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

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Voting for West Bengal

For about 45 minutes yesterday, I heard Ms. Mamata Banerjee deliver an election speech. I had no choice. The meeting was held at less than 100 metres from my flat and amplifiers were blaring out her speech.

Although she was here for the Lok Sabha elections, Ms. Banerjee began by recalling what the previous municipal corporation headed by her party had done to beautify the park and lake in our area. I thought, like any consummate speaker, she was building a rapport with her audience, and would soon tackle issues weightier than beautification of a park. But I was mistaken. She didn’t even mention the global economic crisis and its impact upon us, nor the threat of terrorism, nor the runaway increase in prices of essential things. She offered no glimpse into her plans for the coming Lok Sabha (if there be any), or why her alliance, the UPA, is the best candidate to form the next government. She took potshots at the left in West Bengal for their failures and fascist tendencies, but didn’t offer a cogent criticism. Throughout her speech, she raised and lowered her volume and pitch like a third-rate actor, cracked cheap jokes and recited cheaper doggerels. Except for her seemingly genuine empathy for the victims of the left misrule, there was nothing worth noting in her speech. Another positive about the evening was that Ms. Banerjee was speaking from her heart. Even the worst speech writer would not be able to write such an inane speech.

Yet, on the 13th of March 2009, I am going to vote for her party. Not only that, I am voluntarily telling everyone that would care to listen, why they should vote out the left. I am doing such a thing for the first time in my ordinary, run-of-the-mill life. Why?

The charges against the LF government are many and well documented. Let me mention a few. Since making significant contribution by way of land reform and panchayet raj system in their early days, the LF has done nothing for West Bengal. The state ranks first in seasonal starvation and trafficking of women. It is third from the top in the school drop-out rate (80% compared to the national average of 52%, as reported by the government in parliament in 2006). The overall situation is pathetic, to put it mildly.

In state run universities, everyone, from the vice chancellor to the sweeper, is appointed on the recommendation of the ruling party. Naturally, merit has become a casualty. There is hardly any name from West Bengal on the list of successful IAS / IPS candidates. Little teaching takes place in government and government aided schools and colleges. According to a survey done by the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata in 2006, in a particular year, 86% of the students taking the Secondary exam in West Bengal depended on private tutors.

The public health system is a shame. None, other than the absolute destitute, go to a government hospital. There, they often have to pay touts to get the privilege of being treated shabbily as in-patients. The majority, including many poor people, are forced to pay astronomical sums to buy healthcare from the pitiless and ever-hungry
mercenaries who run private hospitals. The more enterprising go to CMC Vellore and other hospitals in South India. The Coromandal Express from Kolkata to Chennai is called the “Hospital Express”.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Act passed in September 2005 is a watershed because it gives our rural people the legal right to employment. Although the right is partial, it is a beginning nonetheless. Under the NREG Programme, every able-bodied person in our villages can demand manual labour for 100 days every year. The local authorities have to provide such work within 15 days at a wage fixed by the respective states. If they can’t, they have to pay an unemployment allowance. Ninety percent of the expenses under the scheme is borne by the Central Government and a mere 10 percent by the states.

Properly implemented, this scheme should go a long way in reducing seasonal starvation and migration. But until February 2007, on an average, only 37.50 man-days of work was created under the scheme per person all over the country, as against a target of 100 days per year. Rajasthan (72.68 days), MP (61.61 days) and Chattisgarh (44.71 days) performed relatively better. Jharkhand (36.41) and Bihar (33.51) were among the laggards.

One would expect that the self-appointed messiahs of the poor, the left, would grab such a scheme with both hands. But the number of work-days created in West Bengal in 2007-08 was, hold your breath, 18 days.

The reason is not far to seek, the landed gentry of West Bengal, who traditionally supported the Congress earlier, has switched almost entirely to the left. In fact they are the left in our countryside and control most of the panchayets. If land-less labourers get the taste of a daily wage of 80 rupees under the NREGP, these land owners wouldn’t find firm hands at the much lower rates they pay now.

