Mamata Banerjee’s swearing-in as chief minister of West Bengal on 20 May marked the end of nearly three and a half decades of rule by the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Many factors contributed to this historic transition, one significant cause being the role of the state’s intelligentsia. After the Nandigram firing of 2007 and coercive land acquisition in Singur for a proposed car factory, a large number of eminent public intellectuals and artists – playwrights, actors, directors, filmmakers, singers, painters, poets – came out on the streets, demanding change. The state was witness to a civil-society movement led by individuals who, for the most part, were not aligned with any particular party. To describe this ‘new’ section, the ruling Left Front pejoratively coined the epithet susheel samaj or the ‘polite society’ – an attempt to portray the intelligentsia as privileged people who had entered politics merely on a whim, and had no contact with the blood and sweat of the masses. The implication was that the movement had no enduring political significance or future.
Many members of this movement, it should be noted, had been sympathisers of the left, but had become disenchanted with the rule of the Left Front. Processions came out, candlelight vigils were organised; teams were also organised to go into Adivasi and other communities to talk with victims of state as well as Left Front harassment and violence. Their reports and protests had significant impact; for many, this was an unprecedented and welcome experience. Suddenly, it seemed as though a third, and independent, voice was emerging that went beyond the partisan bickering of the CPI (M) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. For a year or two, in 2007 and 2008, there was a strengthening sense of the power of the people’s voice in West Bengal. The protests sent ripples across the state, eventually turning into a major anti-incumbency wave.
During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool was able to ride this anti-government wave to win 19 parliamentary seats. This was up significantly from just a single seat during the previous polls, in 2004. Some of the intellectuals and artists involved in the civil society movement contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Trinamool ticket and won. Kabir Suman, the eminent singer, was among them. After her electoral success, Mamata, then railway minister, rewarded quite a few of the eminent individuals among the movement, putting them in paid posts on various railway committees. This offered grist for CPI (M) criticism. The party attacked these members of the intelligentsia as greedy mercenaries who had come out on the streets against the Left Front for personal gain. Inevitably, this weakened the civil-society initiative greatly; once again the voices became partisan, and the potential for a ‘third space’ was compromised. Public intellectuals such as Sankha Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Kaushik Sen and a few others strove to retain their somewhat independent space, but the movement had clearly been weakened.
Politics of paribartan
Following the declaration of assembly elections in March 2011, clashes between supporters of the Trinamool and the left parties became increasingly violent across the state. Maoist violence also spread in the Adivasi belt, and clashes between opposing camps even ended in a large number of deaths. It became increasingly clear that the violence was exhibitionist in nature, as bodies were being left in roadways and fields in order to terrorise opponents.
Mamata was fighting her political battle from a platform summed up by one word – paribartan, or change. Hoardings announcing this word went up all over Kolkata and elsewhere, alongside portraits of leading intellectuals who were supporting the movement for ‘change’. But as the CPI (M) was keen to point out, the pro-change members of the movement had become highly partisan in their criticism. Indeed, while atrocities against Maoists and ordinary people by the state and CPI (M) were being rightly condemned, violence carried out by Maoists or members of the Trinamool against CPI (M) cadres and other parties in the Left Front was hardly ever censured. This greatly undermined the non-partisan response that so many were hoping for from the civil-society movement, leading many to question whether, in the pursuit of change, the pro-change intelligentsia was compromising on the basic values of a democratic movement.
By the time the elections finally took place in April 2011, Mamata had turned towards garnering support from film stars such as Debasree Roy and Chiranjit, and singers including Anup Ghoshal. The film studios of Tollygunge, in south Kolkata, once a strong support base for the CPI (M), overnight shifted allegiance to Mamata. Many of the newcomers in her party were from the commercial Bengali film industry, a section that had not participated in the protest movements of 2007 and 2008 against the state’s role in Nandigram and Singur. For the most part, of course, they were being roped in by the Trinamool for their popular appeal, rather than any political commitment. An exception was Bratya Basu, whose play Winkle Twinkle, directed by Debesh Chatterjee and first staged in 2002, was one of the first direct critiques of the Left Front. Basu is now minister of higher education in Mamata’s cabinet.
While some of the more visible election winners for Mamata are artists rather than members of the intelligentsia, a core team of public intellectuals still form the chief minister’s new think tank. They include the veteran journalist Sunanda Sanyal; academician and economist Abhirup Sarkar; award-winning author Mahasweta Devi; theatre directors Bibhash Chakravarty, Shnaoli Mitra and Arpita Ghosh; painters Subhaprasanna, Jogen Choudhury and Samir Aich; singer Pratul Mukhopadhyay; poet Joy Goswamy and many others. Many of these personalities are now on committees being set up by Mamata to guide her government on various issues.
