If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 11 May 2009

Welcoming chaos

"As a general rule, democracies don't work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure." Francis Fukuyama

The article posted on my blog on 3 May, "... voting for West Bengal" was published by the Statesman on 8 May. So far, 24 friends / acquaintances have rung up or sent mails to say they have read the article. Of them, 20 have broadly concurred with my views. An elderly gentleman even said, 'I was confused about what to do. Your article has helped me make up my mind.' Three close friends strongly disagree with me and say everyone ought to vote for the Left. A friend, Uma Sankar has a different take. He says:

Though I agree with what all you said about the elections and the parties, your voting for the Trinamul somehow creates a very repulsive feeling in my stomach. You probably have no third choice as we have in AP.

Lok Satta, a new party led by one Jayaprakash Narayan, offers us an alternative to traditional politics; his is the only sane voice in the insane political scene of our state. He may not win many seats but he did make his presence felt and he kindled a ray of hope in us that politics could be different, decent and honest - and one doesn't have to have tons of money or muscle power or loud/vulgar throat to enter the political scene. In WB, you don't have such choice.

Yes indeed, we don't have a choice!

This sample survey of 24 readers, if one may call it so, is grossly inaccurate. I am sure there is a much higher percentage of people who, like Uma Sankar, think that West Bengal needs a change, but the alternative is unacceptable. (Earlier, Tanmoy and Anirban expressed the same opinion.) They cannot root for either team in this morbid game.

This article is an attempt to address their concerns. Given below are the perceived problems about the alternative in italics, followed by my comments.

I. The charges against Mamata Banerjee and her team

1. Either she doesn't have a cogent set of policies or she deliberately acts for political expediency without any scruples. For example, she competes with the Left in cheap populism, be it pandering to the "Muslim vote bank", or the unbridled menace of auto-rickshaws, or hawkers taking over the footpaths of Kolkata. "To this day, we have not heard one intelligent word from her on how she would want the country, leave alone West Bengal, run" - Ravindra Kumar in the Statesman, 10 May 2009.

2. She is a megalomaniac; her politics pivots around herself. That is perhaps the reason why no senior leader has ever stuck with her. She hasn't been able to build a party. Her choice of candidates (and cronies) has mostly been terrible.

3. TMC is a political outfit of undisciplined individuals. Their leaders themselves - and not their followers - broke furniture in West Bengal Assembley.

4. As an MP or central minister, her record is poor.

5. She is opportunistic; has switched between NDA and UPA for short-term gains. She might do so again and bring the BJP into West Bengal.

I agree. The charges stick. There is not a murmur of doubt about it.

However, I would like to ask ourselves, that is, the Net-savvy, English speaking people, is our opposition only because of her political shortcomings? Would we damn her so emphatically if she were "from a higher social station", studied at Miranda House or JNU, and spoke impeccable English like Mr. Prakash Karat? Isn't our opposition to Mamata similar to the English language press's damnation of Mayavati? (The last point has been argued beautifully by Mr. Suvro Chatterjee on his blog.)

If high-class, "cultured" leaders like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Jyoti Basu have brought us to this pass, no one has any right to sneer at Mamata or Mayavati. On the contrary, in a way, we should hail their ascent as a triumph of our democracy.

As regards bringing the BJP into West Bengal, in a liberal democracy, everyone has a right to propagate their ideology. If an ideology is accepted by the masses, one can only fight against it politically. (I personally think the BJP is unlikely to succeed in WB, but that is a different matter.)

II. The alternative is unacceptable

The Left has harmed us immensely. But the concern is who we are going to hand over the reign. Are they suited for the job? Is this the alternative we are all looking for? We need change, but the alternative is unacceptable.

In an article in the Ananda Bazar Patrika on 5 May 2009, Kalyan Sanyal says:

"In the Lok Sabha election of 1977, the common people of India voted silently to overturn the all-powerful emergency-raj. That day, all over the world, people who believed in democracy saluted them. What were the issues in that election? Were they economics or foreign policy? No, the people voted against the suffocating two-and-a-half year regime of terror and humiliation. They brought to power Jansangh and the Syndicate Congress masquerading as the Janata Party. At times, history comes to a crossroad where the question of how acceptable the alternative is becomes irrelevant. The ambivalence "we don't want the ruling party, but the alternative is unacceptable" has kept this aggressive, hegemonic ruling party in power for 30 years." (Translation mine.)

If we continue to live in that ambivalent state, they will remain in power for another 30 years. Can you imagine what will happen if this metastasis continues for another 30 years?

III. A weak party and its incompetent leaders

If a party is not strong, how can we hope they would work for our benefit? Isn't that the reason we don't vote for independent candidates? If the undisciplined and incompetent opposition is voted in, we will have jumped from frying pan to fire.

