In the turbulent late Sixties, when West Bengal began its long and unending spiral of decline, the creative minds of the state were engaged in two parallel pursuits. The more far-sighted of them packed their bags and got the hell out of an emerging nightmare. Those who stayed on immersed themselves headlong into a self-defeating radical enterprise that led to nowhere.
For a long time, the battle of ideas was spiritedly fought on the crumbling walls of a Calcutta that cried out for urban renewal. The wall graffiti of those days was original, vivid and not without a trace of humour.
I particularly recall the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPI-M) parody of lines from Dwijendralal Roy’s play Chandragupta. Gazing at the mighty river Indus, the all-conquering Alexander of Macedonia informs his general Seleucus, his fascination with the India that lies beyond: “Satya Seleucus ki bichita eiy desh: dine ora Naxal, rate Congress” (Truly Seleucus what a curious land this is: by day they are Naxals and at night, Congress).
The Naxalites emerged from the womb of the CPI(M) in 1967. But that uncomfortable reality didn’t stop Jyoti Basu, Pramode Dasgupta and Hare Krishna Konar from treating its wayward progeny as an instrument of “counter-revolution”.
This perception wasn’t entirely unwarranted. It is now sufficiently clear that Indira Gandhi and Siddhartha Shankar Ray used the puerile shenanigans of the urban guerrillas to unleash a “white terror” that, besides decimating the Maoists, also put the CPI(M) out of business from 1971 to 1977. What Mao Zedong called “waving the red flag to attack the red flag” was successfully used in West Bengal, albeit at a very high cost.
Mamata Banerjee became active in the Congress when the Naxalites were in disarray and the CPI(M) had gone into hibernation in West Bengal. It is more than likely that she imbibed from her political mentors the tale of how the state was reclaimed for the Congress, albeit for just six years. For a long time, and throughout most of her lonely war against an all-powerful CPI(M), Ms Banerjee was content with only one aspect of the war: street battles and agitations.
To add to an approach that firmly established her as the most potent symbol of resistance to the CPI(M), Ms Banerjee has, of late, added an all-important dimension: political strategy. Using the imagery of the legendary Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, she has added the “war of manoeuvre” to the “war of attrition”.
This week’s “non-political” rally organised by Ms Banerjee in Lalgarh, a hub of Maoist activity in West Midnapore district, led to a predictable furore in Parliament. Citing her olive leaf to the banned Communist Party of India(Maoist) and her stated misgivings over the death in a police encounter of its leader Azad, the Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley, said that “the principle of collective responsibility is being breached, and there is a disagreement on the policy of the government” towards the Maoists. The United Progressive Alliance government was deeply embarrassed by this forceful charge of incoherence. What made it worse was the revelation that at least two Maoist leaders wanted in connection with serious charges of rail sabotage and murder were open participants in the rally.
Ironically, this attack, while deeply embarrassing for the Congress, may actually prove politically beneficial to Ms Banerjee. In playing footsie with the Maoists and their front organisations, the Trinamul Congress is moving with crafty, if cynical, pre-meditation.
In throwing her weight behind the Maoist campaign against CPI(M)’s “high-handedness”, Ms Banerjee has earned herself the grudging but tactical support of West Bengal’s Left-liberal intelligentsia. This sub-strata of poets, artists and filmmakers amount to relatively little in today’s West Bengal. They are a pale shadow of the group that dominated and distorted Bengali intellectual life in the first three decades after Independence. Yet, their shift from being Left fellow-travellers to becoming Ms Banerjee’s camp followers — a process that the leader actively pursued and encouraged — is symptomatic of a larger process: the cracks in the Left edifice.
A reason for the Left Front dominance since 1977 is that it has created an umbrella big enough to accommodate all anti-Congress tendencies, except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On a parallel track, the Left has also pursued a policy of keeping the anti-Left forces deeply divided. The CPI(M)’s greatest success was in facilitating Ms Banerjee’s split from the parent Congress in 1996 and then driving her into the arms of a BJP which, in turn, drove away the Muslims from her. These two developments ensured that a divided anti-Left couldn’t cope with the electoral might of a united Left. Today, it is the Left which looks bedraggled, with Ms Banerjee having won over two important far-Left groups to complement her deep inroads into the Muslim vote. The Congress, many of whose leaders negotiated local peace treaties with the CPI(M), may not be happy with Ms Banerjee’s imperiousness and her devious ways. But, as the civic polls earlier this year showed, the alternative to breaking with Ms Banerjee is political oblivion.
The Maoists are also important to Ms Banerjee in another way. Districts such as West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, where the Maoist influence is greatest, also happen to be areas where both the Trinamul Congress and the Congress have negligible ground presence. In using the Maoists to keep the CPI(M) on tenterhooks in its strongholds, Ms Banerjee is doubling her pressure on the ruling coalition.
Yet, dalliance with the Maoists is potentially dangerous and can backfire, as many Nepali politicians will readily testify. Ms Banerjee’s covert understanding with the outlaws can, at best, endure till the CPI(M) is removed from power. After that, will she revert to the original doctrine she learnt as a cub political worker? But will the Maoists have acquired a stable base by then? Will Ms Banerjee then have to fall back on the Ray doctrine to eliminate her newest ally that has no faith in the niceties of constitutional politics?
West Bengal’s tryst with violence, it would seem, is likely to persist after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee retreats into the Opposition benches.