Economist Ashok Mitra, a former Finance Minister in the Jyoti Basu Government of West Bengal and subsequently a Rajya Sabha MP, who died on May Day in Kolkata will probably not be remembered so much as a Communist — a label he proudly flaunted — as one of India’s foremost polemicists. His pen portraits of illustrious contemporaries, his social commentaries and his savagely polemical articles in newspapers were obligatory reading for me, ever since I first came across his Calcutta Notebook in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly in the early-1970s.
There were two worlds, Mitra excelled in describing and documenting. The first was the world of the intellectual left in India — the refined, Oxbridge-educated apparatchiks of the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi era. They were good souls, even idealists with formidable international connections who ended up making a complete hash of the Indian economy and stunted India’s real potential. Mitra was also part of that lot, though he did stray into an awkward bout of party politics with the CPI(M) in subsequent years.
Mitra’s real forte, however, was in vividly describing the erosion of democracy in West Bengal and, by implication, the rest of India in the 1970s. Being too left-oriented, he never really blamed the 57 varieties of Communist activists for introducing the politics of murder into Bengal, all for the lofty cause of the revolution. But he did succeed in conveying the larger human tragedy that ensued the retaliatory White Terror unleashed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray, with the full blessings of Indira Gandhi. Maybe Ray saved the State from descending into outright civil war and anarchy but successful counter-revolution was accompanied by the outright subversion of democracy. Mitra was one of the few who protested —although such protests lacked complete moral power because the indignation wasn’t even-handed.
Mitra was also one of the few who anticipated the lumpenisation of the forces unleashed by Mamata Banerjee, again in response to the petty tyranny and high-handedness of the cadre raj of the left Front. Once again Mitra’s devastating critique ignored the fact that the undeniable excesses of the TMC was a response to the Red Terror unleashed by the left against all those who dared say no or who were simply ‘class enemies.’
Mitra epitomised the tragedy of West Bengal’s left-inclined intelligentsia. To call the refined bhadralok practitioners of literature, creative cinema and the fine arts as Communist would be an over-statement. They were not doctrinaire; they were simply ‘progressive’ in their inclinations — a tradition that can be traced back to facets of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance. They were also not toadies of the Government in power. After the high-handedness of the CPI(M) in Singur and Nandigram became public knowledge, these left intellectuals raised their voices in protest. Kolkata became one of the few cities where protest marches by ‘intellectuals’ were routine. These expressions of indignation were a factor in the ignominious defeat of the left Front in 2011.
The belief that the demise of the left would trigger a return to political civility and normal politics has, tragically, not been borne out by events. The lumpenisation of the political culture under Mamata has reached such a level that democratic politics itself is under threat.
On the face of it, there are no real threats to the TMC Government. The complete collapse of the left and the decimation of the Congress produced a vacuum in the Opposition. Some of this — but only some — has been filled up by the BJP which has emerged as the number 2 party in Bengal. But it is still a modest force. The by-elections show that the TMC has been successful in mopping up the bulk of former Congress and left voters, leaving the BJP with a small share. Where the TMC has been most successful is in ensuring the slavish loyalty of the local Bengali media.
The reason for this is interesting. While there is unease over the high-handedness of the TMC Government, there is an aesthetic rejection of the caricatured version of the saffron, ‘communal’ politics of the BJP. Consequently, the repeated attacks on BJP cadres and supporters enjoy a tacit endorsement of both the intelligentsia and the media. The left dictum that ‘fascists’ — and the BJP is portrayed as fascists — have no human rights appears to have been internalised.
The recent panchayat elections have witnessed the destruction of all pretence of democracy in West Bengal. Intimidation of voters has been a routine feature of Bengal since the 1970s. The TMC has taken it to a new height by intimidating all those who dared to even contest against it. Thus the very act of filing nominations was seen as an act of political treachery and met with violence. Aided and abetted by a supine administration, the TMC won nearly 25 per cent of the seats by either preventing the Opposition filing nominations or forcing them to withdraw subsequently. Subsequently, if some Opposition candidates do manage to win, it is likely that a large number of them will be intimidated into joining the ruling party. The anti-defection law doesn’t apply to local bodies.
This subversion of democracy is well known and documented. Yet, there has been a stunning silence from both the media and the intelligentsia. Those who protest against Kathua and cow vigilantism conveniently look the other way when human rights are violated right on their doorstep. Fortunately, the voters are not blessed with such expedient double standards. Experience shows that voters have invariably punished the swagger and arrogance of all those parties that believe in the divine right to rule in perpetuity. West Bengal voters are patiently waiting for that opportunity.