By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week, Mamata Banerjee organised a mammoth political rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. From all accounts, the crowd was bigger than anything witnessed in recent years: estimates ranged from seven lakhs to 12 lakh people. The rally had a larger political significance too. It suggested that the Trinamool Congress (AITC) would try to maximise its haul from West Bengal and leverage that with whichever political formation is closest to the 272 mark in the next Lok Sabha. Her strategy is not dissimilar to the one being pursued by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa.
Mamata’s rally and the unveiling of her strategy for the Lok Sabha polls was a major political development and certainly much more significant than the Nitish Kumar-led initiative to forge a Federal Front of those who were at one time or other associated with the old Janata Dal. Whereas Mamata and Jayalalithaa look like winners in their home turf of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the trio of Nitish Kumar-Mulayam Singh Yadav-H.D. Deve Gowda give the impression of being a club of the left-behind. Indeed, given its illusory nature and waning fortunes the Left parties could just as well have joined this formation.
The irony is that the audacious move of Mamata to seek a greater role in the politics of the Centre was barely noticed by a media that calls itself “national”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s stereotype of Kolkata being a “city of processions” still plays a role in shaping the minds of the so-called opinion-makers. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the case if the Left was still dominant in what was once regarded as the Red Fort. Thanks to the intellectual patronage accorded by the Congress Establishment to anything that remotely smelt “progressive”, the Left could merrily punch above its weight. Its electoral insignificance (except in the period 2004-09) was always offset by its strategic role in the opinion-making industry. The Left became the certifying authority for determining good or evil.
The Left’s disdain for a gutsy street-fighter who ousted them from West Bengal is well known and understandable. However, the Left’s clout in the corridors of power and social influence has diminished considerably ever since Prakash Karat effected the rupture with the Congress over the Indo-US nuclear deal. If the significance of Mamata, Jayalalithaa or for that matter Naveen Patnaik is insufficiently understood in the “national” media it is because Kolkata, Chennai and Bhubaneshwar are outside the imagined world of the dominant intellectual elite which is incapable of thinking beyond the Hindi-speaking belt.
In the old days this used to be manifested in the exaggerated preoccupation with the likely voting patterns of the voters of Uttar Pradesh. Countless column inches—those were pre-TV days—were devoted to dissecting the intricacies of caste alliances, particularly the AJGAR or MAJGAR phenomenon. The more self-professedly ‘enlightened’ of the political pundits branched out into a fanatical obsession with which way the Muslims of UP would vote. We would be subjected to reams of narrative about the lost world of a community which once ruled India but rued the fact that it was now struggling to make itself heard in the Ganga belt.
Today, the residual effects of this bogus romanticism are still in place but in the main it has been overwhelmed by a further narrowing of horizons. Far from being concerned with the 542 Lok Sabha seats, the forthcoming elections have been reduced to one question: how will the Aam Aadmi Party do in 2014? If the opinion polls are any guide it seems that AAP is likely to be a factor in about 20 Lok Sabha, mainly in the National Capital Region. In other places they might play the role of spoiler. The point is that these 20 seats are well below the 42 seats where Mamata is a big player or the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu where the charm Jayalalithaa could work. But yet, AAP has hogged the media space, outpacing the regional parties by many miles. Is it only because AAP is unique or is it because it is a doorstep Hindi-speaking phenomenon? If a smooth-talking Yogendra Yadav was from the ‘provinces’ would the media have cared for him?
This obsession with what is in sight has proved a double-edged sword. The beautiful people who have flocked to the various committees set up by AAP (perusing the lists is very instructive) may have been embarrassed by the anti-African tirade let loose by a lout masquerading as a people’s representative. But by upholding his right to spread prejudice and hate, by mooting proposals to keep Delhi University only for ‘locals’ and by even endorsing KHAP panchayats, the AAP created the conditions whereby some shopkeepers in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar felt that thrashing a student from Arunachal Pradesh was all right? After all, like the Africans in Khirkee village of Delhi, this young student too was ‘different’.
In the guise of protest and newness, the AAP is inflicting some of the most regressive social attitudes on Delhi and according it the legitimacy of a political party. And yet, the opinion-makers are either silent or quietly approving. Is it because a movement run by common friends in Delhi—and let’s have no doubts that AAP is phenomenally well-connected—is more important than a 10 lakh rally in Kolkata?
As the proprietor of a large media group once remarked while turning down a story on Manipur: “Who cares?” Those entrusted with manufacturing opinon certainly don’t give a damn.