How Bengal’s Abiding Affection For The Rebel Without A Cause Has Proved Ruinous For The State And Its People

by Jaideep Mazumdar - May 31, 2021 05:48 PM +05:30 IST
How Bengal’s Abiding Affection For The Rebel Without A Cause Has Proved Ruinous For The State And Its PeopleWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
  • A look at the Bengal's politics and the state's continuous support for the "rebels", who have mostly been rebels without a cause.

Bengal’s recent history holds out an interesting phenomenon that is not often acknowledged or talked about: the celebration, at a subconscious and even overt level, of the rebel. And oftentimes, it is a rebel without a cause.

This has—and this, too, remains unacknowledged—led to Bengal’s social, cultural, educational, political and, above all, economic degeneration.

The phenomenon of celebrating the “rebels” started in the mid to late 1960s when “rebels” first appeared on the state’s socio-political landscape in the form of Maoist terrorists.

By that time, the Bengali mindset had been well conditioned to accept and even glorify the “rebels” and rebellion through prose, poetry, paintings, theatres and movies.

The infiltration of leftists into Bengal’s education, literary and cultural spaces started in the early part of the twentieth century and peaked in the late mid-1940s. In a couple of decades, the literary and educational arenas of Bengal were firmly in the grip of leftists who started churning out books, plays, movies and theatres romanticising the “rebels”.

The leftist propagandists’ “rebels” were Maoists and anarchists in the beginning but soon metamorphosed into “mainstream” communists.

And ever since Nandigram and Singur happened, that mantle has been donned by Mamata Banerjee, who, in quixotic fashion, has been tilting at the windmills for the last decade and a half.

The insidious influence of leftist “influencers”—educationists, playwrights, authors, poets, the so-called “bhadralok” intelligentsia and movie directors—took an all-pervasive form.

Popular Bengali movies, poems and novels depicted the banker, industrialist and trader—anyone making money and keeping the wheels of the economy turning—as corrupt and exploitative “class enemies” who need to be annihilated. And, at the same time, glorified an unemployed (and unemployable) young man who whiles away his time railing against injustices or playing an occasional good samaritan to distressed people in his neighbourhood when he is not playing cards over endless cups of cheap tea.

As in reel life, too, such wastrels—usually school or college dropouts hailing from lower-middle-class urban families—came to be celebrated and glorified. Simultaneously, through popular literature and performing arts, the politicisation of Bengali society became intense.

Writers, movie directors, academics and social influencers all took Bengali society down that perilous path through their works.

The ground, thus, was laid for the (Maoist) rebellion to flourish. The havoc wreaked by those young men and women (the ‘rebels’) wielding guns, swords, daggers and choppers had been well-documented and needs no repetition.

The targeting of businesses by the Maoist “rebels” led to grave economic disruptions in the form of lockdowns of industrial units and the closure of thousands of business ventures. And, ultimately, the disastrous flight of capital from the state.

It took many years and very strong and often brutal methods employed by the Congress regime under the then chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray to crush the Maoist “rebels” and root out Maoism from Bengal’s physical landscape.

But the Bengalis’ love for the rebels remained undiminished, and the Maoists were soon replaced by Marxists who were disruptionists but stayed within the boundaries of the law, which they took care not to break, but often bend.

The Marxists, who successfully projected themselves as the underdogs in Bengal’s political space, came to power in 1977. But holding the reins of power did not bring about any change or break in the Marxists’ disruptionist mindset or ways.

It must be mentioned here that to the Bengali, rebellion underwent a subtle but important change and got transformed into disruption. That transformation was, of course, aided by the leftist “influencers” in the cultural, literary and academic worlds. After all, the Marxists could not continue to be “rebels” (in the true sense of the term) after assuming power, and hence, they became disruptionists.

Thus, the targeting of businesses and businessmen, industrialists and bankers—all wealth-creators—continued. Even top professionals—doctors, engineers, senior bureaucrats, lawyers, chartered accountants, architects and others--were viciously labelled "bourgeois" and targeted.

Hence, apart from the flight of capital, Bengal also experienced a ruinous brain drain that continues till this day.

A clarification would be in order here: though the Left Front government also included non-Marxist parties like the CPI, RSP, Forward Bloc and others, the overwhelming presence and influence of the CPI(M) made it, for all practical purposes, a Marxist government.

In power, the Marxists limited their "rebelliousness" to disruptions. Thus, hartals (strikes) and gheraos of industrial units and business enterprises whose owners refused to put up with atrociously unreasonable demands of the Marxist trade unionists—usually the main demands were "pay without work" for the left-affiliated workers—became the order of the day since the 1970s.

Frequent bandhs often called to oppose various policies and acts of the centre crippled normal life and businesses and accelerated Bengal’s downfall.

This continued till the late 1990s till there were barely any industries or business enterprises to target. The few that existed were run by the communists’ crony capitalists who had to divert a substantial part of their profits to the CPI(M) ’s coffers.

But rebelliousness did exist and flourish. Only, it took a different form: blind opposition to successive union governments. Bengal’s Marxist rulers provided a perverted rationale for this opposition: neglect of Bengal by New Delhi.

"Step-motherly treatment by the Centre" became the oft-repeated rant in the Marxist lexicon and was held out as the reason for the state’s unrelenting opposition to the centre.

