By Swapan Dasgupta
Selecting the greatest Indian since the Mahatma was always a daunting project in a pathologically argumentative country. But for the organisers of this exercise, there were two particularly awkward moments and both, predictably, were Bengali creations.
First, there was the legitimate query, as to why Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the ‘boson’ of the Higgs boson or “God particle” derives its name, was not considered. Secondly, there was the inevitable question: why has Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose been omitted? The organisers could hardly respond that Netaji died in 1945 in an air-crash because that would have resurrected the controversy over his death—a controversy not lacking in conspiracy theories.
Strange as it may appear to outsiders, a huge section of Bengalis are inclined to view the history of the past 100 years as a monumental conspiracy by first, the British, and then a Delhi-centric political class, to deny them recognition and justice. This colourful saga of unending victimhood that has created a permanently aggrieved people, personified by is the mercurial Mamata Banerjee.
When the diminutive Pranab Mukherjee, dressed hopefully in his hallmark dhoti rather than an incongruous achkan-churidar, takes his oath of office on Wednesday morning, will the Bengali sense of hurt be assuaged? Will the first Bengali in Rashtrapati Bhavan be seen as the Congress Party’s atonement for Subhas Bose’s removal as Congress President by a wily Mahatma Gandhi in 1939? That incidentally was the last occasion a Bengali made it to the very top.
There are few reasons to believe that Bengalis will melt in gratitude at being finally offered this ceremonial lollipop. In an interview last month on TV, Mamata was asked about her views of Pranab—a “son of Bengal”—as the next President of India. “Son of Bengal?” she asked incredulously, “He is a son of the world.”
The message couldn’t have been clearer. To the rest of India, Pranab Babu with his unmistakable Bengali accent may be the quintessential bhadrolok. In a cultural sense he undoubtedly is. Politically, however, his roots have never been in state politics but in Lutyens’ Delhi. Ethnically he is a Bengali but politically he is a man of the Centre.
To Bengal this matters. The tallest Congress leader of Bengal was, by a long shot, Dr B.C. Roy who was Chief Minister from 1948 to 1962. His fame stemmed not only from his legendary skills as a medical doctor or his no-nonsense style. Dr Roy is regarded as the man who gave West Bengal whatever little post-Independence economic development it experienced. From the steel plant in Durgapur, the barrage in Farakka and the development of Salt Lake, most of the public investment in Bengal is attributed to Dr Roy.
The only person who came close to the legendary Chief Minister was A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury who, as Railways Minister, nurtured the development of his home district of Malda. The reputation of Barkat Da, as he was affectionately called, has invariably been juxtaposed with that of Pranab Babu—and the results have not been edifying for India’s President-designate.
Politically, Mukherjee was always of greater significance than the portly patriarch from Malda. Yet, it has been suggested that he didn’t leverage his enormous clout at the Centre to do anything special for Bengal. In a phoney war between a proud people and a heartless imperial authority, Mukherjee has often been painted as a collaborator.
Times of India, July 23, 2012