But statistics can never tell you what has been happening in West Bengal. To explain the situation, let me recall Shyam Benegal’s first film, Ankur. It begins with a shot where two rowdies come on a motorbike and pick up some vegetables from the village market without bothering to pay. They, brothers of the local landlord, are not challenged. After some days, one of them takes a fancy in a school teacher’s wife, picks her up and keeps her as a sex-slave in his house.

There is no attempt to hide the fact.

The message is clear. In a feudal society, the king has the first charge over everything, be it vegetables or women. Whatever the royal family doesn’t need is there for the rest of the people.

West Bengal today, in that restricted sense, is a feudal society. But the king is not one person here: he is a collection of 2.5 to 3 lakh members of the CPI M and their cronies. The total number might be around 15 lakh or thereabout, no one knows for sure. You can get a job if none of them need that particular job (which is unlikely), you can build your house if you buy building materials from one of them at exorbitant prices, you’ll find a hospital bed if you know one of them.

These 15 lakh who rule us cannot do so unless the rest of the 8 crore are terrified of them. So terror is an essential tool in their hands. For a starter, they had to make the police subservient to the party. They have done so with total success. Cases against their comrades seldom come to conclusion. Whether it is burning to death 17 Ananda Margis on the streets of Kolkata, or the brutal killing of 11 farmers in Suchpur, Nanur in Birbhum, no one has been convicted so far, although everyone knows the killers and their names are openly mentioned in newspapers. In the second case, the OC of the Nanur police station, Mr. Sufal Ray Ghatwal, who was close to filing the charge-sheet, was transferred out. He was mysteriously murdered some time later. On the other hand, police routinely put political opponents behind bars by filing false cases.

The CPI M has been using rape and murder in Nandigram systematically to intimidate the local people into submission. Some of the goons were caught by the CBI with irrefutable evidence, but were let off by the state police. Even as I type this, today’s lead headline in the Statesman says: Trinamul leader killed, mother gangraped in Khejuri.

This wholesale abrogation of the rule of law churns one’s stomach. But the terrorisation doesn’t stop there. The party interferes in family disputes too. Village councils try and punish inconvenient people in total disregard of the judicial process. West Bengal today is in George Orwell’s 1984. The big brother is watching.

The people of West Bengal must get out of this stifling situation. It doesn’t matter whether our next government will be more efficient or less. Even if a change of government leads to some instability and disorder, so be it. As Rolland said, “If the order is unjust, disorder is the beginning of justice.” No fascist has ever changed his ways. No fascist has ever walked out of office and taken a train to his retirement. He has to be thrown out.

Fortunately, democracy offers us a non-violent tool to get rid of the red fascists. If they have only a handful of MPs in the Lok Sabha, they will not be able to blackmail the next central government. In that case there is chance of emancipation for West Bengal in 2011. Our problems will not be solved by mere change of government. But as one of my friends put it, we need a change that is changeable!

And there is no reason to believe that a really good leadership will never emerge here. If Bihar can have a tryst with Mr. Nitish Kumar, another visionary will surely emerge in West Bengal.

But if we can’t get out of the present rut, we don’t stand a chance. We will continue to live in this cesspool of mediocrity and totalitarian rule. We must give ourselves a chance!

Have I justified my decision to vote for Ms. Mamata Banerjee? If you think I haven’t, please read these lines written by an infinitely wiser man:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


  1. I nearly thought that what I was reading was about my home-state - Kerala - whether it is about private tutors for matric candidates or touts in the government hospitals.

    Not surprising. The common factor is the CPM. I too voted Congressc this time - the first time in my life - though I am admittedly a conservative in matters political.

    An aside: the problem with democracy is that we have to choose the better among the available ones.

  2. Santanu,
    You have a twin state in the southernmost tip of the country competing on the same lines, to make life miserable for anyone who doesn't see'red'.

