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Bengal, Ganguly & elections
December 16, 2005
Gurudas Dasgupta is appearing on every television news channel as I write. He is appealing to Sharad Pawar to come to Sourav Ganguly's aid. The Selection Committee's brutality was indeed shocking, and if I were in Kolkata I would sign the petitions against the selectors. I can also sympathise with the West Bengal sports minister fulminating against the harsh decision. But doesn't Gurudas Dasgupta have anything better to talk about? He is, after all an MP, and Parliament is in the middle of a particularly dramatic Winter Session.
The truth is that Bengal has very few heroes left today. Once, Kolkata was the fountainhead of the Indian renaissance, the city that gave us the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and J C Bose. Its politicians vied with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru not just in popularity but on an intellectual level. But who is there that a young citizen of Bengal can esteem as a living hero, someone who is there before his eyes? The only name that comes to mind is that of Sourav Ganguly.
Partition was a grievous wound to Bengal. We tend to talk of it as an event that struck the Punjab, ignoring the east entirely. But even the truncated West Bengal retained enough of its glory to be acknowledged as one of the best-administered states in India. Well into the 1960s, Kolkata would strive with Bombay for the title of India's commercial capital.
The rot set began in the 1960s as the Congress disintegrated. And twenty-eight years of Left Front rule have left an industrial wasteland. How great is the rot? So much so that during the last strike -- does anybody even remember the reason for calling it? -- Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's own car was halted! The chief minister wants to offer special protection to the software industry, because that is the only way he can entice wary employers to his state; his colleagues are battling him every inch of the way. Small wonder if West Bengal has one of the largest pools of educated but unemployed youths in this country!
Let us be honest, it is impossible to break the culture of stagnation and complacency until the Left Front is shaken. Optimists point to the recent Vidhan Sabha polls in Bihar. They say that if Biharis could reject Lalu Prasad Yadav and his blandishments, then surely the intelligent and sophisticated Bengali voter could do the same. I am not so sure.
First, please remember that in Bihar the electorate was presented with a clear choice between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Where is the Nitish Kumar of West Bengal? Who is the single figure that possesses both the reputation of honesty and articulates the need for change as effectively as Nitish Kumar could? The sad fact is that if there is any politician from West Bengal who displays those qualities then it is the current chief minister himself.
Second, please remember that Nitish Kumar had another inestimable advantage, having his principal ally stand squarely behind him. George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar made the decision to join hands with the BJP as far back as 1995; the alliance has stuck together through three Vidhan Sabha polls and four general elections. The BJP's senior leadership has been equally farsighted; before the October-November polls, L K Advani openly affirmed that Nitish Kumar was the alliance's candidate for chief minister. This caused no little heartburn in some circles, but it was something that had to be done. Who is the face of the anti-Left coalition in West Bengal?
Is it going to be Mamata Bannerjee? Will it be Pranab Mukherjee or Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi? The two latter are currently members of a Union Cabinet which rests on the support of the Left Front in the Lok Sabha. Mamata Bannerjee is seen as honest and intelligent, but her weakness is a reputation for being fickle. Yet without a comprehensive alliance between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress right down to every polling booth, you can forget about unseating the Left Front.
There is another factor that the Congress simply wants to brush under the carpet. That is the uncomfortable fact that even an alliance with the Trinamool Congress might not be enough. The missing part of the equation is the BJP, which is treated as a complete alien by the Congress. I am not quite sure how many votes the BJP polls in West Bengal -- probably under 10% -- but do remember that this will be an election where every vote counts. Can you afford to reject a group that brings even 5% of the votes to the table?
Some might say that even the possibility of the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and the BJP joining hands is utterly unthinkable. 64 years ago, the unthinkable did take place in Bengal, when Fazlul Haq became premier of Bengal, with Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee as one of his Cabinet colleagues. To realise the full import of this, you must understand that it was Fazlul Haq who had sponsored the infamous Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League and that Dr Mookerjee was then the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. And the glue in this unlikely coalition was the Forward Bloc, a party set up by the Bose brothers after Netaji was squeezed out of the Congress.
That coalition did not last long, opposed as it was by the British and by the leadership both of the Congress and of the Muslim League. Netaji went into exile. His brother, Sarat Chandra Bose, was arrested. And ultimately the British governor dismissed the Fazlul Haq ministry. Six years later, there was a last echo heard. As Partition loomed, Sarat Chandra Bose and the Muslim League's H S Suhrawardy both mulled over the possibility of a sovereign, united Republic of Bengal. But it was already 1947, and Suhrawardy's realisation of where his folly had led him had come too late. The point, however, is that unlikely compounds can cbe formed in the political laboratories of Bengal.
Can the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and the BJP rise above their petty concerns to rescue Bengal from the Left Front? Can they unite around a single leader? The hopes of Bengal were undone by the ambitions of leaders elsewhere in the 1940s. I fear that Sonia Gandhi's dreams of power in Delhi will lead her to torpedo any serious assault on the Red Fortress in West Bengal. And the frustrations that were expressed in the anger over the shabby treatment to Sourav Ganguly shall continue to simmer over other, more substantive issues. No matter how fair the polls that the Election Commission conducts, the new chief minister is still most likely to be a CPI-M apparatchik.
T V R Shenoy