It is now over a decade since I moved out of Calcutta. But watching the news last week, I felt I was back. As I saw those terrible shots of policemen beating up women in Nandigram, as I read about the massacre of innocent villagers, and as I noted the cold, commissar-like response of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to the killings, I remembered what it was like to live in West Bengal.
The following day, as Mamata Banerjee shouted into the TV cameras, as her spokesman Derek O’Brien referred to Buddhadeb as a ‘lunatic’ on TV, and as a Bengal bandh ensured that millions of people were inconvenienced (ambulance drivers were prevented from reaching the sick), I realised how little things had changed.
Like the rest of us, the people of West Bengal get the politicians they deserve. They get the thugs and murderers of the CPM and they get the hysterical, self-destructive opposition of Mamata Banerjee. Small wonder then that while Bengalis prosper all over the world (and in the rest of India), Bengal remains a backwater, always at least a decade behind the rest of the country.
When I first moved to Calcutta in 1986, Jyoti Basu was already India’s longest-serving chief minister and the subject of universal admiration among the middle class — outside of Calcutta. Within the state capital itself, many educated people took an entirely different view.
It wasn’t that they did not admire Basu’s stature — it was the rest of him that they disapproved of. The general view then was that while he was a well-educated bhadralok (unlike the north Indian politicians whom Bengalis love to despise), his reputation outside the state was based on hot air. His credentials as a man of the people were dented by his love of the good life, by the annual trip to London in the summer (always on some pretext; it was never described as a holiday), by his son’s dodgy reputation and by his complete intolerance of dissent.
A couple of years before I moved to Calcutta, Ananda Bazar Patrika, where I worked, had suffered a violent and disastrous strike. The violence had emanated not so much from disgruntled employees as from professional activists affiliated to the CPM. In those days, the group’s Bengali daily was anti-communist and the party had decided that ABP had to be punished. ABP employees were beaten up outside the office and the police determinedly looked the other way — they had orders from the government not to intervene.
But even Jyoti Basu was considered a pro-free speech liberal compared to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the classic humour-less, dour communist. When City of Joy was shot in Calcutta during my time there, Jyoti Basu was broadly supportive of the filming. It was Buddhadeb who opposed the decision. His view was not motivated by any sense of literary high-mindedness (I thought, at first, that he might have disapproved of the idiotically sentimental Dominique Lapierre book on which the film was based) but out of a conviction that evil Westerners had arrived to denigrate his city.
It is traditional now to regard the CPM as being the most honest party in India and, given the financial integrity of the current leadership, this is probably accurate. But when I lived in Calcutta, we joked that the M in CPI(M) stood for ‘Marwari’ because so many of the party’s leading lights were clearly in the pay of the city’s dominant business community.
But the corruption worried us less than the violent streak at the centre of the CPM. Like most successful communist parties, the CPM is cadre-based. And like communists everywhere, its cadres cling to the totalitarian view that individuals are less important than The Cause.
Anybody with some experience of rural West Bengal will tell you that the CPM has done an outstanding job in land reform since it came to power in 1977. But they will also admit that the price Bengal has paid for this is to allow the cadres to take over the villages.
In many rural areas, communist cadres dominate everyday life with the same ruthless efficiency demonstrated by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka. More than the police or the local administration, it is the cadres who wield the real power. They routinely rig elections (though I reckon the CPM would win anyway though perhaps with smaller margins) and impose a reign of terror on the villagers, murdering anyone who dares defy their authority.
In Calcutta we saw the cadres in action when the party required a show of strength. On election day, they would prevent people who were likely to vote for the Opposition from reaching the polling booths. When bandhs were declared, they would ensure that Calcutta shut down.
It was generally accepted that the police would never intervene if CPM cadres were involved. And sometimes the cops would actually lend a hand. It was in the early 1990s (I think) that Mamata Banerjee learnt this the hard way. During a Calcutta bandh, she was publicly assaulted and so comprehensively thrashed by a police party that she had to spend months in hospital recovering. As journalists and editorialists, we were outraged. But the CPM didn’t give a damn to what the papers said.
Oddly enough, the rest of India — or, at least, educated urban India — never saw the CPM as a party based on violent, totalitarian cadres with a Stalinist intolerance of dissent and opposition. Nobody commented on the corruption. Or on the intrigues that ensured that control of the party remained in the hands of a small band of apparatchiks.
When these commissars — most of whom rarely stood for election — held forth on democracy and the will of the people, they were listened to with a baffling respect. When they complained about the fascist core at the heart of the Sangh Parivar, nobody pointed out that all totalitarian parties — including their own — had such a core. When they spoke about free speech, few people pointed to the CPM’s own mixed record in this regard.
When they treated the machinations and intrigues of Indian politics with lofty disdain, most of us failed to point out that their own party was as full of manipulation and petty feuds. And when they lectured us about the evils of capitalism, we rarely reminded them that Jyoti Basu had repackaged himself as the businessman’s best pal while sipping Scotch with the city’s richer Marwaris.
I thought back to my years in Calcutta when I saw the TV footage of the Nandigram massacre. Anybody who has lived in Calcutta will understand at once what happened. The CPM had tolerated the defiance of the villagers for long enough. If they were unwilling to give up their land for the greater good then they had to be punished. And so, in the finest traditions of global communism, the cadres were despatched on a mission that would have done Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-Tung proud. They beat up the villagers, murdered a few people and terrorised the area. The tame police force followed and shot the few innocents who continued to protest.
Was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee responsible? I doubt it. My guess is that the cadres listen to the apparatchiks and not to the chief minister. It is no secret that large chunks of the Politburo would like to see Bhattacharjee go. And so, they don’t really care how much the massacre embarrasses him or whether his position has now become untenable. Elected politicians will come and go. But the grim-faced men who run the cadres will go on forever.
What followed was as sadly predictable. Mamata Banerjee represents one of the great wasted opportunities of Indian politics. There was a time, in the early 1990s, when I thought she had it in her to topple Jyoti Basu and to lead a revolt against the stranglehold of the CPM.
Alas, Mamata has proved to be her own worst enemy. When she should have fought Jyoti Basu, she fought Pranab Mukherjee. When she should have rallied her troops, she quarrelled with her closest aides. When she should have led the Congress, she linked up with the BJP. When she should have stuck by the BJP, she deserted the NDA in the aftermath of the Tehelka sting.
You see her now on TV screeching loudly while her spokespeople destroy their own case with childish abuse. You know that beneath the hysteria lurks the truth. But you know also that this outburst too will fade, that Mamata will soon shoot herself in the foot again and that she will slip back into sulky electoral oblivion. The CPM cadres will continue to rule the villages. And the party’s leaders will once again deliver self-righteous little speeches about how everybody else is wrong and they are right.
What is it about Bengal, I wonder, that ensures that not only does the CPM get away with murder but that all of the Opposition, from Mamata Banerjee to the pathetically inept Congress, always destroys itself?
Nobody I spoke to in all my years in Calcutta had an answer. Or was able to explain why the state voluntarily opted for a one-party system run by a totalitarian cadre.
I call it the Bengal paradox. And until we learn why Bengalis, who shine wherever they go, are so different when they are at home, we will never understand the hold an obsolete 19th-century totalitarian ideology has on a state full of some of India’s most talented and intelligent people.