Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Middle Kingdom

The challenge for a new order in West Bengal will be daunting

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1971, shortly after writing my final school examinations, I decided to abandon Calcutta for Delhi. My reasons were pragmatic: I wanted to complete my degree in three years. In Calcutta, then in the throes of competitive political violence, completing a BA degree took at least an extra 16 months which, in effect, meant wasting two academic years.

A venerable grand-uncle was horrified by my plans. "Are there colleges in Delhi?" he asked superciliously. To him, there was only one place—apart from Oxbridge—for a student wishing to read history: Presidency College. He had neither heard of St Stephen's in Delhi nor did he care to be enlightened. For him, as with generations of proud Bengalis, it was Bengal uber alles.

It would be interesting for a historian to try and locate the moment the Bengali bhadralok first started viewing itself as the intellectual master race of India. Did it follow the collapse of the Maratha confederacy and the decline of a culture patronised by the Peshwas? Was it an offshoot of Raja Rammohan Roy's varied theological interventions and, particularly, the outpouring of pride over his journey to England to parley on equal terms with Englishmen? Or did it have something to do with the accident of having the longest exposure to Western culture and civilisation?

Whatever the origins of this cockiness, it is undeniable that Bengal entered the 20th century with an enhanced notion of self. Even the Partition of 1947 didn't puncture Bengali pretensions. Dispossession and hardship did, however, contribute immeasurably towards a change in intellectual priorities and fashion.

Just as the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi triumph in Germany radicalised British intellectuals and drove some of them into an alternative barbarian camp in the east, the famine of 1943 and the subsequent loss of East Bengal unsettled bhadralok intellectuals. The drift to what is called 'progressive' politics may have been a global current but it led to two fundamental distortions in Bengal.

First, with their innate distrust of capitalism, Bengal's intellectuals detached themselves from the wealth creation process. During the nationalist movement, there was a conscious attempt to inculcate the virtues of swadeshi entrepreneurship in Bengalis. After the 1950s, intellectual consensus gradually swung to the other extreme. While socialism was projected as the preferred alternative, the reality was less appetising. The romance attached to deprivation and even squalor by the 'creative' Left meant that 'progressive' social attitudes were often dictated by a profound sense of envy. Ashok Mitra's notorious description of gentlemanly conduct as un-Communist was eerily reminiscent of Gibbon's observation that "the decline of genius was soon accompanied by the corruption of taste" in classical Rome.

Secondly, it wouldn't have been that damaging had 'progressive' thought been just one of the significant intellectual currents in Bengal. The final decades of the Raj, for example, witnessed a lively engagement between loyalism, nationalist conservatism, Hindutva, Muslim separatism, Gandhism, revolutionary terrorism and Marxism. After 1967 and the steady erosion of support for the Congress, the debate became a tussle between shades of either socialism or Marxism. This Left stranglehold created an ideological straitjacket and contributed to an intellectual ossification.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who led the ephemeral Congress fightback between 1971 and 1977, didn't paint himself as an inheritor of Dr B.C. Roy's no-nonsense conservatism. He sought to outflank the CPI(M) and the Naxalites through a combination of muscle power and 'progressive' posturing. Such a posturing was also the hallmark of Mamata Banerjee's disastrous 2006 election campaign. In the ongoing election campaign, the Trinamool Congress has tried to regain some of the middle ground she abandoned during her opposition to the Tata Motors project in Singur by promising political sobriety and development with a human face. But the mere fact that she had to genuflect before Left populism to achieve her electoral breakthrough in the 2009 parliamentary election is indicative of the Communist movement's success in making the political culture of West Bengal drearily monochromatic.

A consequence of the Left stranglehold over all facets of present day Bengal was the state's insulation from both national and global developments. In its first term the Left Front did succeed in transforming power equations in the countryside. Operation Barga which granted security of tenure and de-facto ownership of land to erstwhile sharecroppers did lead to the empowerment of the poor. This was complemented by militant trade unionism—a phenomenon that triggered the nervous flight of capital from 1967.

