Why has it taken the people of West Bengal 34 years to challenge the Left Front? To find an answer to that question, I travelled to the state recently.
One theory is that the people had no clue they had an alternative. “I’ve just been told that we can change the state government,” said a grizzled old voter, adding that he could hardly believe his ears. He explained he thought elections were just a method of weeding out counter-revolutionaries, like in China. “We had heard whispers that something called democracy existed in exotic places like Mumbai and Delhi,” another veteran told me, “but we assumed that was imperialist propaganda.” A young woman was rather bewildered by it all. “Doesn’t the Left Front own Writers’ Buildings?” she asked, referring to the state secretariat. “If they don’t have the title deeds,” she added, “at least they must be having a long-term lease agreement.”
Another hypothesis is that people were too scared. Some of them said they had heard of revolts against Communist rule, such as the Hungarian uprising and the Prague spring, but they knew these had been put down with an iron hand. “We were worried about being exiled to Siberia or Bihar,” said a nervous young man. At that moment a group of people burst in, excitedly shouting that the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was no more.
Another theory is that people had forgotten about life before the communists came, although older people still treasure dim memories of that era. An old man nostalgically talked of the time when there were jobs. “What’s a job, grandpa?” asked a young man. The ancient one explained that jobs were things they used to have before the Left Front liberated people from wage slavery. Another claimed to have heard rumours of plentiful jobs in other states. “I can’t wait to be a wage slave and have surplus value extracted from me,” said a young woman eagerly. An anxious young chap asked me whether he was good enough to be exploited. “Please grandma, I want to see fat capitalists dancing on the graves of exploited workers,” pleaded a child, while her grandmother regaled the kids with fairly tales of procession-free roads, bandh-free days and union-free factories humming with activity.
Yet another conjecture is that the Left Front had managed to fool the people successfully all these days. “I always used to vote for the CPI, said a worker from Midnapore, “because they told me it stood for the Congress Party of India”. But the story that many people voted for the CPI(M) because they thought they were voting for the Congress Party of India (Madam), the madams in question being Indira and Sonia, is simply not true.
Others pooh-pooh these theories. They point out that people in Bengal know very well what’s going on all over the world. “I’ve been planning to vote for the last decade,” said a young worker, “but I was too busy discussing things in the coffee house.” Another said he was busy with his drama rehearsals while a third chap said he planned to vote as soon as he had finished his epic poem on Diego Maradona. Another said he had forgotten that anybody ruled the state at all. A young woman said the temptation to stay in bed on election day had always proved too strong. According to this thesis, the people of Bengal were just too lazy to do anything about it. This time, will Mamata’s extraordinary energy galvanise them into action?
( Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint )
The views expressed by the author are personal