I think there is a big fallacy in this argument.

If the CPI M has ruined West Bengal so successfully, it is precisely because of their strong organization. This party depends on its huge army of workers and supporters to win elections. In turn, they have to be kept happy, wined and dined. Therefore, party members and their friends get precedence over others for jobs and anything that generates income: from cold stores to ration shops to supplying mid-day meals to school children. They also control the organizations of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and policemen.

This pernicious infiltration into all the organs of the state has had three effects: (a) A vast majority of the people are excluded, (b) mediocre people call the shots and competent individuals migrate outside the state to earn a living, and (c) "the party" becomes a parallel power structure that systematically undermines the state.

Besides, the Left has made our people lazy, arrogant and foul-mouthed. At every turn, we come across people who are rude and unnecessarily aggressive. It was bound to happen under leaders whose motto is: "Ladai, ladai, ladai chai, ladai kore banchte chai." (We want to go on fighting; we want to live by fighting.) It might take more than a generation to restore decency in our everyday transactions.

For this reason alone, cadre-based parties like the CPI M and the BJP are a threat to our democracy. A friend of mine, Samiran Mazumdar sums it up beautifully: Incompetent rule is much better than organized misrule.

As regards the frying pan to fire transition, peace and prosperity don't follow automatically when an oppressive ruler is shown the door. The French Revolution triggered much bloodshed, chaos, and a series of European wars. Despite all that, 1789 was a giant step for civilization along a confusing and uneven road called progress.

Closer home, after the communist rule ended in East Europe, much of the population was pauperized. There was tremendous hardship and lawlessness particularly in Russia. One of the largest exports from East Europe to the rest of the continent was prostitutes. The six former Yugoslav republics fought several bloody wars between 1991 and 2001. But in less than two decades, East Europe has reclaimed much of its lost ground.

Let us throw out the Left and welcome chaos for some time. Let us have faith in ourselves. The land of Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda cannot have become so barren that we will not find a way to reclaim our rightful place on the map.


  1. Perhaps the parameters by which I judge politics are out-of-place.

    Nitish Kumar, who has indeed tried to work for the betterment of his state (a recent Telegraph poll confirmed this opinion), has no qualms to side with the anti-secular BJP if the conditions be so. On a similar note, Narendra Modi has done sufficient for the economic upliftment of his state. But his hands are bloodstained!

    On the other hand, both the Congress and CPI(M) are willing to join hands post-results if that helps them form a good coalition (Manmohan Singh personally wishes so, and The Laughing Buddha has not ruled out the possibility either). I wonder whom TMC will side with then! Here again, I have a nagging reservation: sure the Congress are not anti-secular, but their hands are not free from blood-stains either. The Sikh riots of 1984 were positively encouraged by the Congress leadership and though scapegoats like Jagdish Tytler have silently left the battlefield in the broader interest of the party, its ominous silence on this question does not bode well (to me, at least). If the need arises, maybe even the Congress is not averse to shed innocent blood! If we can bury bitter history, the UPA government has had its share of positives too: the biggest one being that it prevented the Indian economy from being largely dependant on the USA, thereby saving us a lot of post-recession woes. And of course, Manmohan Singh at the helm is certainly more assuring than both LK Advani and Prakash Karat. I have some more grievances against the Congress, but let me hold back for now.

    Coming back to the regional scene, while I more or less agree with what you have said about TMC, I am not quite sure that given the same amount of time and manpower it would not be an equal of CPI(M) in all respects after 32 years. After all, TMC's political methods are indebted to the very party it opposes. The barrier to such an idea, I must admit, stems from the fact that, as of now, Mamata has shown all signs of being an un-organised megalomaniac. By the way, let me add that I am in no way opposed to 'didi' because she is not posh company. There was a time when her actions evoked sympathy in me, if not support.

    I did not vote this time. Because I was unsure if I'd make the right choice. Inspite of reading your article. I did, however, get some other people to read it-- hoping that it would help them choose well. Perhaps, it was wrong of me not to exercise my democratic right. I am even ready to apologise for that, but it seems a preferable thing to me than voting without being quite sure.

  2. Sudipto Basu's is a plight many of us would have found ourselves in at least on on occasion. There may be several candidates but none of them (or their party) may enjoy your support. There have been situations in my experience where I may approve the candidate but not his party or the policies of the party he is sponsored by (or I may support the policies of the party but the candidate may be unacceptable).

    In such instances, I had a choice in the pre-EVM days - to make my vote invalid. In today's age, my strategy to beat the denial of that choice is to vote a candidate who has no chance of making it. I realise that there is a danger there - if many think like me, this candidate may be in for a pleasant surprise!

