Friday, January 22, 2010

Jyoti Basu's Bengal

Kanchan Gupta has written about Jyoti Basu.

While his piece helps to put in perspective the pathetic outpouring of praise in the mainstream media, the comment leaves one with a feeling of the main things remaining unsaid.

Bengal's present plight owes significantly to JB, but the story begins much earlier. The CPM in West Bengal is but one aspect of Bengal society and politics, it is a natural expression of the immense cleavages and distortions characterising the society.

Calcutta and Bengal's economy, in 1947, was overwhelmingly an obsolete colonial edifice. While those nurtured and groomed by this colonial city and its institutions - like JB himself - went on to do well for themselves, there was no thought for the public domain, and in particular industry and manufacturing. That called for a massive renewal, and when the soil's brightest and best were most needed they were nowhere to be found. But that was only to be expected in the barna bibhakto samaj that is Bengal.

The 60s and especially the mid- and late-60s were a bad time for India as a whole. It was a huge signal for change and renewal. Our much-lauded green revolution is an example of a mission that was prioritised by the Indian state, and completed. But West Bengal simply had to suffer the "structural adjustment', of being rendered redundant and irrelevant. And by that juncture, the mid-60s, the fragile and tenuous (formal) political environment in the state had also collapsed to yield outcomes such as the UF govts. The iron fist of the Indian state asserting itself - was seen in the SS Ray period. But with the massive anti-Congress sentiment in the state (and the manufacture of electoral outcomes by the CPM, despite the fact that the state has, even since 1977, had a Congress vote share which is only a little less than the Left votes), Indira-is-India could not reclaim Bengal. And the state has had to be embroiled in its own contradictions and discontents.

JB's record is a classic example of TINA, there was no alternative. What this means is the utter bankruptcy of the Bengali bhadralok society, its erstwhile education and institutions and its political ideologies and formations, in conceiving and rendering a socio-economic order other than the inherited one. A bhadralok society that lives off the subaltern folk who comprise the common people of the land. All that one instead saw was an endless cycle of negativism, self-destructiveness, violence and breakdown, demolition of all that was. JB presided over an order which was simply like gaseous vapours emanating from a dung heap, or maggots in a carcass. And he ensured that the party would reign supreme in that dungheap order.

Bengal today is not anything, it is only a non-thing, it is the negation of the British order that was salubrious for the bhadralok and viscerally hated by everyone left out of the circle of privilege.

Everyone likes to partake of the benefits of a place or a situation, but a few must build, conserve and renew. In Bengal, everyone fled when things got difficult. Or huffed and puffed, in parodies of revolution.

It was not labour militancy which scared off capital and led to capital flight; rather, labour militancy itself was the knee-jerk reaction of the (babu-led) trade unions' leadership in a situation of all-round industrial collapse owing to technological and economic obsolescence. Of course, the insanities of the late 60s - early 70s also led to capital and human flight. But it is also important to note that the lion's share of industrial disputes was claimed by lock-outs. That is a telling indicator of the the real power balance in society as far as the proletariat was concerned.

The CPM's tenure in the state has been accompanied by the transformation of the economy into a non-industrial one, the decimation of the industrial proletariat and the growth of a lumpen proletariat. The contribution of SS Ray to the creation of the culture of a politically patronised lumpen army, cannot be forgotten.

JB's bile against the class / community he himself belonged to - but disavowed in his public life - led him to destroy everything held sacred by them. He only mirrored the hatreds organic to the parasitically ruled society. And securely installed was a party ruling the roost over the debris of all that was. The common folk of the land benefited to an extent that the apartheid bhadralok order, in its natural / inherent tendency, would never have enabled. They were psychologically empowered by the party, but otherwise entirely feeble and dependent on the party for survival. But in the main, the CPM order was about keeping people poor and backward, whipping up class hatreds so that a dog-eat-dog environment prevailed, in which it could consistently emerge victorious (in the polls). And the party could be the sole arbiter of everything.

