Despite being very upset over the developments centering on Nandigram over the last few months, I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the issue up till now (not that I imagine the comments of someone like me would give the powers that be some sleepless nights!): but now a few words are in order.
Before I launch into my current commentary, I should like to issue a disclaimer, to the effect that I have been politically non-partisan lifelong, avoided politicians of all hues as a matter of principle since I quit journalism back in 1988, I have strong leftist sympathies (as more than one post on this blog will testify); and if compelled to vote I shall still vote for the CPI(M) simply because I cannot see a coherent and credible alternative yet. I think I can clinch my bonafides by pointing out that despite becoming steadily more and more disillusioned with Left politics in Bengal over the last 20 years, I congratulated the present chief minister in the following letter to the editor of The Telegraph (published May 15, 2006) right after his massive electoral victory with a vigorous and seemingly sincere agenda for reform:
While a decent, intelligent and hardworking chief minister like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his team must be congratulated for having won so convincingly, they should also be reminded of the heightened expectations of the people. The first among them is that the ruling party should not grow too smug and arrogant (especially at the grassroots level); second, that all the deadwood in the government should be removed; third, that we should soon begin to see concrete evidence of the new development programme percolating down to the masses; fourth, that the law-and-order situation will improve; fifth, that power and water might become more easily and reliably available; sixth, that something might be done about the burgeoning population, the root of most of our problems; seventh, that serious steps might be taken to check and reverse the massive environmental degradation that has already taken place; and finally, that many more opportunities might be created for talented people in both the arts and the sciences, so that the exodus of bright young minds to other states and abroad might be checked. This might sound like a tall order, but without these, Bhattacharjee’s dream of Bengal again leading the country will never materialize, and that is sure to take an electoral toll sooner or later.”
Indeed, over the last year and more, Bhattacharjee’s government has been showing some alacrity in at least trying to ensure that a great deal of land is quickly acquired to facilitate the setting up of a variety of new industries and businesses in various parts of the state, which, they claim, is the only way to fulfil the economic expectations of the people – an enormous fraction of whom are unemployed, desperately poor, and increasingly impatient for change. That is as it may be: I shall not join issue with that claim here. They may be quite right (at least from the long-term perspective: even a titan like Amartya Sen seems to believe so); perhaps they don’t even have a choice – if they cannot show reasonably quick results, their political survival might be at stake, and so also Bengal’s best interests. It may also be true that the opposition, such as it is in Bengal, has for its own short-sighted reasons, queered the pitch rather badly over the last year by resorting to less-than-fair and legitimate means of agitation over the land-grab issue, at Singur first and at Nandigram thereafter, pushing the ruling Front towards more and more desperate measures to regain what they perceived to be rapidly shifting political ground. In this context, nothing is more apposite than today’s lead editorial in The Telegraph, and I quote:
“… the alternative was open. It was always possible for any of the warring parties in Nandigram to ask for a full debate on the subject in the Vidhan Sabha. If this was not allowed, they could have appealed to the governor of the state to permit such a debate. This route was never tried; there are reasons to suspect that such an alternative was not even contemplated. Political parties know of the irrelevance of the legislative assembly because they themselves have made the institution irrelevant in West Bengal. Thus the state is that supreme incongruity: a democracy sans democratic institutions.” (Wednesday, November 14, 2007)
But this is not merely troublesome but terrifying as a prospect: it means that we are rapidly moving towards anarchy or some version of totalitarianism, where all notions of right and justice, decency and reason and compromise will be thrown to the winds, only the rule of raw might will prevail: one is automatically and always right as long as one wields the rod (and isn’t that pathetic when it is claimed by those whose only legitimacy comes from being democratically elected?) In such a situation, what difference can it make to very ordinary people like me whether the rulers call themselves liberal or communist or fascist or theocratic? A democratic government must listen, and occasionally defer to, the strident demands of the minority in the opposition: that is the only condition on which the minority can be expected, day in and day out, to accede peacefully to the impositions of the majority! But now it seems that if I do not toe the official line, I am not only bound to be wrong but immediately deserving of being abused, harassed and punished, whether I am a mediaman or a private citizen! Now if we all sadly agree that this is precisely what has happened, it is not surprising (though I find it most heartening) that a separate voice should arise to make the vitally necessary protests against crude highhandedness and callousness on the part of the people in power – that a large number of non-partisan (and normally apolitical) people; civilized, talented people, too, considerable achievers many of them, and held in high social esteem, should have taken (quietly and peaceably) to the streets, demanding that the government get off its high horse and start behaving with responsibility and restraint again. And it is the ruling party/government’s reaction to that development (as evident in the mass media till this evening) that dismays and frightens me. Leave alone the faceless apparatchiks and unlettered strongmen, a chief minister who publicly flaunts his cultural credentials – whom I had all along thought to be a basically decent, sharp and open-minded man – has now not only used strong-arm methods on poor villagers in Nandigram and also on a whole procession of intellectuals of the highest pedigree right in the heart of Calcutta, but blatantly insists that he has been right throughout, that whoever criticizes anything he does is a fraud, a nitwit, a stooge of the opposition, badly deluded – and, worst of all, that they are all apparently ignorant, trivial, worthless people hungry for the limelight!!! In a state where a ‘cultured’ chief minister can get away with branding people of the stature of Mrinal Sen, Sankho Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, Mamata Shankar, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Shubhaprasanno, Mahasweta Devi, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, Bivash Chakraborty, Anjan Dutta, Joy Goswami and Sumit Sarkar like that, what hope do ordinary people like us have of getting fair treatment – leave alone the millions of ignorant and obscure poor in the remote villages when they get into the rulers’ bad books for one reason or the other? And if the whole educated urban middle class (together they should count in millions!) does not rise up in angry protest to compel such a chief minister to apologise unconditionally and promise to behave better in future, how can we ever again boast of being a far more enlightened and free-spirited people than the denizens of many parts of India whom we still privately love to denigrate as ‘benighted’? Given a perfectly free hand, what kind of utopia is this government likely to create for us – what better than a window dressing of snazzy call centres and shopping malls and multiplexes thinly covering up a reign of abject terror and enforced servility? Firing on armed and hostile villagers I could condone, even putting some places temporarily beyond the reach of the media I could wink at – but abusing, ridiculing and manhandling the intelligentsia was the last straw: because that means that only people with deep pockets and private armies and top-level contacts in the ‘right’ party (no matter how stupid, uncouth and ignorant such people might be) can feel safe and live with a modicum of dignity in this state from now on!
And one final warning to the current rulers: anyone who lives by the sword is condemned to die by the sword. If brute force is allowed to decide everything, then some day a far mightier force can boot the CPI(M) unceremoniously not only out of office but in the ‘dustbin of history’ – one way would be to unleash the public’s real anger and bitterness and disgust at the polls after putting the state under President’s rule, thereby taking away control of the police from the ruling party’s hands and keeping the cadre locked up at home under the shadow of army guns and tanks. They have been shrewdly avoiding that horrid eventuality for thirty years now, but how much longer before the central government’s patience breaks, and political compulsions no longer prevent either the Congress or the BJP (or some bizarre combination of the two in the Lok Sabha) from deciding that enough is enough, and the CPI(M) should be permanently wiped off as a nuisance too big for its boots on the national political map by the simple expedient of eradicating it from the only state where it continues to really matter? Hubris leads rulers to their doom: that is one historical rule to which, I believe, there has not been a single exception in 6000 years of history!