  3. Absolutely, right.
    Even I have penned something in my blog related to the sheen less stature of my state, please have a look, its named " Even Slaves Rule"...

    Manoshij, with love.

  4. An excellent article Santanu. If I wasnt in Kolkata for the last one year I would have found much of it hard to believe. Like Bhavani has commented we have a twin state in Kerala but thanks to the Govt alternating between the right and the left things are not this bad. The only place terrorised by the CPM in Kerala is Kannur whereas it is true of most of rural Bangal, if I am not mistaken.

  5. As anony said, after reading this I was thinking in Keral we are lucky that we didn't let commies rule us continuously for more than 5 yrs at a time. Hope with the job they are doing now they will be wiped out Kerala forever by the literate people of Kerala. WB come join us, "you have nothing to loose but the fear of commies".

  6. But, my dear Santanu da, as the wit once rued.....

    "We would rather be ruined than change
    We would rather die in our dread
    Than climb the cross of the moment
    And let our illusions die...."

    My regards to your admirable spunk and liberal spirit.

  7. A big thank you to you all, particularly Kaushik, for the apt quotation. I am not sure on which side Auden is when he says "We would rather be ruined than changed ...", but I am sure he is talking about human frailty.

    A very large number of sensible and intelligent people in West Bengal today dread change, because to them, the remedy seems worse than the disease. I thought the same way before Singur and Nandigram happened. But today I tell them, "you are only leading us to the immutability of the graveyard".

    As regards spunk, I have none. The relative anonymity of the Internet helps, and I fondly hope that the illiterate goons of Alimuddin variety don't read English.

    Manoshij, I read the post you have mentioned here, and I think you exhibited some spunk. But I would ask you not to get into an argument with that kind of people. One doesn't argue with a mad dog.

    I am still waiting for comments from Anirban and Tanmoy. Incidentally, this article has been read by far more people than my earlier posts. But no one has registered a contrary view. I look forward to them.

  8. An addendum:

    I mentioned Tonmoy and Anirban because this article was written partly in response to their comments on an earlier post. (It doesn't imply that that puts them under any obligation to respond!)

    It is needless to say that I look forward to comments from all my readers, particularly those who have been spurring me on from time to time, like Satyadasda, Suvro, Anisha, Rajagopalan, Tulasi and Subhanjan.

  9. Dear Kaku, Thank you for writing this article. The issue is very close to my heart and to be honest I have been thinking about it for quite sometime now. I cannot refute anything that you have said in the article because I myself have faced situations described by you. In fact, I would go ahead and say that the way our public transport operators (try getting a taxi in Howrah station at night or bus operators) behave in a general reflection of the ruling government’s attitude. To add to that, are the innumerable issues that you have pointed. When we go out of our doors to do anything in Kolkata we face hurdle which are either not attended to or are thought to be too insignificant. There are more than enough reason why the ruling party in WB should be shown the door in the coming Assembly elections (in 2011, I guess) and perhaps given a taste of defeat in this year’s General elections. Having said all that, I am quite scared of TMC and don’t really know whether they would be honest enough to give something better. Yes, we can say, unless we give them a chance how would we know? Perhaps it is my cynicism but TMC’s track record as an opposition in Bengal have made me cynical. I so much wanted them to be a viable alternative but in my eyes they lack credibility.

    West Bengal Police have always been enslaved by the ruling parties. When Congress was in power in late 60’s and early 70’s West Bengal police committed atrocities under their command. It is the same case even now. I wonder whether handing over the power to TMC would take us back to the same old violence. For some reason, we the people of Bengal either have been bad in our judgements or plain and simple foolish. We booted those people out only to get the same returns.

    I doubt TMC’s credibility because I remember how they burned school buses during their strikes. I was myself in school that time and whenever we had a strike called by opposition we were frightened. Yes, they went for eye for an eye and perhaps that would justify their action. However I fear them.

