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To not to be

There is more than something rotten in the state of West Bengal. And Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is its leading Shakespearean tragic hero, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2009 21:34 IST

Defeat sometimes begins at the moment of victory. In 2006, the ruling Left Front had thundered back to power in West Bengal, winning for the seventh consecutive time with a resounding three-fourths majority. Today, just three years later, the same invincible Left Front has just suffered yet another electoral disaster in last weekend’s bypolls. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism, it looks as if it’s the end of communism in West Bengal too.

Most piquant of all is perhaps the Shakespearean tragedy of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who this week begins his tenth year as chief minister of West Bengal: the man of destiny who suddenly finds himself consigned to redundancy. Once he was the nationally hailed ‘Brand Buddha’, Azeem Premji called him the best chief minster in India. He was a friend of Manmohan Singh; he was the playwright-communist whose destiny seemed to be to become the Deng Xiaoping of the Indian Left who would transform communism into a new mantra of progress and positive thinking. The mandate of 2006 was a mandate for Buddhadeb. It was he who was singlehandedly responsible for large sections of the urban business vote and middle-class vote that came to the Left. But within a year of his victory, hit by the twin blows of the Singur agitation and the killings in Nandigram, Buddhadeb, the successful brand, became Buddhadeb the Market Failure.

Now with Maoists rampaging in Midnapore, even pulling off an audacious train hijack under the government’s nose, the gigantic mandate of 2006 has become a distant memory. Instead, short-term history is dominated by the almost shocking triumph of the Trinamool in the general elections this year, a victory that has thrown out the doughty satraps of the Left from seats they had held for decades. Compared to the storm against the Left building in Bengal’s rural areas — a storm Mamata Banerjee looks all set to harness to her cause — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s brave words of a twin-pronged strategy of force and development to fight the Maoists sound hopelessly futile.

Perhaps Buddhadeb became a victim of the same politics and society that the Left has created over its 32-year-old rule in West Bengal. It has created a society where institutions are brazenly politicised, where violence has been legitimised, where the Bengali (with honourable exceptions) has been reduced to a narrow-visioned, envy-filled individual whose dominant mindset is reverence of dead heroes and contempt for all contemporary success. The constantly sneering contemptuous Bengali is a far cry from noble spirited nation-building ancestors like Rabindranath Tagore and Rammohun Roy, and is a result of the fact that the Left failed to encourage a true meritocracy in West Bengal. Instead of generating talent, it encouraged only an envy of talent. No wonder the opportunity-seeking Bengali youth fled, thriving in institutions where their native intelligence was not seen as ‘anti-Party’.

Change is bound to be regarded with suspicion in a society that has fallen into stasis. A personal popularity cult like Buddha’s was bound to breed jealousy and factionalism within a party unaccustomed to genuine charisma. With all his advantages, Buddhadeb sadly failed to build the political support needed for reform, relying on his communist cadres who had become accustomed to imposing their writ by force. He failed to unite the party to the cause of reform or initiate a massive outreach programme between party and people that would have built new bridges between leaders and people. Buddhadeb tried to create a development-friendly government but failed to realise that it was his own government that was creating a development-unfriendly society.

Two decades of an anti-English language policy had brought to a halt the fluency in a language Bengal once spoke better than any Indian state. The lack of political competition had meant that there was no incentive to deliver governance and human development, unlike Kerala where a two-party system and a welfarist ruling tradition have created an impetus to provide primary education and healthcare. Today in the so-called ‘intellectual’ state of India, the school drop-out rate is 78.03 per cent. Only Bihar, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Sikkim fare worse. The flooding of educational institutions by party faithful has meant that generations have been consigned to mediocre teachers. There has been no entrepreneurial movement in Bengal since the 1960s. The destruction of Bengal’s intellectual capital, the culture of negativism, the numbing inertia of its government machinery meant that Bengal’s society was simply not ready for Buddhadeb’s new industrial policy and the radical changes that it entailed. And sadly, the CM lacked the political and administrative shrewdness to push his policies in a hostile environment.

A Kolkata newspaper recently held a debate where the motion was ‘The Resurgence of Bengal is an impossible dream’. Mamata Banerjee made an impassioned speech against the motion and won the audience vote. Come 2011 when assembly polls are held again in Bengal she may well win the chief minister’s chair while Buddhadeb goes back to writing plays. But a mere regime change will mean nothing if one set of party faithfuls replaces another set of party faithfuls, and one violent cadre is replaced by another violent cadre.

Bengal doesn’t just need a new government. A brain-dead Bengal needs severe shock treatment. A decaying society needs to be kicked awake in every sector, in education, administration and business. Bhattacharjee went far, but he could not go far enough and succumbed to the social forces his own party had created. Mamata Banerjee has given no signs so far that she can administer the shock treatment needed. Caught between a dejected Buddha and an unfocused Mamata, Bengal must await its messiah.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal