Readying for whirlwind

Readying for whirlwind

Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to pay homage at Jyoti Basu’s bier, as Sonia Gandhi and L K Advani did, highlighted a turning point in Bengali politics. It may also be significant for the style and tone of national politics, for, if Basu was the past, Mamata is the present... and future.

Basu may not have been a good chief minister — his 23-year-tenure did little for West Bengal — but he was a well-travelled man of the world and a qualified barrister from London’s Lincoln’s Inn. Mamata is a woman of the people, untainted by any international influence, despite the ‘PhD’ from the ‘University of East Georgia’ she used to flourish at one time. She stopped calling herself ‘Dr’ only when people began to seek details and demand proof.

Though holding a major portfolio at the Centre, Mamata has probably set her sights on the chief ministership of her home state. If she succeeds in ousting Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who took over from Basu, she will be West Bengal’s first woman chief minister. She will also be the first to have risen from obscurity. Though her name indicates Brahmin birth, the absence of any background of education, social position or money makes her a rare phenomenon.

Basu, too, was a phenomenon, the last of a generation of well-to-do Indians whose parents sent him to study in England but who became a radical and a Communist. Shapurji Saklatvala, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Mohit Sen, P N Haksar, Bhupesh Gupta, Nikhil Chakravarty, Hiren Mukherjee and Indrajit Gupta were in this group. They imbibed their revolutionary politics from Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt, both secretaries of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Dutt’s father was Bengali and his mother Swedish, aunt of Olaf Palme, the prime minister of Sweden whom some connected with the Bofors case. But Dutt himself was entirely upper class British.

Those connections meant something to Basu. Watching the Assembly proceedings from the press gallery when the first United Front government took office with Basu as deputy chief minister, I was startled to see Bill Noney, an Anglo-Indian journalist colleague, scurrying up the aisle. I thought Noney had lost his way, but no, he had been nominated to the Assembly. Basu had not forgotten Noney’s shorthand transcript 14 years before when Pollitt spoke at a rally in Calcutta’s Maidan.

Another link surfaced when the ‘Statesman’, of which I was then deputy editor, published extracts from ‘Mole in the Crown,’ the memoirs of Michael Carritt, an ICS officer whose real mission was to liaise between the CPGB, to which he secretly belonged, and the Communist Party of India. An excited Basu recognised his name. “We were in the same party cell!” he exclaimed, savouring memories of his initiation into Communism in London.

But it seems to have been more an emotional and intellectual attachment than a commitment to dialectics. Siddhartha Shankar Ray says Basu told him he didn’t know much about Marxism or Bengali culture.

The latter is understandable for he preferred conversing in English in private. According to a CPI veteran, Basu fell silent for a month when the party decided speeches would be only in the mother tongue. He brushed up his formal Bengali during that time.
He was all the more effective for not being able to produce the literary Bengali flourishes that traditional public speakers affect. A former colleague of Basu’s, Jolly Mohan Kaul, writes in his soon-to-be-published memoirs, ‘In Search Of A Better World,’ that many wondered how Basu could get such a tremendous response from his audience despite a rather mundane style of speaking. Kaul credits “his down-to-earth, simple colloquial idiom.”

It “went down much better with the people, particularly urban audiences, than the high-flown rhetoric of speakers who would normally be regarded as greater orators,” says Kaul. Basu spoke in a low-key, matter-of-fact voice, using the same tone and diction at a Maidan mass rally as in the conference room.

Mamata’s histrionic, even hysterical, style could not be more different. She is a flamboyant person, given to dramatic gestures like tying a red rag round her head to proclaim she had once been hit in a scuffle. When she went to see the ageing and ailing Basu, he told her gently that she was repeating what the Communists did in the 50s. It’s called ‘agitprop,’ the politics of agitational propaganda. It made sense then in terms of Communist theology for the party was trying to overthrow the system. It does not make sense for the leader of a constitutional party who seeks power within the system.
Bhattacharjee’s industrialisation plans for Nandigram and Singur have already been sacrificed at the altar of Mamata’s ambition. Her spoiler’s role has brought her acclaim and her party victory over the Marxists in several panchayat and Assembly elections. The speculation is that Trinamool Congress will replace the Marxists in next year’s general election. Then what? No one knows. Apart from opposing anything the Marxists propose, Mamata has given no hint of a programme of her own. Her elevation could take West Bengal from the frying pan into the fire.

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