    TMC never had any agenda to develop the state. Whatever opportunity they got either in Parliament or even in the Kolkata city municipality they wasted them. They ransacked police station, legislative assembly and always went ahead with 2 policies – criticise and object anything that ruling party does or epitomise anything that their own leader does.

    Everything is right in TMC according to them – whether they go ahead with NDA or they go ahead with UPA. They just want power and nothing else. To get to that prized power position, they would go to any extent. Though I know you would tell me that it is impossible for communal forces to make a stronghold in Bengal, however I don’t agree to that. Indians are too weak to resist any temptation to fight amongst each other on communal lines. TMC is the only party perhaps which can bring communal forces into WB. Neither Congress nor the left will bring them in to WB. If the very few businessmen in India don’t see a good leader in TMC (which they may end up seeing), the only other viable alternative they would push for is BJP. In WB, the middle class in fact likes BJP to a huge extent as they have a suppressed communal feeling in themselves. Since WB has a considerable chunk of Muslim population, a greater presence of BJP would bring about doomsday since we all know that their underground organisation is quite violent (even if they are lying low in WB) and WB because of its proximity to an unstable Bangladesh can be a happy hunting ground for them. Other than TMC I don’t see any one political party bringing them in here.

    The main problem with TMC since they broke away from Congress, they don’t even have a leader on whom I can have my hopes pinned on. None of the senior leaders can work with TMC supremo whose megalomaniac attitude is just to promote herself, her music, her art and her background. She has got ample opportunity to develop an agenda but she hardly ever delivered. That is the main reason why CPIM could become all the more terrorising in the state.

    That is what makes choosing a party in West Bengal so difficult when compared to other states say Kerala. At least, they have a Congress which is a national party which has ‘some agenda’.

    I respect your views Kaku and I too hope like you that West Bengal’s situation benefits. At the moment, I have no clue that how that will be. On one hand, I dislike CPIM and on the other I cannot trust TMC. I am happy that you have found a way. You are right, at least we should provide a chance!

    I find it weird to post this comment on your post because while I am convinced that I want change but I am not convinced that TMC is the change that I want to see. I share similar sentiments but just not being able to reconcile with TMC.

    May our wishes of a good West Bengal comes true.



  10. Sir, thanks for your post. I think a lot of us including myself were waiting for it.

    I am a little confused though on how to react. I was and probably still searching for words. In fact this has actually delayed my response to your post.

    I agree with every thing that you have written. The only two occasions when I have exercised my voting right, I have casted it in favour of the opposition. This was with only one aim - we need a change. I really liked when you say that democracy gives us an opportunity to bring about change in a non-violent manner. But I suppose democracy also gives a false hope and assurance to the political parties that they will get a chance to loot and plunder when their turn comes. It is something like a musical chair. You elect some one who does nothing for you and then you choose some one else who carries on the same thing. There seems no end to this misery. Barring West Bengal almost all states in India have faced this.

    West Bengal of course is an exception. No other state probably has gone about in the act of self-destruction in such a manner as we have. If you look at our history post-independence, you will find that we have taken extraordinary care in destroying every asset that we had. As you have rightly pointed out, from education to healthcare to industry every thing is in shambles. There is not an iota of doubt that all of it has been systematically carried out by the communists and we are equally to be blamed for it. We have all been mute spectators and supporters of their acts for so long.

    And yes I do agree that we should throw them away. The sooner it is done the better it would be for all of us.

    Though all said and done, the concern remains on who we are going to hand over the reign. Are they really suited for the job? Is this the alternative that we are all looking for? Is this not going to be a stop-gap solution?

    In the longer run I guess we need to look beyond. We need to think of a completely new alternative. You might name it 'revolution' or you can name it some thing else but we do need something that brings about that 'real' change.

    I think I know what we require though I am still confused on how to achieve that.

    I would be looking forward to comments from you and others on this.


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.