short-tempered comments (which many feel is an effect of frustration) mainly directed against the BJP and NDA Government at the Centre and also diluting the chit-fund association charges against her Cabinet colleagues as mere conspiracy by the CBI under the direction of the Central Government to tarnish the image of the State under her leadership.
This is a shift from 2011-12 when at the State level the Left parties were the originators of such conspiracies, according to the allegations of the Chief Minister when faced with embarrassing situations of violence against women and law and order of the State, and at the Central level it was the UPA Government in 2012-13 that was allegedly conspiring by holding up grants and financial assistance to the State for development purposes. And now, as she is the sole wisdom-centre (formerly the next big mind in the TMC, Mukul Roy, is currently almost cut off from the party), to recover the gradual demeanour of her govern-ment (particularly in the media), she is in line with the Modi-fied foreign and domestic policy of India!
From opposing to cooperating—political tactics of West Bengal in the federal politics of India has a long history as West Bengal has seen ‘democracy-turned-party-cracy’ under the Left Front Government and is now witnessing ‘movement-party-turned-party-movement’ under the Trinamul Congress Government. Isn’t history repeating itself in a recycled manner?
In the backdrop of such tectonic shifts in the approach of the State Government, this article goes deep into the recent metamorphosis of West Bengal politics. Section I deals with the politics of language in the deliberations of political leaders (particularly the TMC) in West Bengal, section II showcases the retrospect and prospect of the Left and Trinamul politics in Bengal, section III highlights the need for a closer look at the events unfolding and the criticisms aired against the State Government. The paper concludes by hinting that politics is organised within the structure of power and as the rule goes, ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’, all political acts—be those of the leadership, policy decisions, allocation of Ministries, party programmes, political speeches, political rhetoric and promises—can never be sanitised. So what is happening in West Bengal at present is not unique, it is the display of common pathological errors impregnated in any absolute-majority rule but as the object in focus (read Trinamul Congress) displays unique ways of ‘pro-acting’ and ‘pro-reacting’, the subject (read West Bengal politics) is seen in a unique light by the academicians, analysts and media. Nevertheless, the fact remains, West Bengal offers excitement and interest, energy and involvement, embededdness and intensity in the mundane world of day-to-day politics.
Section I — Recycling of Vicious Cycle?
“Politics is always embedded in ways of life and structures of feeling peculiar to places and communities.” (William:1989, p. 242)
Recycling is an innovative exercise in environmental management by which the discarded and left out parts outliving their usefulness in daily life are being processed to extract the last bit of usefulness of the particular part in some form or the other. This recycling is also a part of the global green movement whereby the seemingly outdated object, for instance, the old mobile phone handset, is being re-processed, may be its parts and syntaxes, for the construction of a new mobile handset. Similar is the experience with solid wastes, plastics and tampered gadgets. This recycling process is also nowadays being popularised through advertisements offering ‘sell-out’ (bech de) leading to the use of a similar item by one after the other—the second-hand, third-hand models. So recycling is a process whereby both change and continuity of the recycled object remains.
In politics the element that continues and changes every now and then is the way of communication and striking the right chord with the public. Politics and political struggles rest on the ways by which one political group highlights its strengths, exposes the weaknesses of the others and even hides its own weaknesses through speeches and, more particularly, through the use of language. In language and in its delivery (the tone and texture of voice included) itself the rudeness or arrogance of a group gets reflected (for instance, in 2006 Bengal’s former Left Front Chief Minister’s “we are 235 and they are 35”) and it is then compared with a com-passionate language of attachment (the Trinamul Congress’ slogan ‘Ma Mati Manush’) and of hope (the Trinamul Congress’ slogan of ‘poribortan’ or ‘change’), in which the public finds satisfaction for the time being. In the closing years of the Left Front Government, a number of Left leaders (Binoy Konar, Anil Basu) made unparlia-mentarily speeches and symbols directed primarily at the then Leader of the Opposition for which these leaders were cautioned by the party (CPI-M) later on. With the arrival of the Trinamul Congress Government, its leaders, including the Chief Minister, have continued to use ‘very normal, daily, ordinary language’ in their speeches and according to the mood and temperament swings, the language also frequently crosses the line of decency and decorum.