The irony is that developments in the Left bastion coincided with the deregulation of the economy nationally. Whereas the rest of India jumped at the new opportunities offered by market-friendly policies and provided meaningful avenues to satisfy the explosion of entrepreneurship, Bengal basked in the self-fulfilling glow of empowerment which, more often than not, meant the freedom to be insolent and play street cricket during enforced bandh holidays.

The Left Front's belief that the establishment of a more equitable rural society would trigger a new wave of industrialisation turned out to be utterly misplaced. Bengal was left far, far behind in the race because the environment for investment was not thought to be conducive. The marginalisation of Bengal wasn't due to any ethnic prejudice: at an individual level Bengalis benefitted from the resurgence of India. The problem was Bengal.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wasn't a reincarnation of Hare Krishna Konar, the man who provided muscle and organisation to peasant militancy. In another environment, he would have been perceived as a Left social-democrat, maybe even Bengal's Kautsky. But his inability to persuade a party wedded to the cholbe na culture made his courtship of corporate India seem less persuasive.

What is particularly bewildering is that Bengal's unending economic slide took so incredibly long to be realised. For nearly three decades Bengal lived in denial. When Rajiv Gandhi described Calcutta as a "dying city" he was being both prescient and politically imprudent. But the anger which greeted his flippancy was an outburst of a sub-nationalism that was cocooned from a larger sense of reality. Jyoti Basu's sneering description of Atal Behari Vajpayee's government as "barbarous" wasn't a simple rhetorical flourish; it was based on an assumption of innate superiority. For the Bengali Left, West Bengal was indeed the Middle Kingdom. It may have been deeply aware of what was happening in the wider world but it was the least influenced by them.

Maybe it was the departure of Tata Motors to Narendra Modi's Gujarat which marked the moment of realisation. Maybe it was the visible lack of opportunities coupled with rising consumerist aspirations that made the penny drop. Whatever the trigger, it is significant that the popular discourse is now centred on the grim reality of a stagnant Bengal in a country that is banking on a nine per cent annual GDP growth. Those committed to the regeneration of Bengal may find it reassuring that the Trinamool Congress manifesto has documented the decline of the state in relation to the progress of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and even Orissa.

As voting day approaches, Bengal seems to be in a state of readiness for change. If that change does happen, the challenge for a new order will be daunting. An over-politicised and inept administrative apparatus, a sharply fractured society, accumulated anger at three decades of 'cadre' tyranny and an intellectual culture still wedded to a spurious 'progressive' consensus are formidable obstacles to progress. The reshaping of Bengal will necessitate enlightened political leadership. But it will also necessitate a full-fledged counter-revolution—at least in the mind of Bengalis.

The Telegraph, April 1, 2011


Kautilya said...

Sir, I am Maharashtrian, and I always have conundrum for Bengla marginalisation. Your article concisely attend root of the problem. In short "Brahmas" intellectual "Agni" effervesces prakriti's water element. But sir I ddin't get your point "The marginalisation of Bengal wasn't due to any ethnic prejudice: at an individual level Bengalis benefitted from the resurgence of India. The problem was Bengal"

Please enlighten my ignorance.

Sds said...

Thank you for your latest blog.

Two curious things happened during the last decade in Bengal politics. One, CPM sensed (rightly or wrongly) that the political momentum is shifting to a more centre ground and tried to be ahead of the curve: hence "Do it now" and the considerable efforts in trying to curb extreme left trade unionism . Second, Mamata actively took that vacated political space on the more extreme left of the Left Front. She finally succeeded electorally after many many years.

The inferences are scary. Sure, one factor behind her success is popular disgust against party-political interference in Bengal's administrative, industrial, economic, social, cultural and even personal and family lives. But even before Singur and Nandigram, opposition to the proposed Salim Group investments sustained Mamata politically after her electoral disaster in the last legislative election. And, this resentment against all pervading interference did not affect Left Front's popularity as long as they retained the most left space on the politico-economic front.

