Shortly after the Trinamool Congress came to power in West Bengal, I was invited to speak at a university convocation in that state. I flew in the day before the event, and was met at Kolkata airport by the university’s registrar. A three-hour drive to our destination followed. I was then taken on a tour of the campus, concluding with a visit to the auditorium where the convocation was to be held. Shortly before dinner the registrar dropped me at the guesthouse, saying he would pick me up at 9.30 am, half-an-hour before the convocation was to start.
The next day the registrar arrived at 9.30 sharp, with confusion and contrition written over his face. The convocation, he said, had been postponed by an hour-and-a-half. For, the previous evening, the president of the students union had visited the site where the function was to be held. To his dismay, he found that a red carpet ran all the way from the driveway through the corridors and into the auditorium itself.
I had been on my own ‘inspection’ tour half-an-hour before the students union president. I had then taken the carpet (and its colour) for granted. So had the university authorities who had placed it there. However, the students union had lately passed into the hands of the Trinamool Congress. And for its new president the colour red was verboten, since it was the preferred colour of the Enemy, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose flags were tinted red, whose cadres swore by the Red Star, and greeted their fellow comrades with a Lal Salaam.
After noting the colour of the carpet, the union president had proceeded to the home of the vice-chancellor, there to utter the two favourite words of the Bengali political activist: Cholbe Na! The carpet for the function, he said, would not do. It had to be changed. The communists no longer ruled West Bengal. Any trace of their (mis)rule had to go with them.
The vice-chancellor pointed out that red carpets were ubiquitously used to welcome honoured guests. The bourgeois governments of (among other countries) the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, often laid them out for their visitors. The young leader would not relent. Red in this town, this state, meant only one thing — communist hegemony. Lal Dori Cholbe Na. If the vice-chancellor wished to signify the university’s hospitality, it would have to be done by other means, through other colours. If the red carpet was not taken away, then the students union would gherao the venue beforehand, preventing the convocation from taking place.
It was left to the registrar to effect a compromise. A carpet had to be laid — for how else would the out-of-town visitors (who included the state’s governor) know that this was a special occasion? As a public official, the registrar had seen many red carpets; as a former sportsman, he had known of stretches of green matting too (such as those used to play cricket on). Would, he asked the union president, a green carpet be acceptable? It was. But this had to be specially procured from Kolkata. Hence the delay in the start of the university’s much-awaited — and unexpectedly contentious — convocation.
I was reminded of this incident — which happened several years ago — when reading about the visit to the United Kingdom last month of the prime minister of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang. The Chinese have always been extremely punctilious about protocol. Now that they are a Risen (rather than merely rising) Power, they have become even more so, demanding that those who host their leaders demonstrate, in subtle and obvious ways, the fact of China’s great and growing importance in global affairs.
The Chinese had suggested that on his visit to the United Kingdom, their prime minister meet the queen of England. The British at first demurred, saying only heads of State could meet the monarch. The Chinese president, as and when he came to London, would be allowed to visit Buckingham Palace. Beijing now threatened to cancel the visit. The British buckled in, with the queen granting an audience to the prime minister as well.
After Li Keqiang had come and gone, however, the Chinese lodged a fresh complaint with the British authorities. This noted that the red carpet laid out for the visitor at Heathrow Airport was not long enough. It ran from Li’s aircraft to the VIP area, but the last three feet of the walk were uncovered. In protesting the length of the carpet, the Chinese were, on the one hand, underlining their own sense of pride, and, on the other, commenting on the failures of the British themselves. What kind of State was this which couldn’t provide a carpet long enough for its guests? Surely not a Great Power (but perhaps a fallen one).
One Chinese leader who would surely have disapproved of the fuss was the late Deng Xiaoping. For as he famously remarked: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” From a Dengist point of view, the really pertinent fact about Li Keqiang’s visit was that while he was in London the UK and China formalised business deals worth $18 billion. Meanwhile, whether the carpets lining its university corridors are red or green — or blue or white — the really pertinent fact about West Bengal is that it remains one of the worst-governed states of the Union.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal