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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kolkata rises, shines

By Swapan Dasgupta


On April 2, Kolkata witnessed the spectacular inauguration of this year’s Indian Premier League. Like most opening ceremonies of sporting events, the celebration had less to do with cricket than with Bollywood and contemporary Western music. It had even less to do with the Tagore-centric high culture of West Bengal that Bengalis love to flaunt — although there was a ritual genuflection to the bard’s Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.

It was also an event where the politicians took a back seat. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee did press a huge red button to start the proceedings at the Salt Lake Stadium, which is better known for gala musical events and football, rather than cricket. However, the organisers, with an eye to TV audiences rather than the forthcoming panchayat polls, cut out all celebrity speeches, an omission that also deprived Union minister Rajiv Shukla and the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s point-man for the IPL, his moment of glory.
Having secured the privilege, courtesy a friend who is a big-wig in the BCCI, to get one of the best seats, I can vouch for the fact that the audience loved the show, not least the gyrations of Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif. And Pitbull’s music, though not to my taste, had the youngsters converting the latter part of the proceedings into an impromptu dance party. Overall, it was good, clean fun and an event that Kolkata will not forget in a hurry. Unlike last year’s hurriedly organised felicitation of Shah Rukh Khan and his victorious Kolkata Knight Riders, there was nothing tacky about this year’s professionally choreographed spectacle which, judging by the gimmicks on display, must have cost an absolute bomb — estimates ranged from `20 to `30 crore.

The important thing about the event was not merely its entertainment value but the fact that it was organised in Kolkata.

The decline of Kolkata from a bustling metro which was only second to Mumbai till the late 1960s has been repeated incessantly to the point where the people of Kolkata believe that the growth story of India has bypassed them substantially. The underlying sense of dejection that you encounter in Kolkata, particularly among the members of the old bhadralok families, is sad. An event such as the IPL opening jamboree helps re-establish some faith in the city.
At this juncture, the morale of the city is truly low. This has got very little to do with the physical state of Kolkata. On the surface, it gives the impression of a truly vibrant and bustling city. Unlike the 1980s, when the appearance of Kolkata was grim, there has been a spectacular measure of improvement. New shopping malls are opening all over central and south Kolkata, the New Town in Rajarhat looks promising and many of the old houses, built in the heydays of the 1940s and 1950s, have witnessed renovations and acquired a fresh coat of paint. And although anecdotal evidence suggests that the new wealth is largely concentrated in the hands of the Marwaris (a term that doesn’t always imply those who came from Rajasthan to seek their fortune in the city), Bengalis haven’t lost out entirely. Bengali-dominated suburbs such as Dum Dum, Jadavpur and Garia have shed the appearance of being erstwhile refugee colonies and natural bastions of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The modest revival of Kolkata can be traced back to the Left Front’s change of stance after the retirement of Jyoti Basu. However, to be fair, even Ms Banerjee’s wildly erratic style of governance hasn’t been able to reverse the process entirely.

At one level, the present chief minister conveys the impression of being a complete maverick who hasn’t been able to get over her long preoccupation with street politics. Naturally temperamental, and with an evolved belief in conspiracy theories, her real problem is that she is unable to transcend her abiding interest in the affairs of the mohulla. Whether it is an insensitive off-the-cuff remark on the Park Street rape, her comic intervention at a meeting of industrialists to invite investments and her confrontation with the state election commissioner over arrangements for the panchayat polls, Ms Banerjee has the habit of courting controversy over trivial matters. Burdened with a political organisation whose activists have long been accustomed to agitational politics (sometimes in the face of severe odds), she has systematically given the impression that her interest in the big picture is fleeting.

There is an additional problem that may land her in a big political mess. The Trinamul Congress’ resounding election victory two years ago owed a great deal to the en masse shift of the Muslim vote. This support still remains, but there has been a collateral fallout. For the first time since Independence, there is a growing recognition in the Muslim community that it can make or break governments. There has been a visible rise in communal Muslim politics for the past two years, so much so that last month witnessed a big rally in Kolkata in support of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who have been handed out death sentences for assisting the Pakistan Army’s war crimes in Bangladesh in 1971. Shadowy figures such as the firebrand imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque have suddenly acquired prominence and have made a habit of making sectarian pronouncements. Coupled with sporadic disturbances with communal overtones — such as the arson attack on Hindu homes in a South 24 Parganas village and the murder of a policeman in Metiabruz — there are growing fears that the pattern of pre-1947 politics may revive, leaving Ms Banerjee unable to buck the trend.

Many of these problems have their origins in the sustained low economic growth of West Bengal since 1967. The state needs a massive booster dose of economic activity to channel the frustrations of a people whose mental horizons are shrinking with each passing day.
Perhaps Ms Banerjee is aware of this, but her mercurial ways have ended up scaring potential investors who have other choices in eastern India. West Bengal isn’t stagnating, but its low growth cannot tackle the problem of Bengal’s impatience. The state needs a sustained spell of purposeful and predictable government. Tragically, Ms Banerjee remains a loose cannon, a reason why IPL tamashas provide a respite.

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