Given what the CPM was, and in a sense what left-ism had been reduced to in the state, that was all that could be expected.

The result of western communist / left ideology in a backward, caste-divided society ruled by Bengali bhadralok.

Nandigram represented the violent revolt of the masses against party rule.

JB epitomised all the contradictions, ironies and irrationalities of Bengal. The unsmiling, emotionless mask that he seemed to wear was actually quite real. He was simply a "virtual' entity, not human, just an abstract compound of all the negatives of Bengal. His personal life and tastes were very far removed from the party he was a major part of. It is actually quite amazing that a man could so completely efface his human-ness all day long, for so many years. He gave himself up fully and completely to and for the party, he made the party his all, and in return the party made him the supreme leader. And he ensured the party reigned supreme. A person completely empty, a polished mirror of the society and the party. And after he left office, he disappeared from public view, leaving the CPM to manage its fiefdom. But we see now that this fiefdom is nearing its demise.

So it is the CPM that should be grateful to Basu.

Bengal never got a Deng, or technocrats. The contradictions and discontents within Bengal society were too powerful for that.

But yes, one cannot fail to recognise Basu's consistent and steadfast abhorrence of communalism. A communal mindset is actually at the core of Bengali bhadralok society, and Basu represents the disavowal of that too. Such a disavowal is also very much a part of the soil of Bengal. But the party he was a part of could not hold on to that for very long. Party membership was no longer an ideological thing, it was simply a means for opportunism,

Hence Basu's rule was a period of absence of communal riots. He ensured that communal disturbances were stamped out at once. As a pre-independence CPI man, he knew all about communal riots. But just as the absence of communal bigotry, a negative, was not accompanied by anything positive at its core, Bengal's record of being free of communal riots was also a record of all-round marginalisation of the Muslim community. And that too was only an indicator of the deeply entrenched communal mindset in the society and its institutionalisation. Basu could not do anything about that. Basu also made the mistake of failing to recognise the rise of Hindutva in the latter part of the 80s, and so he tried to make amends by being the most ardent national champion of so-called "secular" politics, from the latter part of the 90s. That ensured that the BJP was held at bay.

So besides the CPM and the formal Left, it is the Congress at the centre that should be most grateful to Basu.

"West Bengal, with its huge pool of talent, could have led India from the front" ... No. That required leadership, and above all, self-leadership (swaraj), something sorely lacking in the gene pool of the sick bhadralok society. So though independence and freedom was achieved by driving out the British (and then the bhadralok), though swa-desh, self-rule was achieved, real freedom, swa-raj, is still an elusive dream.

Image: Maggots in a carcass, courtesy Bear Blog and Carcass Cam.


Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

I have been following your blog since almost past one year and enjoy both the wide span of subjects & depth of your analysis. I read Kanchan Gupta's post and your analysis on the same. Thanks for such an incisive analysis.
I agree with you that post-independence West Bengal was never an industrial centre in its true sense, even before the advent of Leftists. My father left Calcutta in late 70s in search of better opportunities and plans to return next year. During numerous discussions with him, I understood that, contrary to popular wisdom, the industrial detoriation of WB had probably started even before 1977. Even historically (pre-independence and immediately after partition), apart from Jute Mills, Calcutta's claim to a significant economic/financial centre rested solely on 'boxwallahs' of erstwhile Burmah Shell, British Tea Companies & Imeprial Tobacco. WB didn't figure much even in Nehru's 'Temples of Modern India' except for Durgapur etc. The militant unionism also probably started sometime during late 60s as is evident from Satyajit Ray's Seemabaddha (1971).
But still last 32 years may have been the last nail in the coffin.

joanna said...

I am still undecided about JB's contribution or lack of it. As a young British girl growing up in Calcutta at the tine of the Naxalites I remember the very real sense of fear that he was able to harness to his own political advantage.
But, I also remember his arrival at the Swimming Club with a group of young men and his jumping into the pool with them in one of the most theatrical and electric statements against the rule of privilege that I have ever seen. I was glad to be there and bear witness to it.