A view from the Calcutta Club
Madam is shuffling forward. No, not Memsahib Madam in Delhi. It’s Bangla Madam, flip-flopping in her Hawaii chappals towards the Holy Grail of an appropriate Third Front. The slippers slow her down. Sneakers might be faster. But look where sneakers got Rakhi Birla! Only 26 and already Minister for Women and Child, Social Welfare and Languages, and in the national capital too! But out after a mere 49 days. No, there’s no point getting there too soon. Netaji himself gave the “Delhi Chalo!” call 70 years ago, but Pranab Mukherjee is the only Bengali to have made it big in the capital. That was Memsahib Madam’s doing, of course, because—as Narendra Modi reminded Bengali listeners at his 5 February rally—she didn’t want her son to face the obstacle her husband once did. Actually, Pranabda is a son of the world, not of Bengal, as Madam once told CNN-IBN. Jyoti Basu was a son of Bengal who suffered because dyed-in-the-wool ideologues like Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Prakash Karat made historic mistakes. Left to himself, Jyoti Babu would never have blundered. He was more Bhadralok than Marxist.
Mohammed Salim, a Marxist politician, adds ‘Marketing’ to Trinamool’s ‘Maa, Maati, Manush’ (Mother, Earth, Mankind) slogan. Other Ms cluster thickly—Modi, Marxists, Muslims, and Marwaris who are as Bengali as she is, Madam says expansively. But she can’t yet write off the Marxists who mustered more than a million supporters in a formidable show of strength on 9 February, their biggest rally in two decades. Having toiled for the Communist revolution that never was for the best years of his life, Jolly Mohan Kaul, 93, more Bengali than Kashmiri, thinks the Marxists are finished. His memoirs, In Search of a Better World, attributes their defeat after 34 years in power to ‘their volte face from being champions of the poor, the workers and the peasants, to becoming protectors and promoters of the interests of the richer sections of society’. But true Bengalis never abandon illusions, and the Lokniti-IBN National Tracker survey showed that 30 per cent—28 in the countryside and 36 in towns—feel the Left Front performed better than the Trinamool, which boasts of redeeming 90 per cent of its pledges in the first 20 months. A dwindling breed of Bengali intellectuals still dreams of the revolution to come.
Revolution’s perennial lure explains why Trinamool leaders were so wary as young Bengalis queued up to pay homage to Arvind Kejriwal’s rising star. They might joke in private about rechristening Mango Lane in Central Kolkata ‘Aam Aadmi Gali’, but Madam reportedly ordered her flunkeys never to publicly discuss the Aam Aadmi Party. Trinamool is the aam aadmi’s sole spokesman in Bengal, as the Marxists were for so many years. Another ostentatiously grassroots organisation threatening to contest several Bengal parliamentary seats might steal some of Madam’s thunder, especially in towns. A Kejriwal who resigns to fight another day from a stronger position would be her strategic match. It is a measure of her ability to juggle balls in the air that both the Marxist Karat and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Minister of State for Railways who now heads the Bengal Congress, accuse her of playing footsie with Modi.
It’s a natural suspicion, for Madam and Modi are not directly engaged this time. Despite the instinctive inclinations of settlers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the BJP is still not a factor in Bengal politics. That’s why Modi could propose “friendly competition” between Madam in Calcutta and himself in Delhi (a laddoo in each hand, he joked) even while belittling the state’s Trinamool government. With an eye on the long term, his managers packed his impressively large rally with truckloads of Bengalis from the border districts on whose sentiments and grievances he played. Support for Modi as Prime Minister had already doubled from 9 to 18 per cent. While his propagandists trumpet Modi as the Messiah of Miraculous Growth, the Gujarat Chief Minister’s real appeal lies in being the Sturdy Custodian of Majority Community interests, as seen.
Although 55 per cent of Bengalis profess satisfaction with the Trinamool’s performance, as the survey results show, and a high 60 per cent are delighted with the Chief Minister personally, middle-class Bengal blamed Madam when Ratan Tata drove away from Singur. The Nano’s new location in Gujarat was a tremendous PR victory for Modi. Bengalis also complain that jobs remain scarce because Madam hasn’t succeeded in attracting much investment of significance. Even the labouring classes have little scope for employment in a state where the only visible economic activity is the construction of condominiums. Nevertheless, West Bengal’s Finance Minister Amit Mitra recently dazzled the elite audience of an awards ceremony at a five-star hotel with spectacular growth statistics. “Bengal is marching ahead,” he proclaimed. “Where are the naysayers?” he demanded, aggressively.