Countering the bhadralok
In West Bengal, both the Congress party regimes (with Bidhan Chandra Roy, Prafulla Chandra Sen and Siddhartha Shankar Ray as chief ministers) and the communist regimes (of Jyoti Basu and the recently deposed Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee) had one thing in common: bhadralok culture. Irrespective of whether on the left or right, upper-class, upper-caste men have ruled West Bengal since Independence. The state’s political culture has clearly prioritised codes of patriarchy, classism and casteism.
Mamata has now pushed against this trend. Her language, her manners and her cultural references are stunningly different from those the people of West Bengal have seen for decades. Though she has a Brahmin surname, she is far from the upper-class bhadralok political leader that Bengal has become used to expecting. In fact, her ‘lowly cultural class’ has been an object of ridicule for the left, attacking Mamata for being a ‘common woman’. In a state in which Brahminical culture remains hidden but supreme – fostered also by the left – Mamata has not been seen as suitable to run for the highest post. It is here that the support of the intelligentsia was critical for gaining supporters among the populace. When well-known public intellectuals such as Mahasweta Devi and Aparna Sen have shared a dais with her, her grassroots supporters have felt reassured that some of the best minds of Bengal have rallied behind ‘Didi’. Even detractors have felt constrained to concede that the ring of intellectuals, advising her on every course of action, would give her the tools needed for governance.
In a September 2010 issue of the leftist Mainstream Weekly, Sumanta Banerjee wrote an open letter to some of the intellectuals supporting Mamata for the 2011 assembly elections. His tone was one of worry and caution. While he clearly supported the need to unseat the Left Front in West Bengal, saying that the ruling coalition could no longer be called leftists, he also warned the intelligentsia about the risk of supporting forces such as Mamata with a past of rightwing politics. Banerjee wrote, ‘She started her political career as a Youth Congress leader, coming into limelight by leading a bunch of hoodlums in attacking Jayapraksh Narayan’s car in April 1975.’ Instead, Banerjee urged civil-society stalwarts to create a ‘platform that will demarcate itself from the discredited CPI (M)-led Left as well as from the opportunist politics of Mamata Banerjee.’
In the same issue, another eminent leftist, Dipanjan Rai Choudhuri, argued that the idea of a ‘Third Front’ was unrealistic. The only option for the ‘real’ left to defeat the CPI (M) was to support Mamata, he said. Choudhuri argued that the question was not whether a victorious Trinamool would provide a better rule, but that the CPI (M) needed to lose in order to understand that it could not continue to carry out atrocities the way it had for three decades. He also noted that the need to beat the CPI (M) was more important than worrying about which political force was doing the beating – either way, it would be ordinary people as voters who would usher in that defeat.
Beyond partisan politics
The experience of political movements over the past few years in West Bengal raise several larger questions about the possibilities (and otherwise) of sustainable civil-society movements within governance structures in parliamentary democracies. In the early phase of the Singur-Nandigram movement, a conglomerate of individual artists and public intellectuals, based primarily in Kolkata, gave voice to widespread frustrations and desire for change. News of the movement spread through a proactive electronic media, and people in many small towns ended up taking part in rallies, putting up posters outside their homes, and condemning violence perpetrated by the state against farmers. The impact of the movement was felt far and wide, with support coming even from overseas.
At least at the beginning, the movement did not have a clear political or electoral agenda; as stated, many activists were left sympathisers. First and foremost, they wanted to deliver a jolt to the CPI (M) and a state structure they thought was betraying the people. It soon became clear, however, that within the current set-up, the only way to effect change was to displace the Left Front and bring in a Trinamool government through elections. This created confusion within the intelligentsia as well as those who supported their initiative. After all, while many felt a need to bring an end to Left Front rule they also had serious reservations about the political background of Mamata and her team.
Eventually, some members of the civil-society movement decided to openly support Trinamool, and even fight the elections on the party’s ticket; while others maintained political distance from both camps, protesting against all forms of state- and party-sponsored violence. As a result, as the elections approached, the civil-society movement practically fizzled out under the strain of the polarisation demanded by electoral politics. Under such circumstances, the position of those members of the intelligentsia who had refused to join any camp began to look increasingly unrealistic. The political structure only encouraged and allowed partisan positions.wad
Now, however, Mamata is in power. She refers to the intellectuals on her side as bidwadjan, the ‘learned ones’. They are her advisors. One can sense a shift in the perception of the political content of the civil-society movement: as if those from the ground are the political actors, and the bidwadjan are available to guide them in shaping social destiny. As to how long this equation can hold, the people of West Bengal – and beyond – are today very interested to discover.
~ Rangan Chakravarty is a filmmaker, television producer, writer and journalist working out of Kolkata.