A hue and cry was raised for such comments from MPs, leaders and these were even raised in Parliament, for example—to give electoral slap to the Prime Minister; showing utter disregard for the dignity of women of the Opposition parties, displaying the yellow card to the Governor of the State and even the constitutional head of state (a few instances can be—defending herself as a disciplinarian by not slapping the Prime Minister as the last option for pleading for grants-in-aids; publicly condemning security personnel during the book-fair; talking and showing the symbol of bamboo as possible political hurdles offered by the NDA Government; the verbal attack against the CBI as a bunch of worthless personnel, in view of their failure to solve the case of the theft of Tagore’s Nobel Prize (in contrast to their proactiveness to arrest Trinamul leaders). In the midst of the Left and Trinamul’s episodic verbal experiences, West Bengal is bombarded with verbosity of the BJP (now seen as the new player in Bengal politics) leader, Siddarth Nath Singh, in his now famous slogan — ‘BMB’ (Bhag Madan Bhag in 2014, Bhag Mukul Bhag in 2015 and finally in 2016......) and even other local leaders talking about chopping off hands of opponents if attacked, attacking opponents as a group of eunuchs.
These are the new vocabularies of contemporary politics of the State which are used, in the word of the users, to maintain the party’s appeal and the temperament of the masses for an unending struggle to gain ground in the political sphere without any intention to denounce the opponents. If these examples can raise eye-brows, the West Bengal Chief Minister has a verbal balm to offer in the form of publicising a booklet that is a collection of her own hymns used for remaining calm, cool and composed.
Many argue that these speeches, particularly of the Trinamul leadership, are a reflection of their poor intellect, education and experience in organised political action. This is not the case as political speeches do not reflect the upbringing of a person but the political context. As Giorgio Agamben comments, “Languages are the jargons that hide the pure experience of language just as peoples are the more or less successful masks of the factum pluralitatis. ....it is only by breaking at any point the nexus between the existence of language, grammar, people, and state that thought and praxis will be equal to the tasks at hand. The forms of this interruption—during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light for an instant—are manifold and change according to times and circumstances: .... In any case, it is clear that what is at stake here is not something simply linguistic or literary but, above all, political and philosophical.” (Agamben: 2000, p 170) But, nevertheless, it must be noted that the contem-porary political scene in West Bengal is not placed in such a melting pot that such statements would be galore. One can argue that the ‘thematic’ (langue or language) is to be seen as new ways by which the new rulers are trying to enter into the daily households of the masses to capture their thought-processes in order to distract themselves from the larger ‘problematic’—that of the ways and means of transformation of the society into an egalitarian and humane one.
West Bengal politics boast of a rich heritage and culture of revolutionary politics in colonial days, a neat and clean bhadrolok politics in post- colonial days, working class, trade union and party politics during the Left Front rule. But, nevertheless, within the bhadrolok model of dhoti-panjabi-clad politicians, from the last Left Front Government’s tenure, petty politics and lingua politics are on the rise. It was hoped that the Trinamul Congress Government will recycle West Bengal politics from the messiness that the party politics entrenched, and it did so to an extent in creating a wide network of governance across the State and generated new adminis-trative enthusiasm but at hindsight it seems that the most important element that the Trina-mul Congress has sought to recycle from its predecessors is the gruesome political language and expression. With the BJP joining the race of similar lingua politics that irritates opponents, excites masses (masses are senseless in the form of crowds/public gatherings as against sensible mass voters) and catches media attention, it can be said that with such a recycled politics of language and in language, West Bengal politics is in a vicious cycle of hate speeches in a new form which contains not only hate but also haughtiness of power, and as politics is a process based on the peculiar experience of a community, such a trend is likely to grow in the coming days, particularly based on the popularity of the ‘sell-out’ model of recycling whereby the negatives of one group will be sold out to another in a new form. The tectonic shift in approaching the Centre by the State of West Bengal is seen as the recycling of the 2011 TMC with the 2015 TMC, from haughtiness to politeness, however with no commitment on the Teesta water-sharing dispute.
