Bengal is not Kolkata and Kolkata is not Bengal. This is a formulation and fact that predates the ‘Ma, Maati, Manush’ (Mother, Land, People) tag line of today’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal. And this will continue to be so till Kolkata stops being the only point of contact the state has with the proverbial outside world.
The Left Front government that had ruled West Bengal for more than three decades prior to the TMC occupying the seat of power in 2011 had always been masters of straightforward arithmetic. Kolkata district, comprising the city and its suburbs, makes for a mere 11 of the 294 assembly seats (excluding the one seat nominated from the Anglo-Indian community that inevitably comes from Kolkata).
Out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, the city provides two seats — five more if you include the ‘suburbs’ of Jadavpur, Dum Dum, Barrackpur, Barasat and Diamond Harbour. Even after including adjoining urban areas such as the town of Howrah as part of the larger urban sprawl, one is left with a West Bengal that politically, socially and existentially resides outside Kolkata — something that the local news channels actually reflect more or less faithfully to the puzzlement of most middle-class Kolkatans, Bengalis included.
Which is why despite its consistent poor electoral show in Kolkata, the CPI(M)-led Left Front had managed to hold on to the reins and pull the bit of West Bengal all those years with — despite the ‘scientific riggings’ during elections — genuine support. Which is also why, after the tactical victories of Singur in Hooghly and Nandigram in East Midnapur, the TMC was able to breach the ‘Red Fort’ of the communists in 2011. The war for West Bengal was always fought outside the oasis of Kolkata in the rural hinterlands.
Over the last two years, Mamata Banerjee may have been the villainous centrepiece for Kolkatans raging against her megalomaniac ways. But grievous matters such as branding any critic as a ‘Maoist’, launching a tirade against the media, hauling people off for posting cartoons of her on Facebook, having structures in Kolkata painted TMC-approved blue and installing cosmetic street lights that make no luminescent or financial sense... all such behaviour and actions cut no ice among the overwhelming majority of people living outside Kolkata.
All that has changed in one stroke with the collapse of the Saradha company and the subsequent decimation of the savings — in many cases, life savings — of lakhs of common people, the TMC’s ‘manush’, most of whom are outside the relatively gilded cage of Kolkata.
The ruling party is now desperately trying to extricate itself from the Saradha group. It is flailing about in the hope that the same people who were unable to spot a scheme crying out ‘420!’ simply because so many TMC leaders, the chief minister included, were literally seen associated with it, will now suddenly be savvy enough to conclude that association with and endorsement of a robber is not tantamount to being a robber.
And the Saradha disclosure is very likely to be the beginning of a longer, larger litany of woes for the lakhs of people in West Bengal who saw in Banerjee and the TMC a platform for their aspirations, a reflection of themselves.
The horror of having ‘one of us’ being at the helm of one’s destruction is a betrayal at a gargantuan level. To hear dozens of investors and agents citing suicide as ‘the only way out’ may sound deeply melodramatic. But Bengal’s politics has always been deeply entwined with this kind of intense melodrama that lurches from farce to tragedy and back again.
The TMC’s defence of not being in power when Saradha was set up, and thereby having nothing to do with the company, would have made the many robbed depositors guffaw were they not busy facing the horrors of wipe-out. That this particular chit fund company cash-rolled Banerjee’s grand plan to set up an array of (pro-)TMC media publications and television channels even when it was in the Opposition has been well reported both in the Bengali press as well as in the national English language media.
But the matter of the ruling TMC — like its Left Front predecessor that oversaw the Sanchaita chit fund scandal in the early 80s and continued to let dozens of dodgy ‘savings schemes’ to bloom — setting up a propaganda machinery, steamrolling dissent, having its cadres attack educational institutions, making a fetish out of de-industrialisation never really bothered the people of West Bengal beyond those sophisticates in the state capital.
What has finally pained Bengal is this decapitation. The ‘manush’ who brought Mamata Banerjee to power, the real architects of what constituted ‘poriborton’ (change) in 2011, those who decide the 280-odd assembly seats and the 35-odd parliamentary seats, now find themselves brutalised by ‘Kolkata’, ironically under its most un-Kolkatan chief minister.
It is one thing for the people of non-Kolkata Bengal to have cheered on Banerjee’s ‘Robin Hood’ policy. With more tumblings of bogus Ponzi schemes expected, it’s quite another to find oneself the victim of a treacherous ‘Dooh Nibor’, one who steals from the poor and gives to the loyal rich.