By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Sunday, Mamata Banerjee celebrated the first anniversary of Trinamul Congress’ victory and the Left Front’s defeat in Assembly elections in inimitable style: by organising a large padayatra.
Accompanied by many of her ministerial and political colleagues, she walked some 12 kilometres on a scorching May afternoon in Kolkata. If nothing, she demonstrated that one year in Writers’ Buildings has not deprived her of the common touch that was instrumental in her famous victory last year.
However, unlike last May when the sheer magnitude of her victory prompted spontaneous celebrations in locality after locality, the first anniversary celebrations were decidedly more muted.
The 41-year-old taxi driver who takes me around on my visits to the city was probably the most enthusiastic, waxing eloquent about Didi’s stamina and her determination to do something for Bengal. A self-employed vehicle owner with views about most things, he personified the Trinamul Congress’ loyal support base.
In a powerful essay earlier this month, Left intellectual Ashok Mitra (a former finance minister under Jyoti Basu) proffered his own evocative description of this political constituency: “the formidable army of lumpens made up of the various underclasses…; slum dwellers leading a wretched existence under the most unsanitary conditions and with uncertain, often shady, means of livelihood; laid-off workers out of a job for years on end; petty office-goers and teachers of diverse academic streams who are convinced society has been deliberately unfair to them; second or third generation migrants from what was once East Pakistan barely scraping a living…; the multitude of frustrated youth who try to earn some money by hawking whatever they can lay their hands on; shirkers and lazybones, misfits and misanthropes of all descriptions and, finally, thugs and rowdies.”
Mitra’s disdain has two dimensions. First, there is the classical Marxist suspicion of a class of disadvantaged people outside the ranks of the organised, class conscious proletariat. But more important, Mitra, in his acerbic style, reflected the traditional bhadralok wariness of the outlander.
If Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu comprised the creamy layer, and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the respectable middle, Mamata was precariously perched on the twilight zone between bhadralok society and something lower down the social ladder. With her crumpled white sari and rubber flip-flops, she never quite made it to the inner chambers of bhadralok society. She was always viewed with a measure of amusement and wariness.
This may explain why the chattering classes of Kolkata have viewed her first year in office with indifference, bordering on hostility. Yes, they too had joined the anti-CPI(M) bandwagon after Nandigram and Singur with enthusiasm, and had joined the queues of voters who gave a resounding thumbs down to the Left in 2009 and 2011. But theirs was a limited agenda of paribartan: to rid West Bengal of the CPI(M)’s intrusive control over all the state’s institutions.
It was partly a vote against the Left’s smugness and arrogance, and partly a yearning for a truly de-politicised society where people could be free to do their own thing without some apparatchik breathing down their necks. It is wrong to say that the Mamata government has totally failed to meet these expectations. Kolkata is definitely basking in a new found freedom, and this is reflected in a new energy in the arts and city life. But there have been significant violations, too.
In hindsight, the new chief minister will probably regard her quixotic conduct on the rape of an Anglo-Indian lady and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer over the infamous “vanish” cartoon as her two big boo-boos in the past year. Her conduct may well be explained by impulsiveness, inexperience and the refusal to admit mistakes.
Whatever the political and psychological explanations, these two incidents kindled the pre-existing bhadralok wariness of the new chief minister. There was an additional factor, too. After the CPI(M) blundered over Nandigram, Mamata had carefully enlarged the scope of anti-Left politics by actively wooing a class of people that constitutes a sub-stratum of bhadralok society: the intellectuals. Mainly drawn from the world of literature, art and the performing arts, this group revelled in the importance Mamata gave to them.
It was such a contrast from the CPI(M) that carried too much of an ideological baggage to give highly individualistic free-thinkers a place in their establishment. But Mamata too used the intellectuals and the media to build up the anti-CPI(M) momentum. She had absolutely no interest in displacing her loyal foot soldiers with these biddyajan, loosely translated as men of letters. It made absolutely no political sense. Secondly, mindful of the overall influence of Left thinking in the intelligentsia, she was determined to not allow the CPI(M) any opportunity to cling on to positions of influence under the new dispensation. Having first learnt her politics in the wild days of the early-1970s when the Congress ruthlessly put down the Naxalite movement, she also had no time for the Maoists and their fellow travellers.
These may explain why, despite the torrent of adverse publicity she has been subjected to, Mamata will not go out of her way to repair her relations with those who are willing to march shoulder-to-shoulder with the CPI(M), desperate for a quick, back-door re-entry.
As far as she is concerned, the pesky intellectuals are dispensable. She has set the stage for another bout of class warfare. As long as she doesn’t disappoint her core support base, she has no immediate reason to be fearful.