Nature abhors a vacuum. The Left Front government of West Bengal, however, has had no such qualms for decades. Now, that might sound odd, accusing an uninterrupted 32-year-old regime known for its mixing of politics with every single aspect of life of, at best, groping in the dark and, at worst, of being an absentee landlord.
But the fact of the matter is that the grievous violence that the state has been witnessing since last Thursday in the old CPI(M) stronghold of West Midnapore didn’t suddenly tumble out of the sky in the form of Maoist thunderclaps.
The conditions that have led people to fall for the seductive charms of violent revolt were being pressure-cooked for years. An administration had long forgotten to recognise, never mind keep, its part of the bargain with the very people who had given the CPI(M)-led front its generational power and the pelf that comes with it.
There were no plans of any automobile factory or chemical hub being hatched by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee anywhere near the towns of Lalgarh and Dharampur in West Midnapore. With no land acquisition controversy raging — unlike in the Trinamool-breeding grounds of the adjoining districts of East Midnapore (Nandigram) and Hugli (Singur) — the problems facing the people in this district were different.
Take the case of Kuna Sabar, a resident of Darra village in West Midnapore’s Belpahari sub-district. On December 22, 2007 — when a million miles away in Calcutta, people were frantically speculating about the return of Sourav Ganguly in the Indian cricket squad — Sabar died of hunger. If his cause of death (confirmed by a doctor) wasn’t shameful enough for a government that took pride in prioritising the concerns of its rural masses, the subdivisional officer’s response to the death was horrific. He said that documents showed that Sabar had bought “8 kg rice, 2 kg wheat and 2.4 kg sugar” from the ration shop “between December 2 and December 16”. Effectively, he was telling Sabar’s widow that his death must have been her husband’s fault.
Sabar is just one statistic. During 2004-2005, a year before the Left Front won the 2006 assembly polls by a landslide, dozens of ‘hunger deaths’ across Bengal were recorded by the Asian Human Rights Commission. And these sordid deaths were overwhelmingly because of utter administrative failures. Till January 2008, only 34 people in West Midnapore, for instance, had received the minimum 100-day job and corresponding pay under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The remaining earned wages for an average of 11.6 days.
In a universe where bureaucrats, academics,policemen, the cogs and wheels of administration and governance are deeply entrenched in ‘party affiliations’, accountability can only be a silly theological notion for bourgeois ‘management types’. It is this affliction of apathy — and of genuinely being stumped about why people might be enraged about pointless deaths, of living in life-defying poverty — that really makes for something rotten in the state of Bengal.
What applies to administrative ignorance (an evolutionary byproduct of administrative apathy) holds true for a police force that simply doesn’t know anything about crowd control or how to tackle a riotous mob. Either the police do nothing (as they did when the Maoist-goaded People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities in Lalgarh first marched to the CPI(M) zonal headquarters in Dharampur last week to destroy any signs of the CPI(M)/administration and attack party workers), or they shoot first and ask questions later (as they so memorably did in Nandigram on March 14, 2007).
Only in Left-ruled Bengal do you get armed partymen being regularly and openly sent to ‘capture and liberate’ towns and villages that have fallen in the ‘wrong hands’. The police arrive at the scene later, if the comrades and their local commissars have failed to do their job. As this is being written, the state government has finally let the police and security forces enter Lalgarh to ‘reclaim’ it from the Maoist ‘invaders’. It will remain unclear for a long while whether this reclamation is being conducted at the behest of the CPI(M) or the people of Lalgarh, considering that the concerns of the two are different and almost diametrically opposite.
Distance is not only gauged by physical expanses, but also by one’s reach. Cadres once took care of the reach of the CPI(M)’s politics, something that Bhattacharjee and his predecessor Jyoti Basu believed to be the same as governance. Now, as the Left Front’s political grasp wanes, the fact that it never really governed West Bengal is being exposed once and for all. In this growing, billowing vacuum, as the old apparatchiks know only too well, taking control is just a matter of effective piecemeal strategy.