Bengal Redux: ‘They have no idea about us: we were born and raised in struggle, forged in mass movements…’

The unseemly centre-state tussle over the recently retired chief secretary of West Bengal has been initiated by the Centre and the govt would be wise to end this now


“There are so many Bengal cadre officers working for the Centre; if we confront like this, what will be the future of this country, Mr Prime Minister? Mr Busy Prime Minister, Mr Mann Ki Baat Prime Minister… what, do you want to finish me? Never, ever…. As long as people give me support, you cannot… 

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, in response to the orders against her chief secretary issued by the Centre in Delhi.
(The Telegraph Online, June 3, 2021)

Former West Bengal chief minister for more than three decades and CPM legend, Jyoti Basu, had once termed the BJP “barbaric and uncivilised”, soon after the Babri Masjid demolition at Ayodhya, led by the top leaders of the BJP-RSS and the sangh parivar on December 6, 1992. Some years later he was quoted in the Tribune on November 22, 1999. He had said, categorically. “Even now I say it (BJP) is uncivilised and barbaric.” Stating that his remarks were not in reference to any individual, he said “what do you say if at the end of 20th century you break up somebody else’s prayer house -Babri mosque…”  He said this at a press conference in New Delhi.

One of the multiple reasons why the CPM in Bengal has not picked up its scaffoldings from its mighty past has been the denial of the post of prime minister to Jyoti Basu when his name was floated by the leaders of a victorious umbrella coalition in Delhi in 1996. Not only the CPM as a party in Bengal, the whole of Bengal felt shocked, let-down and heart-broken that the party, led by a certain group of rigid and dogmatic hardliners, did not allow him to head that loose coalition government of Left and democratic forces in Delhi.

Indeed, it would have been the first time that a Leftist, and that too of the stature of Jyoti Basu, would have become the prime minister of India. The Left, under his leadership, could have initiated a different kind of national and international discourse — secular, egalitarian and progressive, and initiated much-needed radical reforms in crucial social sectors like the economy, health, education, labour, agriculture, women’s issues, the justice system, human rights, among other areas, it was widely argued.

Both the Central Committee and the Politburo of the CPM overwhelmingly opposed the proposal that Jyoti Basu should head the United Front government. The CPM then had 32 MPs in the Lok Sabha of 1996, and this was considered too small a number to provide a CPM prime minister the clout or power to undertake crucial initiatives. Years later, Jyoti Basu called this party diktat a “historic blunder”.

Most of Bengal and large sections of progressive and Left supporters agreed with him, then, as they would agree with him even now, retrospectively. And this would perhaps include sections of even those who would politically disagree with Jyoti Basu and his party, as vehemently as ever.

After his death, when the entire city of Calcutta and its neighbourhood poured out on the streets in mourning and homage to their leader, Sitaram Yechury was quoted in The Economic Times (January 18, 2010), explaining the two versions behind the decision. (Since they had very few MPs) — “We would have to implement many things that we had opposed. Credibility would suffer. This was the argument by those not inclined in favour of Basu becoming PM,” Yechury said. “On the other hand, those in favour had argued that even with small numbers, but Basu as PM, the party could fashion many pro-people initiatives. Left’s credibility would have gone up,” Yechury cited the other point of view.

This angst and the memory are resurrected, because Jyoti Basu was never really a lackey of Delhi’s power structure, nor did he have any interest in the goings-on in its power corridors. Of the three decades plus in unilateral power at the Writers’ Building in Calcutta, he led a party and Left front, with all its apparent mistakes, which overwhelmingly and consistently exercised its constitutional federal autonomy, and independence. With Congress and Indira Gandhi ruling the roost in Delhi and most of India, Jyoti Basu stood as a strong symbol of defiance when it came to the Centre. He was, also, therefore, an important icon in the opposition alliance against the Centre and the Congress. The BJP was a weak player at that time, restricted to certain urban areas in the Hindi heartland and Gujarat, and almost treated like a pariah in the national mainstream for its communal politics.

The Centre-state conflict thereby always played its role in the political dynamics of the state, and despite 40 per cent plus vote share, the Congress just could not break the CPM citadel – despite the repeated allegations of “scientific rigging, muscle power and extra-constitutional structures, often violent, ruling the roost in the interiors of Bengal”. The anti-establishment, anti-Centre plank almost always played a big role in electorally defeating and out-manouvering the Congress in West Bengal.

In the current circumstances, post May 2, 2021, after a protracted, tiring and hard battle in the heat, amidst the distress and despair of the pandemic, the Modi-Shah regime in Delhi has once again played into this archival cycle of old memory, anger and angst, giving Mamata Banerjee just the handle she wants to counter what she repeatedly calls the ‘autocratic’ (referring to Hitler and Stalin) power apparatus of the ruling party in Delhi.

The elections itself became a kind of referendum between Didi, as a mass woman leader and street fighter on a wheel-chair, and the prime minister and his best buddy, the union home minister, who had literally parked themselves in Bengal, pumping in muscle, money, media, and pomp and show as a ritualistic public spectacle, while eating into the party structure of the Trinamool Congress with organized defections of its leaders. That the BJP did not have a cadre, or ground-level organization worth its name, or a credible and popular regional leadership, was exposed from day one.

