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.