Section-II — Trinamul or BJP? — Yes Please!
Slavoj Zizek begins an insightful article titled ‘Class Struggle or Postmodernism? — Yes Please!’ by citing that “in a well-known Marx Brothers joke Groucho answers the standard question ‘Tea or coffee?’ with ‘Yes, please!’—a refusal of choice”. (Judith Butler : 2000, p. 90) Taking the cue from Zizek’s indication it can be said that for any sensible person, West Bengal politics today offers a ‘forced choice’ or ‘refusal of choice’ scenario between the Trinamul Congress and BJP. The Trinamul Congress is slowly but gradually going towards a slide, a negative slide indeed with the chit-fund scam leading to its high-ranked leaders getting arrested one after the other with only the ‘politics of conspi-racy of the Centre’ left as the shield to fight back. On the other hand the BJP is being projected by the media analysts and political practitioners as the next big hope for West Bengal primarily based on its massive majority in the Lok Sabha and some seats in the State during the last Lok Sabha elections. Even very recently its student wing, the ABVP, has bagged two student union elections in a rural area in West Bengal and has fared well in a few other colleges as well in that area. Whereas the Congress party’s present position is reflected in the opinion of its State President based on the argument that this is a party born in West Bengal which has not learnt to die in the face of odds, thereby meaning that it is always there in the fringes. The ‘no-choice’ scenario can simply be hypothetically stated as NOTA in the EVM. The Congress party has been sidelined at the national stage by the BJP and at the State level by the Trinamul Congress and to some extent the BJP as well. The Congress is vocally critical of both the Trinamul Congress and NDA Government at the State and Centre respectively. But it is without any leader, any programme and any action-plan at least in West Bengal to be offered in the electoral buffet as a promising space of hope. Even the latest visit of Rahul Gandhi did not direct an allout attack against the State, keeping in mind a possible alignment scenario with the TMC against the BJP at the Centre sometime in future.
The question here is: why are the Left parties not being considered as a possible ‘saviour’ of Bengal politics in the mainstream political analysis? This is because the decay that got entrenched in the thought-processes, programmes and actions of the Left parties leading to their defeat in the West Bengal Assembly elections and then a near extinction in Indian politics (judged from the Lok Sabha seats won in 2014) has prohibited analysts to bet on them. The call given by the last Chief Minister of the Left Front in West Bengal in 2005 for creating a ‘new developed Left Front’ (unnatotoro bamfront) in contrast to the ‘existing Left Front’ has not been translated into reality in the field by the members and supporters of the Left parties leading to a vacuum to be filled by movement-centric political parties like the Trinamul Congress. In retrospective analysis it can be said that the Left Front in West Bengal murdered its own political self by giving more importance to ‘Communism’ (the textual ideas in Marx and after Marx) than to ‘communism’ (consistent movements for translating Marxian ideas of creating a humane equal social order) with the Party and Government getting intermixed and interwoven. As a result today the ‘party-movement’ of the Trinamul Congress gets legitimised by highlighting the acts of its predecessors. And in West Bengal, the strong bastion of Leftist politics of social democratic revolution, any new party like the Trinamul Congress can claim that the Left experience is indeed a learning experience! At present Bengal politics is again nearing a political vacuum. But should the Left parties, like the Trinamul Congress, only cash in on the negatives of governance? Or should they try to transform themselves in their thought-processes, programmes and actions? The Left parties could well keep in mind the closing speech of Hugo Chavez at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil—”We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.” The Left parties will do well to have a make-over of their image to be a truly ‘new regenerated Left Front’ as soon as possible. Signs in that direction are getting reflected in the large numbers of people being drawn to their rallies, as are being witnessed these days in protests against the chit-fund scam and the ringing of farewell bells for the existing Central and State leaderships.
Section-III — Recycled Trinamul Politics?
