I’m back in the death-defying city of Calcutta for a few hours. It’s a day after Rahul Gandhi finished his three-day tour of West Bengal and returned to Rahul’s and my favourite life-defying city of Delhi.
Twenty years ago, Rajiv Gandhi had, from close to where I’m sitting and having the world’s finest kachauri-sabzi at Mohan Lal just off the main thoroughfare of Chowringhee, quite correctly described Calcutta as a ‘dying city’. Even with his tag as a naïve, babe-in-the-woods political leader then, Rajiv couldn’t have blurted out that fact without a tactical reason. With the Congress out of power in Bengal for eight long years, and the Trinamool Congress still a polish on the glimmer in the eye of a 30-year-old Congress MP from Jadavpur constituency called Mamata Banerjee, he saw an opportunity to lambast the Left Front government in the state.
Since Rajiv’s visit, West Bengal may have moved from the ICU to somewhere closer to the burning pyres of Nimtolla Ghat, and it’s the CPI(M) government that’s been caught in the frame of the picture of a ‘dying city’ for a while now. Twenty-five years later Rajiv’s son spoke last week with the same intention in mind: the communists have been terrible and the Congress should be considered as a potential future buyer. Except there’s one problem: Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is in the way.
The well-stubbled one may have demanded what most Congressmen take as their birthright: “dignity and self-respect” from its ally, the Trinamool Congress. But the fact of the matter is that the Congress is almost as present here in Bengal as it is in Ulan Bator. Show me a person who knows anything about Bengal Congress chief Manas Bhuiyan and I’ll show you a Congress that’s not riding on Mamata’s cotton pallu. And Rahul knows this; thus the passive-aggression.
As I was lunching at Mocambo on Park Street, across the road from where Rahul had a meal at Peter Cat a few days ago, I asked a Kolkata-based anti-CPI(M) Bengal-watcher (and a Pranab Mukherjee fan) what he thought the prospects were of the Congress in post-Left Front Bengal. “They’re practically not here,” he said in between his mouthfuls of chicken sizzler and vodka. “Barring at the very local level, the Congress in Bengal is a joke.” Which makes me ponder about the post-Mamata scenario. Running a bit ahead of the script here, I would think that if and when people start realising some five years down the line that Trinamool-run Bengal looks funnily like a Left Front-run Bengal, will there be a ‘New Labour’ kind of Left Front regime that returns? For an overwhelmingly large crowd of those who will be voting for the Trinamool in 2011 will be really voting against the moribund Left Front. One suspects that it is keeping this in mind that Rahul made his ‘show-us-some-respect’ sound bite in Kolkata last week.
Over another lunch outside Kolkata in Raichowk at the fabulous Ganga Kutir in South 24 Parganas, I ask Kolkata-based real estate industrialist Harsh Neotia whether he sees any major shift coming in 2011 to the prime political property that Rahul’s just shown interest in. “Frankly, there will be new faces we will have to deal with, but that’s about it.” He dismisses the huge hulabaloo made of the Left Front’s failure to bring in industry into Bengal. “The focus was on Singur and the high-profile Tata Nano, so everyone made it a huge issue. I’m not saying that things are perfect in Bengal. But business and industry are as good and bad as in any other state in India.” And he’s someone I’m willing to believe, for Neotia, first a businessman then a Calcuttan, knows his business and would have upped and left Bengal a while ago if things were really that bad.
As for Rahul and his Congress in West Bengal, they should get the respect that they deserve. Next to the river here where it looks like a sea in Ganga Kutir, it’s a very different landscape from Uttar Pradesh. Or, for that matter, Delhi.