The Discovery of Defeat

The Discovery of Defeat

- Abhijit Kundu and Trinanjan Chakraborty


“ I took to the crowd and the crowd took to me “, Nehru wrote in 1936. Nehru in his autobiography was pointedly indicating the turnaround in Indian National Congress. The turnaround was the emergence of the second generation of Congress leaders who constituted the ‘we’ in Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Nehru, Ali brothers or Abul Kalam Azad belonged to the same political generation who indulged in a shared critical, cynical stance vis-à-vis the older generation of political leadership, while showing the same disdain and desperation vis-à-vis their contemporary socio-political order. It was time of the gradual fading of the port city politics of Kolkata, Chennai or Mumbai. The upper Indian, both Muslim and Hindu urban elite communities constituted the aspiring generation of leadership who were clearly dismissive of the politics of talk and were searching for a breakthrough. Nehru’s writings signaled this shift in abundance.


The shift was from the political realm of oratory and verbal sparring, very typical of port-city centered politics. The emergence of the United province taking the front rank in Indian national politics was consequent upon the shifting of the Capital from the lower to the upper-Gangetic plane, i.e., from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911.. The time rendered oratory skill redundant in favour of the coming of themasses and political action- the TRUTHS of Gandhi’s Experiment. This mass politics was different from what Bhagini Nivedita claimed that the ultimate aim of every politics was to provide food to people.


Rather, making people aware of the right to food or any kind of political right, an organic participation from the below towards achieving a political goal marks mass politics as opposed to politics as rendering service to the people- the provider and the provided matrix. Thus came the much celebrated Rail journeys which took the second generation Congress leaders to the countrysides. As Nehru euphorically wrote to his US based friend Dhanogopal Mukherjee in a personal letter, “…of a much clearer vision of the essence of our national movement which you have missed in Calcutta or in other big cities.” The Railways acted as the crucial vehicle of such proliferation of mass action….as he wrote’….the crowd took to me ‘. The redundancy of Kolkata based politics was over, the peripheralization of Bengal saw the emergence of the United Province as the site of nationalist movement. If such a fading away process started in the year 1911, exactly hundreds years later, we are experiencing the demise of the LEFT from that peripheral site of politics. Ironically, in peoples’ perception quite euphemistically the image of the Railways as bearer of change was built -in through popular and pedestrian limericks. Mamata Banerjee being the central railway minister.


The demise, the term we prefer, instead of calling it an electoral loss for the combined Left in Bengal is possibly a catharsis of the process which started with the redundancy of Bengal in national politics, which in turn allowed the development of a unique Bengali political cultural identity. The identity which sustained itself and propelled on the ‘difference’ that the peripheralization of Bengal by the United Province offered. The specific collective identity thrived on the question of denials and differences. The subsequent Partition of Bengal and the huge influx of refugees consolidated the social construction of Otherness. The ‘otherness’ of being differentially treated on the question of refugee settlement than their counterparts in the western provinces. The Left politics which sailed on since late 1920s, could actually grow ; interestingly at first, it attracted many Hindu Mahasabha sympathizers/ followers who directly bore the irrelevancy of masculine and linear politics by the shaping up of the secular in the United Province. And, secondly the rootless Bengali refugees from the East Pakistan largely fuelled Left politics in Bengal. The idea of being distanced from the centre of power constituted the very political culture of Bengal in not many myriad ways. Even the immediate post independent Bengal’s chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy’s recurrent verbal duels with Nehru used to be the staple for people, always insecure of self-pride. The entrenchment of Left politics was actually embedded in such a political culture of symbolically ( materially as well ) created  boundary between the Centre and Bengal as a pariah.


The material substance of such a denial was graphically authored by Ranajit Roy in his The Agony of West Bengal, first published in 1971 during the United Front government. Drawing upon the fiscal policy of the central government, Roy focussed on the assymetrical Union -State relationship and perpetuation of British Rulers' mind set by bureaucrats in corridors of power in New Delhi. The vernacular print media supportive of the Congress party even lauded the exercise, and the banning of the book during the Emergency virtually consolidated the cultural boundary with harsh and hard economic facts. That Bengal is separate and being denied upon provided the plank upon which the Left gained its momentum and could premise its agenda. Riding on the much evocative slogan of ‘neglect of the centre’ they could build the Left movement in Bengal, much different from that in Kerala ( where the left in fact held state assembly power alternatively with the Congress). The success of land distribution or panchayat elections too were couched in a pride of achieving something  different from the Centre. The hardening of the boundary denied any osmotic relationship with the mainland politics.

The fledlging and prosper of the Left rested on an understanding of mass politics, reminiscent of the early twentieth century idea of ‘providing food’ to the people- a proto chief-clan relationship. The notion of the vanguard party supplemented the creation of a political society. As a misnomer, the communist party tried to operate in a multi-party constitutional set-up, striving to be the only truth – oblivious of the concept of ‘party’ as a part of political power. The disdain for the liberal model of democracy was so pronounced in the orthodox Left lexicon as an enchantment, that in Bengal, the left divested its energy exclusively in absolute political mobilization. The hardened ideological-intellectual position had to tread an uneasy path of promoting a peoples’ democratic revolution. Working within the system of parliamentary democracy it simultaneously subverted the participatory spirit of democracy at the ground level. The specter of absolutism haunted the everyday life of Bengal. In fact, the continuous rule of the Left over more than three decades baffled the world. The Left possibly enjoyed the world attention at the unique ‘communist rule’ in one constituent state of a federal structure polity. It is an exemplar of a regime rather than the rule of a party.


