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Where change means no change

india Updated: May 04, 2011 21:39 IST
Soumitra Das

What does Mamata Banerjee stand for? She says that the traditional ideological dichotomy between Left and Right does not apply to her. What she probably means is that she hasn’t thought about the question or that she garners her votes wherever she can in a context where the Left’s traditional constituents — the rural masses and the urban proletariat — are in a state of flux.

However, being a political person, she cannot escape ideology. Does she believe that the government has an important say in running the economy or should it all be left to the private sector? Would she use buoyant tax revenues to invest in the social sector or would she give tax sops to the middle-class and the rich? She also says she is pro-people.

What does she mean by people? The rural masses? The urban proletariat? The urban middle-class? The rich?

The answer in this case is probably the rural masses and the urban proletariat, which is where the numbers are. That would make her a Leftist. But then how does one explain the existence of the very right of centre Amit Mitra of Ficci in her ranks? All this amounts to a certain incoherence in Banerjee’s political thinking, an incoherence that manifests itself in her speeches and in her actions.

She says that one should talk to the Maoists and find a solution through dialogue. Then, almost in the same breath, she says she wants to transform Calcutta into London. If Calcutta is to become London then West Bengal must become Britain, a multi-trillion dollar economy.

However, the most mysterious element in Banerjee’s thinking, if it can be called that, are the words ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’. These words were first uttered in the aftermath of the Tatas pulling out of Singur. The words themselves have not been coined by Banerjee, but are taken from a popular folk play. Literally, ‘Ma’ means mother (Mother goddess? Durga? Kali? Motherland?); ‘Mati’ means soil (sons and daughters of the soil? A peasant’s sacred relationship with the soil he tills?) and ‘Manush’ means people.

Whatever be the meaning — and Banerjee might want to leave these ambiguities alone in the hope of appearing all things to all people — there is little doubt that they circumscribe an area of sacredness and an incipient Bengali sub-nationalism.

‘Ma, mati, manush’ is sacred; Tata’s Nano factory is not. This way she takes care of the rural primacy. Rural primacy means that the countryside and only the countryside has the numbers that count in a democracy such as we have. It means that, at least at the level of discourse, the economic and political interests of the rural masses take priority and their worldview is treated with due respect, that they are reassured that their traditional value-systems are not going to be radically overthrown, that there is going to be no cultural revolution.

It is due to this rural primacy that the political class in India weighs upon our necks like a conservative millstone. Banerjee is not threatening this rural primacy.

Even the CPI(M) has done nothing to challenge this rural primacy. This is because the undivided communist party lost its revolutionary character the day it decided to become a participant in India’s fragile electoral politics. It was bound by the same electoral logic as all the other bourgeois parties and was, therefore, in no position to act upon the cultural conservatism of the rural masses.

In fact, the CPI(M) took rural primacy to paroxysmic heights.

However, it is the CPI(M)’s belated realisation that no economy can progress without industrialisation that threatened the rural primacy in Bengal. And this partly explains the virulence of the backlash it faces as a consequence of its actions in Nandigram and Singur.

Industrialisation cuts the peasant’s umbilical cord with the land, and reconstitutes him as an autonomous individual, free to choose his own identity. He is free to reject the 'community' and the traditional belief systems and value systems that it holds true. Industrialisation threatens the very fabric of rural society and marginalises in a manner that would be culturally revolutionary.

It is not clear whether Mamata Banerjee herself knows what she stands for, excepting for a resurgence of the sacred within politics, a notion that the rural masses have cherished and held fast to through 34 years of communist rule. ‘Paribartan’, in this context, does not mean change.

It means more of the same.

(Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal)