In many ways 1964 was the great divide for West Bengal; it marked the end of innocence. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] was born but the old good life continued. Pam Crain had just arrived on Park Street and I remember Padmaja Naidu, the then governor of the state, noting with satisfaction in a radio broadcast (TV would take a long time to come) that the state’s farmers had brought home a record harvest.
Then came the drought of 1965-66, the second food movement and life in West Bengal was never the same again. College from 1966 brought me face to face with the power of the youthful left and I came to realise that the English language had a word like “reactionary” which our school teachers had never told us existed.
What was fascinating was the speed at which ideology and ground reality moved. No sooner had the Left, foremost the CPI(M), come to power than the young ideologues in college began showing distinct signs of disillusionment and, come 1969, the official challenge to the left establishment, though barely arrived, surfaced in Naxalbari. The seeds of destruction of an idea were being sown even as the idea itself was just becoming mainstream. Over the decades I would keep seeing this happen. (1964: THE YEAR UNDIVIDED CPI SPLIT AND CPI(M) WAS BORN).
The Left and its presence was officially suppressed through much of the seventies till the end of the Emergency but its power to drive industry away and bring in an age of darkness through power cuts in benighted Calcutta (as it was called then) was there for all to see, or grope and find out in the dark.
But there was a dawn, no matter how brief, when the Left came back, with the CPI(M) at the helm in 1978 and all sang the glory of Operation Barga, giving rights to sharecroppers, the best thing the Left ever did. But the seeds of destruction, losing the moral high ground, happened incredibly soon thereafter, with the massacre at Marichjhapi in the Sundarbans of refugees from Bangladesh who tried to settle there and were “removed” by the police. (CPI(M) CHIEF MINISTERS).
The eighties were dull by comparison, the Left and CPI(M) continued to rule, nobody challenged their might and of course there was no power. With stability came gentrification in the mind, replacing the idea of struggle with the concerns of the middle class, a process that became manifest once the left and the CPI(M) won a clear victory in the 1996 Assembly elections and it was decided to launch Operation Sunshine – ridding the streets of Calcutta of hawkers. Among the leaders fighting for the hawkers was a young Mamata Banerjee, then still with the Congress.
Come the 2000s and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee became the new face of the civilised bhadralok Left. West Bengal jumped onto the post-liberalisation national bandwagon and began to sprout shopping malls and flyovers. But the seeds of destruction were being sown in the hour of success and crony capitalism of the CPI(M) variety arrived with the attempt to introduce the Salim group from Indonesia and Nandigram with the deaths in police action happened in 2007. The story and rule of the left and CPI(M) was over, bar the shouting and the gazette notification.
The final nail was struck into the coffin of left rule in 2008 at Singur from where the Tatas withdrew their Nano factory and took it to Gujarat. But something tells me that the seeds of another destruction have been sown in Trinamool’s hour of success. Who can cynically throw out investment of this kind and live to create wealth?
The left, the papers say, has fielded a fair number of young candidates, sweeping aside the old, in the coming parliamentary elections and the Trinamool Congress has fielded a fair number of film stars who are dumb or bimbos or both. History will tell us the outcome in another 10 years or so.
The writer is a senior journalist and spent several years of his working life in West Bengal.