The 1977 victory heralded not a victory of a party but a paradigmatic shift to a coming of a regime. The regime was built on a wide nexus across the middle and lower echelons of the society to constitute a monolithic power- bloc. The coming of the regime was evident with all opposition voices were being muffled and subsumed by an encompassing ideology of ‘truth’. The regime rested on the power wielding middle-class which was sustained economically and otherwise by the state power. A de-facto patron-client relationships were fostered in the distribution of not only material but symbolic social capital as well across the graded social structure. The schism between the stated ideology and the practical/practice became inescapable in the post 1990’s scenario of a liberalized economy. No longer the cultural consruction of ‘different/ denied’ identity could sustain Left Ideology for long.


Post 1990s did not only signal the end of the license Raj by opening up the economy, its cultural connotation was more of a global appeal. Any ideological boundary proved to be anachronous –  incongruent with aspirations of a new breed of globalised civil society. The Left strategy of thriving on the consolidated separateness between the centre and the state were put to test as no longer the purity of exclusion could sustain an insulated regime. The Left had to embrace the opportunity of the liberal economy as it welcomed the entry of private capital for industrialization. The visible revolt of Bengal against the land acquisition and industrial policy of the government might have given an impression of people resisting private corporate capital, but actually it dissented against the leftist language of private investment. The Left vocabulary so long constructed and guarded the ‘purity’ of Bengal as against private enterprise, the contradiction seemed so obvious as the same voice without acknowledging the right of private property and speech tried to embrace private enterprise. The voice and the language sounded audacious and brute. The inherent incongruity in the Left language suffered a short-circuit as it attempted to tread a path of development which it itself denounced and nurtured/dreaded historically.


Since 2007, the voice of discontent spread across in Bengal on the question of land acquisition. It was more than an upsurge of a mass- rather a crowd, spontaneous and not being mobilized, which subsequently revolved around the most tangible alternative chief ministerial candidate, Ms Mamata Banerjee. The incidental brutalities of the state government were just a logical culmination of an enterprise which had exhausted its possibilities. Possibilities can endure talks and analyses based on facts, figures and data. While the calculation of figures and swings following the May 2011 electoral revolution in Bengal could form the staple for psephologists, the other side of the coin is the profusion of analyses from the recurrent faces on the electronic media representing contending political camps. All embroiled in deciphering the rights and wrongs of the electoral agenda strategies, and some even weighing the possibilities of a left comeback.


Over the last two years or more we have experienced, ever since the Left Front started suffering electoral reverses in various polls, the same exercise. The indomitable Left so astute for decades in managing electoral numbers claimed of re-assessment, rectification and recovery – a regime does never commit suicide. Yet it fell flat on its nose- the margin of defeat kept increasing. Herein, the hallowed promise of ‘possibility’ signals a closure. The spectacle of a possessed crowd rejoicing at the passing of the Left rule on the Kolkata streets defies any analysis of numbers and figures. The crowd is more than a mass as a maker of history, it does rejuvenate a malaise body politic and baffles an analyst too often.


In recent political memory, apart from the mammoth mobilized rallies by different political parties to the run up for the assembly election, Kolkata saw a spontaneous deluge of people on the 4th of August, 2009. People singing, chanting slogans , mourning and marking the last journey of West Bengal State Minister and the left leader Subhas Chakraborty. It was the most striking gathering in recent history of Bengal. The timing of Chakraborty's demise caught the left in the most uneasy juncture of its tenure. It was at a cross-road of a palpable dent in its mass base and the death of its most prolific face of the political society. The constellation of events and forces at that point in Bengal's political map made visible an apparent withdrawal of the mass from the hitherto overwhelming left-front. The surge of the mass, thereby, at the last journey of Chakraborty almost caught many a political observer off guarded, even the party possibly. The crowd upsurge at the funeral was euphonic for the party desperate to win back a sulking electorate. As if to combat Mamata-magic who outshone all the left-leaders single-handedly in her capacity to pull crowds and organize huge gatherings, the shriveling left power seemed to be caught into wish-fulfilling fantasies.


Lost into the time, yet, it dared to call its most formidable political enemy, as if, to fight a duel. In recent times, after that spectacular demonstration of the 14th November, 2007, where people came out spontaneously in huge number protesting against the killing in Nandigram, the surge of the masses had become synonymous with the existing opposition allies led by Mamata Banerjee. Interestingly the collective, not just as a summation of individuals is a reality onto itself. The moment of its getting encoded in time and space surpassed what Chakraborty as an individual, all that a maverick left leader embodied. It was probably a cathartic moment of self-purgation. From the side of those who broke into condolence, it was a moment of release. Release of anger toward a leadership who had deceived them as much as they had done injustice to a people’s leader. Thereby, in this shared space of condolence, the uneasiness of inner schism created after the Nandigram-killings, had the opportunity to get some momentary relief. Pathos has been rampant while bidding adieu to any beloved leader passing away, though it hardly goes beyond the pleasure principle; clinging to a hypercathected object doomed to fade away.


Yet, the crowd cannot continue to stray in an eternal mourning without being appropriated by some form of political gaze. In those days of “Discovery of India”, it was duly captured by the Nehruvian gaze in the state of United Province. With projection of such a political gaze, its dynamics was invested to realize a real political goal. In Bengal's collective memory, the political has always been informed by mass upsurge. The shifting of such upsurge away from the left-block beset with the complication of the civil society created a unique opportunity for Mamata Banerjee to seize the moment. If at all it resulted in a political appropriation, it rang not just a victory or defeat of a political party. It seized the possibilities of a regime. A regime overthrown never  stages a return in history.


Abhijit k./T, Chakraborty