by Pratik Deb for AlaloDulal.org
My first political procession was in the wake of arrival of George W. Bush in India. It was the beginning of March, 2006 and thus Iraq war was on its third year. I cannot exactly recall the stated purpose of his visit, but like all over the world the students of Kolkata did not hesitate to demonstrate their dissent against ‘western imperialism’. Communist Party of India (Marxist) led left front was still in the helms of affair in West Bengal to the extent that everything in the province on their opposition seemed miniscule to the extent of non-existence and we realized that bitter truth on the day of procession when our small clique-like independent student organization led rally was swamped by another procession arranged by CPI(M) and its various organs. Somehow the experience remained with me not because of my personal involvement, but because of the harsh irony it carried within itself: a political party, seemingly managing and micromanaging the parliamentary democratic process to an extent to systematically eliminate every possible opposition only to end up, seven years down the road, on the opposite spectrum of things.
Anyone going through the headlines of today’s Kolkata based news-paper would really have a tough time imagining the political prowess Trinamool Congress used to hold back then, not only because they now seem as all powerful as once CPI(M) used to be, but because their rise to this gargantuan amount of authority seemed to come almost from nowhere. The dissimilarity of the political scenario from the other provinces of Indian union is so stark that it is hard, if not impossible, to communicate the metamorphosis that took place in the political discourse of the state during last three decades. It is almost incredible how in a province of the subcontinent, where people are already carrying so many identities and divided as well as united by them, the political identity became the principle point of dialogue. Obviously that does not mean that the division of caste, creed and race evaporated or became inconsequential. Those divisions remained as they were, and they were a strong determinant of political games being played in the particular area; but in the game of political violence, what superseded everything was the political identity, one’s inclusion in the party, one’s indulgences either with the ‘red’ or the ‘green’. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that counted was if you are with them or with us: that’s the thing that could get you killed or decided if you can take home the paddy you’ve grown in your own land.
One may argue that politicization of hooliganism is nothing new in the context of the subcontinent. If we look into the turmoil in Bangladesh, closest analogue of West Bengal in terms of socio-cultural normative, we would see some invariable similarities. But unlike Bangladesh, the involvement or rather dominance of religion in the mainstream of political discourse is conspicuously absent except for some occasion pandering to a few religious communities in certain pockets of the state that the parliamentary democracy necessitates. Yet the invasion of religious fundamentalism in the political dialogue is majorly missing.
Certainly there are many nuances of power that evolved, certainly we could have talked about them: such as patriarchal form of power that we see being exerted by the henchmen of the ruling party during Singur or Nandygram; or we could talk about the evolution that CPI(M) itself went through regarding their stance of industrialization led by corporate capital but none of them would led us to understand the polarity of the political scenario we witness today. Sure the polarity has shifted against the then ruling party, who probably more than anyone else helped to create and extend this clear dichotomy especially in the suburban and rural space of the society, but the polarity remains none-the-less. Also remains the use of violence as a tool of dialogue between two main-stream political parties. There’s very few, if any, example of bloodshed among the supporters of two parties indulging themselves in parliamentary process (and not armed struggle against the state) in any of the other provinces in India to the scope and extent to which it turned into very much of a characteristic of every general election of West Bengal.
Ever since they got trounced in the legislative election in 2011, CPI(M) is finding themselves at the receiving end of that violence, but we have to bear in mind that no one systematized and legitimized this violent games as much as they did. I would not go into the argument if it was originally their brain-child or if it was a milder, a less sinister adaptation of Sidhartha Sankar Ray model of seventies that CPI(M) lent and now, seemingly, TMC is using: the single most obvious feature under all these regime is the disappearance of a contestant in the fringes. During the rulings of the left front, the number of panchayat seats left uncontested soared every term. The stronghold of its various organs, be it co-ordination committee or students’ federation of India, in almost all the employee and students’ union was unanimous to the extent that there was no election. The unanimity was so homogenous across most spheres of socio-political life that it was hard to believe that in the general election, about forty percent of people actually voted against the ruling party!
Now, obviously, the table has turned. During the last Panchayat election, the so-called red districts of the western part of the province seemed to have turned completely green, much to the dismay of CPI(M) and its allies, but that shock seems more affected than authentic. The reading on the walls was rather obvious, TMC is playing the same game that CPI(M) did not that long ago, and they are playing it with more vengeance and ruthlessness than their predecessors. Thus, in a way, TMC seems as formidable and as invincible as CPI(M) of nineties or early two thousand when, thanks to their lackluster opponents, their electoral runs had to be mostly depicted by the media as a fight against either Maoists or even the election commission. Perhaps that fate does not await TMC, a party much less regimented and organized; perhaps TMC is more vulnerable, being centered around a person rather than a cadre-driven local-committee-motored system; perhaps the recent scandal surrounding Kunal Ghosh and Sarda group would be enough to be the beginning of their fall, perhaps…
The bottom-line remains that the political dialogue would not change with the rise or fall of TMC-CPM. The traits that the democracy of West Bengal has acquired over the years – the staunch polarized state yet the easy convertibility, the violence associated with every political affair that renders human life flimsy and worthless, the rootlessness of the talking points and ideologues, none of them are going to change in the near future. And there rests our tragic certainty, almost at the point of being a fatalist blow on the conscience, not only of the illuminated elites residing at the center but also of the people holding on to the margins. And there lay our greatest perils and our strongest hope.
Pratik Deb is a medical doctor and a former active member of the independent students-youth movement in Kolkata.