“Men make history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
Marx and Engels: 1975, p. 103)
The Trinamul Congress Government is under stress and strain following the proven close nexus between premier chit-fund agencies (Saradha and Rose Valley) and high-ranked leaders of the party, including MPs and MLAs. Interestingly the names that were floated by the Chief Minister herself in an ignorant tone denying the alleged involvement in the chit-fund case are now being taken into the CBI custody in the same sequence as she floated. The last two names were of the earlier General Secretary of the AITC (who has been now sidelined in the party) and herself. Opposition leaders in West Bengal are now clamouring for the arrest of the last two while the government is doing what it could best do now—resorting to the politics of denial and politics of conspiracy. Frustration, distress and tension have pushed the TMC to such an extent that they are clamouring for the arrest of national political figures, particularly of the BJP, by showing pictures of them with Subrata Roy (owner of Sahara Group of Industries in custody) as the TMC leaders are seen in pictures with Sudipta Sen (owner of the Saradha Group of companies). But now after the red diary, black shawl, protests by the TMC in Parliament premises, the party has realised that bonhomie with the Centre is the best way to divert attention of the masses and hence Modi and Mamata are seen in the same frame, from smiles at President’s dinner in India to laughter in the PM’s visiting team in Bangladesh. From a ‘picture perfect’ political and electoral debut in West Bengal and national politics to this ‘picture politics’ to keep up a good image—the TMC has indeed traversed a full cycle.
One needs to understand the Trinamul Congress-in-government better before ringing the death-knell of the TMC. There has been a large number of achievements in the governance field in West Bengal—tackling the issue of Jangalmahal (Maoist red corridor) and Gorkhaland agitation in a mature manner; bringing administration to the doorsteps through ‘foot-loose’ administration (visit to districts by all administrative bureaucrats); providing economic benefits to a large number of young boys and girls; shifting of the administrative head office to Hooghly district from Kolkata to reflect flexibility; efforts to invite industries by convincing them otherwise even while sticking firm to the TMc’s commitment of not giving large acres of farmlands to the investors; the decorative upliftment of the city of joy and its surroundings through trident lights; religiously celebrating the birth or death anniversaries of the stars of Bengal’s literary and cultural spheres; providing regular early monthly salary to school teachers; envisioning increase of connectivity between districts; and, most importantly, an integrated, time-bound e-governance scenario. In the face of these one can cite flaws in administration but there is no denying that some new vistas in political administrative matter were opened by this government and no criticism of this gover-nance pattern has led to public grievance against this government. The TMC is still a powerful federal political force in Indian politics with 34 MPs in the Lok Sabha and leads the dissenting voice of the federation as reflected recently in the unanimity of all State Finance Ministers with the West Bengal Finance Minister’s position on the proposed 122nd amendment to the Indian Consti-tution on surcharges on goods and services. The Trinamul Congress is an example of ‘generative politics’ that is highlighted by Anthony Giddens. Generative politics is, above all, committed to the creation, development and sustenance of economic opportunities and social commitments in the context of the plural reality in which we live. David Miliband contrasts this with ‘blue-print’ politics for the future or the politics of end-states on which the socialists have stood fairly long. (Miliband: 1994, p. 5) One must also understand that without the TMC the present electoral scene in West Bengal is that of a fractured or hung one.
The Trinamul Congress needs to recycle its politics—from being frustrated and worried by the arrests of high-ranked leaders and entering into nasty lingua politics to focusing more on the good governance and development agenda on which it was voted to power. Those leaders who have been put behind bars must be seen as soldiers/players retired hurt in a prolonged battle. It is really sad that a historic electoral success could blaze unfettered for only three years. But the TMC should take inspiration from Marx’s comment that circumstances and actions of the past affect the present. If the association of the TMC leaders with chit-fund agencies was a fact of pre-and post-2011 having such high negative influence on the present, then there are some high signposts of the TMC in State and national politics during 2011-14 that can have a positive impact (if properly played up) on its role in West Bengal politics in the coming days.