The scary bit is that it clearly demonstrated how left heavy the Bengal political middle ground is. Historians and sociologists can continue to debate the reasons why this is the case but it is clear to me that Buddhababu's failure will ensure that no leader can dare take the risk and expend political capital in changing the direction of policy as well as discourse. Hence, any unlikely reform can only happen by stealth. It makes me profoundly hopeless. And also confused as I still do not know (beyond opportunistic populism) what policies Mamata actually stands for.

Meanwhile, despite individual successes we Bengalis (used in a geographic sense not racially) continue to slide backwards.

Anonymous said...

" Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wasn't a reincarnation of Hare Krishna Konar, the man who provided muscle and organisation to peasant militancy. In another environment, he would have been perceived as a Left social-democrat, maybe even Bengal's Kautsky. But his inability to persuade a party wedded to the cholbe na culture made his courtship of corporate India seem less persuasive ".

Unfortunately he had to take all the blame whereas Jyoti Basu escaped with mandatory politically correct obituaries.

Narendra Modi is recognised & praised by many for his corruption free governance. But it was reported in a Tamil weekly , the people of Tamil Nadu have got so pampered by free goodies handed over including liquor & cash, should Narendra Modi stand for election in Tamil Nadu today , is sure to lose.

That most of our elected representatives are corrupt is known. That it is we the people who vote for them is not to be forgotten at all.

I suppose that explains the nation's excessive besottment with cricket. It lulls us into a sense of faux well being.

Anonymous said...

There is no future left for Bengal. It will remain a failed state. First reason- more than 25% Bangladeshis in Bengal who would want India/ Bengal to be destroyed from within rather than develop. 2nd reason- Mamata is as hopeless/ regressive as the communists. Her religion inspired Railway ads to garner minority votes, her churlish behaviour, her backward senseless thinking, results are there to see in the bankrupt condition of Indian railways.
Bengal will become like Kerela, power shifting between the 2 parties now & then, bandhs, policy paralysis ruling the day.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for writing on a different topic. But I am disappointed that BJP has not come out with anything on the Anna Hazare's agitation. If memory serves me right then during the Rao period Lokpal bill used to be one of the most important promises of the 'party with a difference'. Of course it was conveniently forgotten once the party was in power. This is the time to rectify that mistake and latch on to the building public anger against corruption.

IndianTopBlogs said...

You have been 'spotted!' here:

conscience of the society said...

Despite the lack of all the glitter associated with the so called 'PROGRESS'in Left ruled W.Bengal and Kerala, life has its peculiar charm in these two states. The slave-minds under the reign of capitalists are absent. People are fearless and independent. Moreover, Rousseau said, the only thing that makes the rich happy and contented is feeling that he is free from the wretchedness of the have-not ! Remove the wretchedness from the world, his happiness is over.

We run a philosophic non-profit for the cause of REINVENTING DEMOCRACY.Will you mind sharing our blogs,and use your access to public forums to air these themes?Link:,,
Regards/Abraham/New Delhi

Anonymous said...

" Despite the lack of all the glitter associated with the so called 'PROGRESS'in Left ruled W.Bengal and Kerala, life has its peculiar charm in these two states".

Indeed yes , many would agree with conscience of the society's observation.

Mother Nature has blessed both the States in many ways. And great Spiritual Jnanis too ! But the "cholbena culture " , shoddy mismanagement have lamentably ensured the positives are never harnessed to promote sustainable growth.

Kerala has more greenery & water.Yet it imports vegetables , fruits etc from Tamil Nadu. Rice from Tamil Nadu & sand gathered from fertile river beds , milch cows & calves all get smuggled to Kerala by highly corrupt people chasing paper money. Cattle from Kerala reach Bangladesh for slaughter. Conscientious whistle blowers have been killed with impunity.

Division of India into various States on linguistic lines & various fissures spawn forth a plethora of political parties & alleged leaders lacking in vision.

A no nonsense Benevolent Dictator alone can steer our Nation towards lasting prosperity.