AT THE TIME of writing, more than 45 people were killed in the violence associated with the panchayat polls in the benighted state of West Bengal. The number is shockingly high. If you add to this the scenes of mob violence, indiscriminate hurtling of homemade bombs and mass rigging that took place inside the polling booths, the inescapable conclusion is that the term Jungle Raj, which was once used to describe Bihar under Lalu Prasad, should now be applied to the place Gopal Krishna Gokhale believed—hopefully erroneously—was the national beacon.
Of course, no one, not least the Bengalis themselves, seriously believe any longer that their state is Sonar Bangla. Although a mood of vacuous self-congratulation overwhelms the state when some foreigner issues a gushing testimonial to the city of Kolkata after a flying visit. It has also become customary for the national political leadership to start their speeches in Bengal with syrupy references to the glorious heritage of the Bengalis.
Speaking as a proud and rooted Bengali who doesn’t mind being described as a Bong, I sincerely believe that there should be moratorium on these meaningless certifications of how cultured and refined the Bengalis are. Maybe, Bengalis have acquired a veneer of cosmopolitanism, courtesy having been exposed to Western culture for the longest time in India. To this has been added a generous layer of ‘progressivism’, a shorthand for an attitude of disdain towards many facets of Hindu traditions. This is often reflected in the so-called trendy Bangla films which often glorify lesbianism, free love and uninhibited swearing, and which in nearly all cases, bomb at the box office.
Frankly, I think Bengal is in the throes of self-generated confusion. Most Bengali families, cutting across the class divide, now have some of its members working outside the state. Some 50 years ago, Bengali mothers were heartbroken if their beloved sons and even married daughters had to cross Dhanbad or Balasore for employment. Of course, in some districts, such as Midnapore, finding work outside was seen as normal, but this was an exception. Today, it is understood that anyone who has completed their school, must look elsewhere to get on with life. It is also understood that economic advancement depends on attaining success in some part of resurgent India or overseas. Those who, for one reason or another, cannot afford to leave Bengal, are compelled to try their hand in the one area that offers easy pickings: politics.
The entry bar to politics is tantalisingly low and the assured returns are high. In West Bengal, where economic stagnation has set in for decades, a livelihood from politics can happen in two ways. The first, popularised by the Bangla expression ‘tolabaazi’, is the local variant of extortion. These take the form of illegal cesses on businesses (big and small), forcible donations from individuals and corporate houses for every conceivable puja and festival, and compulsory commissions on building and renovation work. There is a Member of Parliament, for example, who is popularly known with the prefix ‘square-feet’ before his surname.
Those who have read accounts of how mafia gangs operated in New York and Chicago in the early part of the 20th century will find eerie parallels.
Then there is the systematic siphoning of government funds, both welfare allotments and development funds. In the rest of India, the imaginative use of technology has seen the decline in the quantum of corruption. Not in West Bengal. Here, increasingly innovative ways, coupled with the use of muscle power, has seen a chunk of government funds going into the hands of those who control the panchayats. This explains why there is such a desperation to ensure election to panchayat bodies. Without the authority conferred by panchayats, their very livelihood is at stake. They must secure election and re-election at all costs, even if it means subverting the democratic process completely.
I would hazard the guess that West Bengal is by far the most advanced in the corruption business. The problem isn’t confined to the very top or the very bottom. Its reach has extended to every section of the political establishment, including the opposition party activists, many of whom are kept satisfied with sweeteners. The term ‘setting’ is often used to describe political match-fixing. This is almost entirely an offshoot of the corruption economy.
What we witnessed in the panchayat election wasn’t due to the innate Bengali penchant for violence—something that has its post-Independence manifestation dating back to the collapse of Congress dominance in 1967. It is an expression of the criminalisation that has accompanied prolonged economic stagnation.