Expect the Unexpected — India Votes 2009

Er...let's just forget the flags now, shall we?

Er...let's just forget the flags now, shall we?

The dust is slowly settling over the Indian Election Circus 2009, and the shock and awe at the Congress’ (oh all right, UPAs’) sweeping victory is no longer as intense. For the people of West Bengal, though, it’s proving hard to shake off the ‘we have entered a new dawn’ feeling. ‘Green revolution’ has become quite a catch phrase, and amidst conflicting reports of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee offering to step down and of the Trinamul Congress (TMC) and Congress deciding to bring a no confidence motion against the Left Front government, everybody’s acting as though these are the Assembly, rather than Parliament, elections which the Left Front has lost.

And you can’t blame them.

I belong to a generation of Bengalis who have never seen the Left Front — CPI(M), CPI, RSP, Forward Bloc — lose an election, at whatever level. As a youngster who was born and brought up outside Bengal, it always seemed to me incredible that a single political alliance could inspire such unswerving loyalty. It was only as I grew up — and grew more politically conscious — that I realised what inspired that loyalty, primarily in rural Bengal. Stories about Left intimidation of voters and electoral fraud became so widespread that they became impossible to brush aside as isolated incidents. It was clear that here was a government which, as soon as it came to power, spent the next five years plotting how to recapture power at the next elections. Every administrative organ was pressed into the Left Front’s service, so that the police, for instance, became just another extension of the party in power, and party leaders acted as though the judiciary belonged to them, too.

What was initially an expression of spontaneous support — in the era of such leaders as Pramod Dasgupta, EMS Namboodiripad and Harekrishna Konar — became a support born out of fear and then inertia. It didn’t help either that West Bengal had no viable Opposition, because the once mighty Congress had gradually worn down to a rump, and the Trinamul Congress was seen as an unstable gathering of very unlikely individuals at the mercy of the fiery but whimsical Mamata Banerjee, whose only ideology seemed to be to oppose the Left.

Systematically, the Left Front built a party machinery any corporate entity would be proud of. Particularly in Bengal’s villages, which were its strongholds since the land reforms of the 1970s, the red bastion was virtually impregnable.

This time, it was in Bengal’s villages that the red downfall was staged.

The warning signs were there for everyone to see in last year’s Panchayat elections, when the Left Front’s fiefdom of Nandigram slipped out of its grasp after a series of brutal encounters that only proved how completely the state government had come to rely on force to suppress any signs of opposition. And then, of course, there was Singur and the Tata Nano saga, which showed how completely the state government had lost touch with its principal support base.

The wonder of it all is that nobody saw this collapse coming, not the Left Front and its much vaunted party machinery, and certainly not the Opposition. It was such a silent revolution, and so many voters feigned support for the Left while voting Trinamul, that even seasoned political observers have been taken by surprise.

Well, the Left has just about a year to get its act together before the Assembly elections of 2011, and unlike on many previous occasions, Mamata Banerjee may not let opportunity slip through her grasp this time. So much so, that there are reports that she may refuse a Central ministry because she wants to concentrate on the state, though she did well as Railway Minister of the NDA regime. And there are indications that she may call for an early Assembly election, though she may not be able to pull it off.

Whatever happens, no one will now say that West Bengal lacks a viable Opposition party. Whether Mamata didi can cash in on the mood is entirely up to her.

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The Enigma Called Subhas Chakraborty

Objects of his ire... Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat (from left) with Ramachandran Pillai

Objects of his ire... Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat (from left) with Ramachandran Pillai

“Apart from bringing a dead man back to life, I can do anything.” Thus spake the man whom Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury undoubtedly love to hate, particularly now that he has directly challenged their position as ‘mass’ leaders. In typical style, which the people of West Bengal have come to instantly recognise — and sometimes derive huge amusement from — he has asked why CPI(M) Politburo members should not contest elections. Obviously, the question is not as straightforward as it seems. Nothing about Subhas Chakraborty ever is.

Don't you love the headgear? Subhas in the man in black, incidentally

Don't you love the headgear? Subhas in the man in black, incidentally

For a member of arguably one of India’s most dictatorial political parties, Chakraborty shows surprisingly little hesitation in repeatedly stepping out of his crease and hitting the party line for a six, to use a cricketing analogy. Call him the CPI(M)’s enfant terrible, or call him simply a maverick, he’s a constant source of embarrassment for his party, and a huge deal of entertainment for us, who enjoy watching party leaders squirm as they try to clamber their way out of the holes that their temperamental colleague digs for them.

And the fun lies in the fact that they seem to be able to do nothing about it. I quote here a fairly typical passage that describes Chakraborty’s relationship with his party: “West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has distanced himself from his cabinet colleague and senior CPI(M) leader Subhas Chakraborty, who is facing a police investigation for alleged public outburst against election officials. Meanwhile, the opposition Congress today demanded that CPI(M) should drop Chakraborty as candidate for the forthcoming assembly election.”

That news item is dated 2006, but if you were to replace a few phrases here and there, may just as well have been datelined 2001 (when he described his fellow CPI(M) leaders as a “herd of cattle”) or 2009. And yet, nothing changes. Forget dropping Chakraborty as an election candidate, as the Congress demanded in 2006, the state leaders don’t even dare censure him as he goes on his merry way.