    All this talk of 49(O) that has been doing the rounds on the internet (that if a majority of people come to the booth and choose not to exercise their franchise, all the candidates will be declared ineligible to contest and a fresh election without them as candidates will be ordered), I believe, is bunkum.

    How I wish it were true!

    sananu, what are your thoughts of aploitical people like banker Meera Sanyal, aviator Capt Gopinath and actress Revathy contesting? Will they win? If they do, how will it impact the Indian political scene?

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  5. Sorry for the delay in responding to these thought provoking comments. I was travelling and busy making merry; didn’t have the time to sit down and draft my response. I will first respond to the comments of Sudipto and Wannabe.

    Sudipto, thanks for showing my article to your friends. Although I don’t agree with you, I respect your decision not to vote. Perhaps history will prove that you were right and I was wrong. As Wannabe wants, one of the demands that we, the common people, should place before the political system is that there should be a button reading NONE OF THE ABOVE on our EVMs. It will not happen in a day, but if people from all corners demand, it might happen. I am an incorrigible optimist.

    You have also said, “… while I more or less agree with what you have said about TMC, I am not quite sure that given the same amount of time and manpower it would not be an equal of CPI (M) in all respects after 32 years. After all, TMC's political methods are indebted to the very party it opposes.”

    I couldn’t agree more about TMC’s political methods. But at the moment, that is, in 2011, West Bengal needs a change. This is an absolute and unimpeachable truth! And I also nurse a hope that parties with less regimentation and that are not cadre-based will be more easy to be dislodged.

    Regarding Wannabe’s question regarding aploitical people like banker Meera Sanyal, aviator Capt Gopinath and actress Revathy contesting, I have to say this.

    At the first glance, it might seem a hundred flowers blooming in democracy, but actually these people cause much damage. For the sake of argument, let us assume that in every constituency, there is a less desirable candidate and a more desirable candidate. The people you have named would invariably take away the votes of the more desirable candidate and help the less desirable win. So, as Mr. Manmohan Singh said, they are nothing but spoilers.

    The example that I am going to produce in a moment will convince you. In the 2000 US election, George Bush would have lost but for the votes polled by Ralph Nadal (despite massive rigging in Florida that was overlooked by the US Supreme Court). Just imagine: that megalomaniac billionaire, who had (if I remember correctly) less than 3% vote share, was indirectly responsible for the Iraq war, untold misery for millions and massive harm to ecology.

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  7. Suvro, you have said: “One point on which I must differ with you is regarding how far the CPIM has been responsible for making the common Bengali rude and aggressive in public.”

    You are quite right. The CPIM cannot be held responsible for all our ills. Rudeness may be an inherent quality of Bengalis, just as it is of the Haryanvi Jat bus conductors of Delhi. From personal experience, I have no doubt that Telugus, particularly from the coastal region, and Kannadigas are generally more polite than Bengalis. In Kerala, people from the Malabar region are said to be more polite and straightforward than their counterparts from South Kerala, although my personal experience doesn’t corroborate this view completely.

    But can we deny that we Bengalis have been made more aware of our rights than our responsibilities because of the culture of a distorted (?) communist movement? Haven’t the CPI M and its ancestors taught common people to disrespect everyone who is at a higher station in life? Haven’t they encouraged laziness and discouraged striving for excellence? Haven't they glorified poverty? In the 1970s in Kolkata, if a clerk in our bank worked hard, he was often derided by his colleagues as someone “who wanted to become an officer”! Mercifully, there was improvement in the attitude in the 90s, at least in our bank. But the damage had been done. This negative attitude, together with a total absence of the fear of law has made the average Bengali behave awfully.

    You have also written: “… I shall say ‘amen’ to your remark that this land will not forget its rich heritage but find a way to reclaim our rightful place on the map, but given the ground reality that most ‘educated’ Bengalis despise their own culture and language without having tried to learn about them first, and have no higher aspirations than to become NRIs at best and cybercoolies …, my hopes, alas, have grown faint.”

    I agree that unless we start respecting our culture, language, and heritage, there cannot be any emancipation. I do not know how that will happen, but I don’t despair as much as you do. I am desperately looking for signs of a change, and maybe, there are a few faint glimpses of such a change. More about this later.

    Also, I disagree with your views regarding our young people’s aspirations to become NRIs or software specialists. To a great extent, civilization has progressed because people migrated in search of greater opportunities; our NRIs aren’t doing anything different. I also don’t see anything wrong in people choosing a career because it is relatively easy to find a job in a particular sector. Are they not being governed by the laws of economics than anything else? And can we paint all of them with the same brush? I am sure there are many sensible and culturally aware people among them, although there may not belong to the majority.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.