In fact, this got so deeply ingrained into the Bengali psyche that since the 1970s, all generations of Bengalis have believed that their state has been held back from advancing and prospering by successive governments at the centre.

The rebellious streak that had also got very deeply ingrained among Bengalis was sustained and nurtured by the anti-New Delhi stance that became a matter of state policy since 1977 and, sadly and disastrously, continues till today.

It was only after the turn of this century that Bengal’s Marxist rulers realised the urgent need for investments in the state. They had ruined the state through their disastrous policies, and nothing other than big-ticket investment could lift the state out of the toxic pit it had sunk into.

This change in mindset and conduct of the Marxists became discernible when Buddhadeb Bhattacharya succeeded Jyoti Basu (who, despite presiding over Bengal’s ruination, attained a demi-God status among Bengalis) in November 2000.

A pragmatist with no bit of disdain for his dogmatic colleagues, Bhattacharya initiated the process of wooing big industrialists.

He reined in his militant colleagues and trade unionists and tried to adopt a "business friendly" image.

Bhattacharya also slowly but surely reversed the policy of opposition to the centre and initiated a policy of "constructive cooperation" with the centre—the Vajpayee-led NDA government and then the UPA I government. The bitterness exhibited by Bengal’s communists towards successive ruling dispensations in New Delhi gave way to decency and even cordiality. Bhattacharya struck a congenial rapport with Vajpayee and then Manmohan Singh, and it seemed that Bengal’s fortunes would change.

Bhattacharya’s slogan about the industry being Bengal’s future and driving the state’s growth captured the imagination of many in Bengal. This was evident from the results of the 2006 Assembly elections: The Left Front won a landslide of 233 seats (out of 294), and Bhattacharya’s party bagged 176 seats.

And then, Nandigram and Singur happened. It came to be known later that Bhattacharya could not carry his party with him and betrayal came from within. The CPI(M) apparatchik could not stomach the radical changes Bhattacharya was trying to achieve and, in true communist style, labelled him a "revisionist" who needed to be defeated.

Bhattacharya touched on these in his memoir Phire Dekha (Looking Back), where he blamed his party machinery and the opposition (Mamata Banerjee) for derailing his dream of industrialisation and economic rejuvenation of Bengal.

Even as Bhattacharya embarked on his path of reforms, a new rebel emerged in the form of Mamata Banerjee. Abrasive, loud and brash, the Trinamool chief staunchly opposed Bhattacharya’s plans for a chemical hub at Nandigram and the Tata Motors plant at Singur.

She had already established her credentials as a rebel and a fearless fighter through her frequent feuds with even the ruling dispensations at the centre she was part of (and walked away from many times), and her constant street battles and brawls with the police and communist cadres.

Bengalis, rebelliousness and disdain for capital deeply ingrained in their DNA, took to Mamata Banerjee like fish to water.

And the results of the 2011 Assembly elections were there for all to see: she inflicted a crushing blow on the communists by bagging 184 seats; the Congress, her ally at that time, won 42 seats.

Mamata Banerjee, deeply socialist in her political beliefs, projected herself as more communist than the communists themselves.

She also adopted and, in fact, even sharpened the anti-centre stance that the communists had made a part of state policy.

The carefully crafted image of Mamata Banerjee—she wears simple cotton sarees and rubber sandals and stays in a humble abode—has been in keeping with the Bengalis’ "simple living" credo. Poverty is, after all, celebrated in Bengal.

Never mind the flashy lifestyles of many top Trinamool leaders, including Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and anointed heir Abhishek Banerjee who stays in a palatial bungalow; these "minor discrepancies" have never dented Banerjee’s image.

Banerjee’s constant quarrels, often intemperate and ugly, with the union government (especially since Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014) have buttressed her image as a rebel and cast her as the David in a never-ending "David versus Goliath" battle where Bengalis love to imagine a perpetual victory for their "David".

The shift of the Tata Motors plant from Singur to Sanand (in Gujarat) sealed Bengal’s fate and its image as an investment-unfriendly state.

It also cast Mamata Banerjee as anti-capital. Even though she has tried her utmost to shake off that image of being opposed to industrialists and big businessmen, she has met with little success on that front.

But that has not dented her image or affected her political fortunes at all. If anything, Bengalis love her more for being a confrontationist with the centre, which they perceive as apathetic or even anti-Bengal and a bully.

It is Mamata Banerjee who stood against the mighty Tatas and ensured their departure from Bengal. That, to the Bengali, makes Mamata Banerjee a fearless rebel who needs to be supported unquestioningly.

That this rebelliousness has only ruined Bengal is something that most Bengalis living in Bengal cannot fathom.

It is also Bengal’s abiding tragedy that the brain drain from Bengal has left the state bereft of talent and populated by mostly mediocre and sub-mediocre.

And that is why, unable and incapable of fathoming that opposition to wealth and capital, political opposition to New Delhi, and celebration of poverty have led Bengal down the perilous path to ruination, Bengalis in Bengal continue to support politicians who are "rebels".

It is also a matter of abiding shame that the "rebels" who Bengal have loved have often been "rebels" without causes. And, worse still now, Mamata Banerjee is also a "rebel" without a pause.

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