Didi’s Bengal

November 27, 2011

November 27, 2011

by Debarshi Das

“There must be some kind of way out of here,”
Said the joker to the thief,
”There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief…”

– Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower, 1967

South Asia is a poor performer in gender equality. This inequality at the mass level is curiously matched by a bountiful of women leaders. The strange co-existence of gender inequality and women leaders is not difficult to explain. Most of these leaders have been relations of big men. Daughters, wives, lovers, mothers have picked up the mantle when men have needed them, or in some cases have suddenly expired. Hoisting of elite women politicians at the top has done precious little to ameliorate the deprivation of women at the bottom of the pyramid.

Handing over of power to kinsmen is not an exception because in the democracy we live, leaders do not rise from below. They are placed from above and are preferably blood relations of incumbent leader. Understandably such women politicians hail from well-heeled background and cause discomfort among their more grounded male colleagues. When Mulayam Yadav commented that women’s reservation bill would be misused by the female kith and kin of male elites he was patently insensitive. But it perhaps offers a glimpse into how entrenched interest has encroached on gender spaces.

All this makes Mamata Banerjee a rare phenomenon in Indian politics. For all the chest-thumping over liberal Bengal, the state is not very different from other Indian states. Caste, gender, language, religious fault lines are as deeply etched. Gender equality indices of Bengal are a little better than the all-India average, and worse than a number of states such as Kerala or HP. Nearly half of West Bengal’s 64 years’ history was spent under the Indian National Congress rule, the Left ruled it for the other half. In either political bloc, leaders from non-upper castes have been rare, and so have been women leaders. If the strong positive association between caste and economic position is kept in mind it can be inferred that political representation in Bengal has remained concentrated among the middle to upper-middle class, upper caste males.

Mamata had to fight for her space in this bhadrolok world. Moreover, she is not any big man’s relation. Neither is her family background known for affluence. Her decidedly low-brow ways have been the fodder of many a joke. Didi’s appetite for histrionics has been routinely ridiculed. Worse, her unmarried status opens her up for innuendo-ridden speculations and scrutiny. In short, she is no bhadromohila (lady). Shorn of womanhood, a respectable enough womanhood that is, to many Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders she becomes a thing. Therefore in election speeches she is likened to whores with ease.

Mamata’s chief ministership can thus be the subject of an engaging inquiry. What makes it more interesting, given the dictatorial manner in which the TMC party is run, her personal imprint on the governance of the state would be more pronounced than other regular chief ministers’. Would she transform the conduct of politics in the post-bhadrolok Bengal? Her pro-farmer agitations are well known. Would that carry to policy framing? How would she resolve the conundrum of stagnant agriculture coupled with low-employment generating industries? Would women feel safe in a society beset with eroding patriarchal values and increasing commodification of women when the state is ruled by a woman for the first time?

So far the record has been on predicted lines. Namely, disastrous. The extraordinary circumstances which lifted her to the high post had elicited few promises from her. Didi has conveniently reneged on them. No freeing of political prisoners, no withdrawal of joint forces from Jangalmahal. Instead, her government has announced a recruitment drive for security personnel in the Jangalmahal region. CPM had its armed harmads in Jangalmahal. This followed the Salwa Judum model – although there was no official admission. Mamata is giving her Salwa Judum an official seal. Uncomfortable meetings, processions are being selectively banned in Jangalmahal. Joint force’s operations have been going on, although she denies it. The Jindals have been given an eager go ahead to construct the steel factory in Salboni whose inauguration was followed by bombing of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s cavalcade route in 2008.

The reign of poribarton (change) is not confined to fringes of the state. Universities and colleges will be cleansed of politics. Students’ or non-teaching staff representation in highest decision making bodies will not be allowed. Administration in educational institutions and the state administration, have been made more centralised and bureaucratised[1]. The government is planning to declare frivolous labour strikes illegal. Irritant labour leaders are being arrested. New industrial projects are being approved whose deals are being kept secret, just like the Tata Singur deal.

In this backdrop, the latest furore over not allowing the APDR permission to hold meeting on Jangalmahal at a particular venue in Calcutta appears trivial. Of course Didi managed to make the incident more dramatic than it actually was. “I have kept quiet as I respect her,” she thundered over Mahashweta Devi’s musing if fascism was being brought back. Didi continues, “But I don’t like this. Mahashweta Devi is being dictated her speech. I have noticed someone was whispering to her. However she may have said it herself too. I feel sad. She fell ill three times. I myself went to pay visits. I have conferred Bangabibhushan award on her. She is in our committee as well.” She rounds it off with an attempt at sarcasm. “But I am grateful that she calls me a fascist.”

Didi’s hint to the patronage she extended to Mahashweta Devi is of a piece. In Didi’s world things are quid pro quo. If the police are not allowing meeting by a certain democratic rights group, people should remember their Bangabibhushans before deciding to open their trap[2]. Earlier this month at a rally in Jhargram she was dissuading people away from the path of Maoism. “How many jobs do you want? I will provide as many as you demand. Do you need food? We will provide it. Do you need schools, colleges, hospitals, roads? We will give them all, within our limitations”.

One can snigger, but in her blunt ways Didi has outlined the government’s blueprint vis-à-vis the resistance movement against resource grab. Lesser people of this country will have to earn their rights; right to food, work, health, education, and not the least, security from the security forces[3]. They have to conform. They must obey when panchayat leaders, government officials ask them to take compensation and vacate land for the Jindals. They must keep mum as the police and CRPF jawans raid their villages, beat them up and rape their women. Else they forfeit those rights. For the marginalized having or not having those rights tilt the fine balance between life and death. In the democratic India thirsting for peace and development they better bloody well conform.

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[1] The trend to bureaucratise may be a function of at least two elements. One, the larger neo-liberal agenda of depoliticising administration. Dr. Amit Mitra is her finance minister, lest we forget. Two, her acute awareness of not belonging to the bhadrolok world. Babus who run the bureaucracy are a vital component of the ruling class. The sense of insecurity may be a reason to try to ingratiate with them. At times the attempt to gentrify herself becomes comically, and annoyingly, clear. Erroneous references of literary figures, works that she regularly showers, traffic lights of Didi’s Calcutta blaring Rabindra Sangeet are two such instances.

[2] APDR is in cahoots with Maoists she claims. However Sujato Bhadra, an APDR member, was chosen by her government to act as interlocutor in talks with the Maoists.

[3] The rich will buy their rights, of course.

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