The real reason for rooting for Modi is muttered only in private, and then only in whispers. The feeling is growing that India is vulnerable to the machinations of a hostile Pakistan on its west and to floods of illegal immigrants from an unsettled Bangladesh in the east. They are believed to have altered the demographic balance in Bengal’s border districts. While Madam is a bulwark against the Left’s return, Modi is emerging as the only bulwark against being overwhelmed by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, a feeling he cleverly exploited in his rally address.
Not that Modi is loved or even liked. There was hilarity in the café of a smart shopping mall over the blank he had left against ‘name of spouse’ in the halafnama (affidavit) for his last Vidhan Sabha election. Was it suppression or misrepresentation? Or did he really not know? A lawyer present was certain the Election Commissioner could be approached. Someone remarked that a Kolkata businessman had already done so. “I wonder if he saw the graffiti driving in from the airport?” was asked. “What did it say?” Several voices rattled off the answer: “Killer Modi go back!” But everyone knew that was the Left’s handiwork. The Left isn’t worried about being overwhelmed by Bangladeshis.
Muslim support for the Trinamool is growing. Once staunch Congress supporters, Bengali Muslims began to move towards Left Front parties after the Babri Masjid was destroyed. Another transition began when they realised that despite secular professions, the Marxists and their allies were not doing much to tackle the inequalities that the Rajinder Sachar report exposed. It would be untrue to claim a dramatic improvement since Madam took over, although she boasts of meeting 90 per cent of Sachar’s recommendations. But Jyoti Basu never wore a burkha as Madam does on occasion. Buddhadev Bhattacharjee didn’t say namaaz like her. No Left Front government gave a special allowance to mullahs like Trinamool did. No wonder Muslim support for her has increased from last year’s 36 per cent to 54 per cent.
The Congress party is the loser in all this. For a long time, Bengalis have suspected the Congress of being a Hindi heartland party rather than a national organisation. Gandhi’s resentment of Subhas Chandra Bose at the 1939 Tripuri Congress (which, too, Modi drummed home) isn’t forgotten. The humiliation of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Bengal’s last Congress Chief Minister, by Sanjay Gandhi during his mother’s Emergency worsened the alienation. The Congress recently lost nine civic bodies to the Trinamool; the stampede of defectors included three Vidhan Sabha members.
Chowdhury, the Congress boss, is Madam’s pet hate. Way back in 1996 when she was still in the Congress, she threatened to hang herself if he were nominated to the legislature. They are still deadly enemies. Chowdhury calls Trinamool “a one-person party” and mocks at Madam as Goddess Durga sandwiched between Lakshmi (Finance Minister Mitra) and Saraswati, goddess of learning (Education Minister Bratya Basu). Congress rallies are a pale shade of Modi’s or Madam’s mammoth jamborees.
Some already compare Madam with Chandra Shekhar, HD Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. Of the three minority party prime ministers, Chandra Shekhar, the ageing Young Turk who won the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award in 1995, is thought to provide the most apt parallel. But if she gets the award, it will be for tantrums in the well of the House and the vigour with which she used to lash out at opponents with her shawl. Chandra Shekhar had 64 MPs. Madam has only 19, but Trinamool is contesting all 42 Bengal seats and hopes to capture 36 of these—apart from some in other states with Anna Hazare’s help.
Never before, chuckles Derek O’Brien, Madam’s loyal aide, has the sage of Ralegan Siddhi canvassed for a political party. He will do so this time because she is the best Prime Minister India has never had. Six reasons are cited. First, the room she lives in is only 10 ft by 12 ft. (Never mind if she presides over vast chambers in Writers Building, Nabanna, Uttarkanya and who knows how many other secretariats; in fact, as Bengal shrinks in size, the number of offices to administer it multiplies.) Second, she drapes herself in simple cotton. (What happened, one wonders, to the saris she was reported to be designing.) Third, she pads about in those famous slippers. Fourth, she doesn’t use an official car. (Her car is without a flag or beacon but needs neither since everyone knows who is inside). Fifth, Annaji says she takes no salary. Finally and most important, she has promised to quit if she doesn’t implement his 17-point charter. “I back her as a candidate for PM,” says Annaji.
The domes and minarets of Madam’s Third Front haven’t yet emerged out of the mists of electoral calculations. She must contend with the Left parties and the ambitions of other regional satraps like Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar. She must choose between a crumbling Congress and a rising Modi—provided he promises to respect her Bengali bastion. She must balance Muslim votes with Marwari funding, and reconcile Annaji’s support with a tacit alliance with the BJP. But whatever the combination, she’s been there before. She has been an insider in both the NDA and UPA. She can afford to hasten slowly. As Nizamuddin Auliya, who lived through the reigns of 13 sultans, told the impatiently threatening Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, “Dilli door ast ” (Delhi is far away). Madam knows that a laddoo in hand is worth three in the window.
About The Author
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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