So what makes him such a big deal?

Well, ‘mass base’ is a phrase you will often hear associated with Chakraborty. And it explains much of his influence, though not all of it. Contrary to his rough and ready image in the corridors of power, he is known — always has been — as something of a do gooder in his Assembly constituency of Belgachhia East. Some years ago, I remember meeting Masudur Rahman Baidya, the orthopaedically handicapped swimmer who has conquered the English Channel and Straits of Gibraltar, and who was then aiming to cross all the world’s 12 major channels. Running from pillar to post to secure funds, the double amputee below the knee recalled how ‘Subhas da’ had promised all possible help in his endeavours, and how grateful he was for the gesture.

He has for many years been one of the biggest fundraisers for his party in the state, and there are wild rumours about the fleets of private buses that he reportedly owns. These buses are avidly commercial vehicles, and Chakraborty in his position as state transport minister really has no business running them if he indeed does so, but then, he has never been too fussed about minor matters such as ethics and morality.

Chakraborty’s third pillar of strength is his steadfast devotion to CPI(M) patriarch Jyoti Basu, and the bond between the two has stood the test of time and the ebb and flow of political turmoil. Time and again, Chakraborty has found shelter beneath Basu’s hitherto braod wings after yet another misdemeanour. As recently as last year, when still an influential figure within the party, and immediately after the CPI(M)’s party congress in Coimbatore, Basu had demanded that Chakraborty be included in the CPI-M Politburo as well as state party secretariat. His demand was in direct defiance of the stand taken by Karat, the party’s general secretary, and the latter remained unimpressed, to nobody’s surprise.

However, from all indications, Basu will be increasingly unable to protect his protege, who has now truly hit Karat where it hurts by implying that he does not have the mass base to win an election, and that his student leader experience is pretty much zilch in the rough and tumble of national politics. The irony is, much of the CPI(M)’s power at the Centre derives from the 40-odd Lok Sabha seats that it holds in West Bengal, and more impartial observers than Chakraborty have felt that neither Karat nor Yechury have treated the state with the ‘respect’ that they ought to.

The question now is, what will happen next? By all accounts, the CPI(M) and its Left Front allies will suffer sizeable losses in the just-concluded Lok abha elections in West Bengal, which means the Left leaders will see their strongest negotiating tool weakened at the national level. And with Basu fading out of the picture, Karat & Co will no longer see the need to pussyfoot around Chakraborty. Inevitably, the state leadership has carefully distanced itself from some of Chakraborty’s potentially explosive remarks. About the others, it has remained meaningfully silent.

Has Subhas da finally bitten off more than he can chew? All those of us who have watched him take on one opponent after another — from journalists to Maoists — hurling insults in his trademark East Bengal accent, would lament a reduction in his powers. Love him or hate him, and most of us frankly see little to praise in him, we have been hugely entertained by him. And we have admired his ability to throw a spanner in the works with unfailing regularity. We grinned with delight when he organised the scandalously plebeian Hope 86, laughed when he unabashedly — and untruthfully — took all credit for bringing Diego Maradona to Kolkata recently, and hooted when he defiantly offered puja at Tarapith, which no true Communist would even consider. He single-handedly took on Kolkata’s powerful hawkers and triumphed over them with Operation Sunshine, and openly opposed the subsequently discredited Prasun Mukherjee, erstwhile police commissioner of Kolkata and the government’s ‘unofficial’ candidate for the post of president of the Cricket Association of Bengal.

All of us would love to see this battle run its course — the Page 3 Communist who spends his holidays in Scotland versus the man of the masses. The suave former student leader versus the sweaty, bizarrely dressed street fighter. Perhaps it ain’t all over yet.

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Have Shoe, Will Throw

Shut it!

Hitesh Chauhan... muzzled

When does a mode of protest cease to create shock and merely generate laughter? Or worse, indifference?

When Iraqi TV journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi hurled his size 10 sneakers at the deserving George W. Bush, the world reacted with shock and awe. Of course, the computer games and the jokes about journos entering press conferences in only their socks followed in short order, but the initial reaction was exactly as the Iraqis would have hoped it would be, and overnight, al-Zaidi had become a national hero.

The same fate more or less befell Jarnail Singh when he respectfully lobbed (as opposed to hurled or even threw) his battered footwear at P Chidambaram. Clearly, the idea had caught on, but the Indian political establishment was still sufficiently shocked for Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar to be withdrawn from the current Lok Sabha elections.

Meanwhile, others were at work, too. In February, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had footwear chucked at him in Cambridge, and there were even reports of shoe throwing from Sweden.

In India, though, we are overdoing it, as usual. Following in Jarnail Singh’s footsteps (pun not intended), random folks have begun hurling shoes at other random folks, with the motives not always comprehensible to any of us bystanders. From LK Advani to Naveen Jindal to, finally, Manmohan Singh, the last the recipient of footwear from Hitesh Chauhan, the unfortunate youth pictured above.

Sadly, by now, seeing as shoe throwing has become such a part of our daily lives, I don’t think anyone really cares about the reasons anymore. Indeed, the time is fast approaching when we shall sit down and compile a list of politicians who haven’t had their mandatory brush with footwear. I mean, the Gandhis, Karats, and Reddys must be feeling left out, surely?

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