The only point is to evolve a new strategy of being silent and doing development-related work as elections are fought on the basis of promises made and delivered. Many criticise the sudden disappearance of the West Bengal Chief Minister to places of scenic beauty for relaxation but this is a good prescription to undertake new strategies. Satyajit Ray gave a hint of this option through his song—“Dukhho kishe hoy? Obhagar obhabe jeno sudhu noy,... jar bhandare rashi rashi, sona dana thasha thashi taro hoy...jeno seo sukhi noy....Dukhho kishe jay?.... prasadete bondi howa boro daey...akbar tajiye sonar godi, raja mathe neme jadi hawa khay, tobe raja shanti paey....”(What is the source of sadness?..... Not only in the distress of the unlucky person.... even someone having heaps of gold stored can suffer same discomfort...be mindful that even a rich person is not happy...What is the cure for sadness?...it’s very suffocating to remain enslaved in the Palace...if for once the King leaves his golden throne to breathe fresh air in the field, the King can be in peace......”). (Roy, 1968) Thus one must understand that the TMC leader, Mamata Banerjee, is still very much rooted in the common man’s paradise—in the political/social space of ‘ma-maati-manush’.
“Every age adopts an image of itself—a certain horizon, however blurred and imprecise, which somehow unifies its whole experience.”
(Laclau: 1990, p.3)
West Bengal politics of the new millennium is a ‘politics of survival’ as against the earlier decades of ‘politics of choice’ between comfort and struggle, between the bourgeois/capitalist ideology and socialist ideology, between state power and people’s power. Contemporary politics in the State is about surviving politically and electorally. While due to some policy-faults, the Left parties failed to survive, the Trinamul Congress is finding it even more difficult due to inner deficiencies—inter-party clashes, arrest of high-profile leaders, failure to attract investment for industrilaisation on a large scale. Though these are all hazards associated with high expectations and a sudden massive mandate, the Trinamul Congress lacks the astuteness, intelligence, experience and organisation to tackle them. Thus now for them the ‘politics of survival’ has been translated into the ‘struggle for survival’ for which there is a need for the recycling of ‘recycled politics’—to extract the enthusiasm from the lingua politics of brand TMC and soak it in new slogans of development, industrialisation and equitable distribution of justice to outnumber the anti-slogans of Saradha, theft and resignation.
With its participation as an important federal power in fruitful bilateral negotiations like in Bangladesh, the TMC seems to have understood the avenue of being recycled. The Left parties too are into a ‘struggle for survival’ mode re-energised by the directionless Trinamul under the whirl-wind of the chit-fund scam. Even the Left needs a recycling of their thought-processes, programmes and action-plans to contemporise them and regroup amongst themselves so that their coming political experiments in West Bengal and national politics are guided by the maxim—‘Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better’. In an era of successful hok-kolorob (let the cacophony of voices prevail) and halla-bol (articulate the noise of protest), West Bengal politics has a prospect in the masses, particularly among the youth, conscious and cautious of their rights.
But the retrospective analysis of State politics reveals that it is in the duty towards the State/government, the party and the public combined together that a meaningful era of governance can be ushered in and by recycling this combination through the activities of ‘new age’ tech-savy political parties can West Bengal be taken to a secured destination for development, industriali-sation and good governance. So let us stop accusing ‘Caesar’ (the given ruler of the blame-world) and instead start searching for and then end the play of ‘Brutus’ (the initiators of this clumsy state of affairs) in the ‘devil’s courtyard’ (the engaging, sensitive, conscious public) of West Bengal politics.
Agamben, Giorgio (2000): Means without Ends: Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, London.
Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek (2000): (eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contem-porary Dialogues on the Left, Verso, London.
Laclau, Ernesto (1990): New reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, Verso, London.
Marx and Engels (1975): Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Miliband, Daivd (1994): (ed), Reinventing the Left, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Roy, Satyajit (1968): Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen (A Bengali film).
William, Raymond (1989): Resources of Hope.
Pratip Chattopadhyay is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kalyani (Nadia, West Bengal). He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org