The Trinamool campaign that ‘outsiders’ driven by hate politics and a sectarian agenda are out to capture and destroy the revolutionary, progressive, spiritual, pluralist and secular cultural and intellectual inheritance of Bengal, struck a decisive chord from the beginning in the political consciousness of Bengal. This factor played a crucial role as the campaign played out.

That the BJP was targeting Didi unilaterally, a secular mass leader, twice elected chief minister, and the only woman chief minister in India, was apparently taken with a big pinch of salt in Bengal, especially by women, especially women in rural Bengal, as the results have clearly proved. In popular perception, here was a secular street fighter who defeated the might of the CPM arising from the mass movement of ‘Ma Maati and Manush’ from Nandigram and Singur, and who has created an enduring and worthwhile social welfare infrastructure in rural and urban Bengal in just about 10 years as the chief minister; that she was being attacked day in and day out by the two men from Gujarat, obsessed with their one-dimensional and absolute power,  plus Yogi Adityanath from UP with his hate politics, was not really appreciated by the largely secular people in Bengal.

The more Narendra Modi and Amit Shah targeted her, the more Suvendu Adhikari used misogynistic and hate language, the more they communally polarised and created non-existent, existential phobias, the more the collective sense and instinct in Bengal united against the BJP and its two supremos on their helicopters. Not done, was the simmering feeling. They don’t understand Bengal. They are outsiders. They will ravage the peaceful state with its communal politics and destroy its historic and progressive culture, was an underlying feeling on the ground, unexpressed, but, nevertheless, moving in an invisible spiral. The success of the ‘Not one Vote to the BJP’ campaign only signified this uncanny and restless political unconscious across the urban and rural landscape.

Hence, the targeting of the state and its chief minister and chief secretary, post May 2, earlier followed by the arrest of two of its ministers and two senior leaders, is being seen as part of the same method in the madness. The whole state and the country are now aware of the script which had been played out at Kalaikunda post-Cyclone Yaas.

Mamata Banerjee has clearly stated her version in graphic detail, caught as she was in the midst of serious administrative relief measures soon after the cyclone. Micro details of the event, what followed it and preceded it, the arrival and departure of the aircrafts etc, the delay and hassles in flight control and timing, etc, the presence of a BJP MLA and the governor in the PM’s meeting with the chief minister – all this is becoming an uncanny script in public folklore. Legalities are being invoked, aspersions are being cast, the fear and threat of punishment, to the topmost bureaucrat in Bengal, has been circulated as a hypothesis and as law– even as he was on the verge of his retirement. 

The entire episode reeks of bad faith in bad taste – what could otherwise have been smoothly resolved within an amicable, flexible and consensual paradigm, with an aim to find the best solution for the state and the nation. That, obviously, did not happen; nor did it seem was the intent.

So much so, sensing the mood in the state, the CPM and Congress leaders too have criticised the manner in which the chief secretary is being humiliated/hounded. Even within the BJP, there are apparently serious rumblings in the manner the Centre is botching up its public image in the state. Among other former IAS officers and veteran bureaucrats, several have voiced their astonishment and unhappiness at the turn of events – after all, the chief secretary of West Bengal was only following the orders of his chief minister!

Speaking to The Indian Express, former Home Secretary G K Pillai said that the episode sets a bad precedent and would demotivate civil servants. “This is perhaps the first time in the history of independent India that a Secretary-level officer is being posted at the Centre one day before retirement. The order is totally irregular. And to say that a Secretary-level officer must report to Delhi by 10 am (on a particular day) is just unheard of. The joining time is normally six days plus travelling time for all bureaucrats. That the DoPT Secretary agreed to issue such an order says a lot about the state Indian bureaucracy is in.”

On her part, Mamata Banerjee has not been mercurial or confrontational. She has stated her version and it is widely assumed that her version is correct. She has, indeed, appealed to the prime minister repeatedly: “I humbly request you to withdraw, recall, reconsider your decision and rescind the latest so-called order in larger public interest. I appeal to your conscience and good sense, on the behalf of the people of West Bengal,” she said in her letter to the PM… “With unilateral and non-consultative orders being issued, the federal system is gravely endangered and severely undermined. If a chief secretary of a state can be asked to be relieved like this how can the lower bureaucracy take, obey and implement orders in their letter or spirit from the chief minister, other ministers and officers… I presume and hope that you do not want to damage the federal amity… and destroy the morale of all the All India Service officers working in various states…”

Indeed, the politeness and rationale logic, mixed with her defiant and stoic resilience, makes a heady cocktail in Bengal politics. Certainly, the best and only card the Modi-Shah duo can and should play in Bengal right now is to let things cool down and let the chief minister get on with her job in such difficult times. That would be strategically an ideal and wise choice. Or else, undoubtedly, she will yet again inherit the legacy of Jyoti Basu, and this time it will be many times potentially more powerful and popular than what it was in the distant past.

Surely, in contemporary Bengal, Mamata Banerjee knows her mind: “We will fight the battle. Ours is a pro-people government, they cannot stop us from working for the people… They have no idea about us: we were born and raised in struggle, forged in mass movements…”



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