Bengal: Change, yes; but doubts too

Like the tide, there is an ebb and flood in popular perception. Except that in West Bengal, the quotidian has been transformed into a dilemma.
From the certainty of paribartan under the Trinamul Congress, chanted as a mantra over the past five years, the question that has replaced it is: Will there be an eighth Left Front government?

The question has suddenly gained traction and is now the opening statement before the politically aroused Bengali launches into speculation on the outcome of the ongoing West Bengal Assembly elections.
Different people have different reasons for raising the question, and providing the answers too. It all boils down to making a choice — between loyalty and novelty. Loyalty not in the sense of blind faith in the virtues of the Communist Party of India (Marxist): everyone in West Bengal has some reason to feel angry about the style and methods of the party. The loyalty is to the idea that the CPI(M) is, despite the lapses and flaws, a good sort; its leaders represent the culture that every Bengali values.
For a lot of voters, especially the educated and bhadralok types, the novelty of the Trinamul Congress is beginning to wear off. Having forcefully argued that paribartan is a “must” because the CPI(M) needs to be taught a lesson, the moment of decision is proving to be difficult. Hence the question: will there be an eighth Left Front government?
The Trinamul Congress has by no means lost its appeal. The relationship of the masses to Mamata Banerjee is undeniable and strong. As a charismatic leader, as the embodiment of anti-CPI(M) establishment feelings, thoughts and actions, she is a permanent icon. Her capacity to awaken the dormant rebellious, self-righteously moral “conscience” of the Bengali is unmatched. And yet, even when the wave produced by a mood of strong revulsion was at its most menacing against the very existence of the CPI(M), the question that was inevitably tagged on to every discussion was: what will happen once the Trinamul Congress comes to power? The corollary being: what sort of chief minister will Ms Banerjee be?
The paradox is that voters want change, but they lack confidence in the change-maker. At the root of the doubts voiced in endless discussions on the prospects and merits of the Trinamul Congress as a party in power, with Ms Banerjee as chief minister, vis à vis the CPI(M) for the eighth term in succession with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as chief minister, is a rather pitiless judgment about the quality of the current political leadership, including the performance of the state’s political parties. A population that is so polarised and consequently dependent on political identification is one that is doomed to go through extreme mood swings — from hysterical support of the Trinamul Congress and earlier of the CPI(M), to an equally emphatic lack of confidence in the leadership and organisation.
The puzzle, therefore, remains: what makes the CPI(M) so durably dependable? For some, it is the restrained and moderate manner of its leaders, for others its ability to be self-critical and rectify mistakes, for others it is the sheer unacceptability of a leader who is essentially an angry agitator. One concern that did emerge during the years of intense discussion about paribartan was the question of peace, harmony and progress. It seems voters remain anxious despite the athletic efforts of the Trinamul Congress to remake its image as constructive, rather than destructive and obstructionist. In comparison, however odious, the CPI(M) is less likely to produce turbulence. Piquant as this characterisation is, given the long history of the CPI(M)’s capacity to create political turbulence, it is a reflection of the trend and tenor in the past 34 years.
There was serious political violence in the past five years, with the CPI(M) producing a list of people killed and injured in Maoist attacks as well as in clashes with the Trinamul Congress. In January, the toll was around 120 deaths in political conflict; another 170 died in Maoist killings and 1,435 were injured. The Trinamul Congress carried out a relentless campaign against the so-called “harmads”, a vulgar phrase coined by Ms Banerjee to describe armed CPI(M) cadre or hired mercenaries after the violence in Nandigram, Lalgarh and, more recently, Netai. It did damage the CPI(M)’s reputation and that of its government as these were essentially perceived as criminal elements controlled by a political organisation.
After the initial outburst of anguish and rage, public opinion appears to have reconsidered the situation and concluded that the clashes were a consequence of political instigation on both sides. Just as public opinion has revised its views on Ms Banerjee’s capacity to run a clean, inclusive, peaceful and constructive government. The railways is no longer seen as a model of good governance, and oddly enough this revised opinion is after Ms Banerjee’s heroic efforts to connect every possible part of West Bengal with new trains and link the state to different parts of the country as well.
The final outcome of all these visions and revisions will depend on how much return on investment the population expects by voting for change versus the calculation of benefits in voting for the CPI(M). Having never before invested so heavily in the Opposition, a very large body of voters will choose the Trinamul Congress. These are not the diehard anti-Left voters who have in every election held on to their faith, as it were. These are the new converts to paribartan. Their numbers will decide which way the tide will flow strongly, undercutting the embankments that protected the CPI(M)’s strongholds of support or depositing silt on the side of the Opposition — as happens routinely in the Sunderbans delta where estuarine rivers constantly change. Living with change is serious business and the Bengali might be a little tired of this clamour over change, because getting on with it is what is beginning to matter rather than talking about it. The question — will there be an eighth Left Front government — is about weighing who will get on with doing things rather than simply talking about paribartan.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist in Kolkata

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