In 1990 after Lalu Prasad Yadav, the lower caste charismatic political leader of Bihar, became the Chief Minister of the state, the young, English-speaking, suave journalists flocked from metropolitan cities like New Delhi and Bombay to catch his sound bites on tape and camera. Their interest in Lalu was not only because of the man himself, but also his illiterate wife, his large family and his domesticated cows that apparently enjoyed chewing the grass of the palatial Chief Ministerial Bungalow built during the colonial raj. It has now become almost a myth amongst these journalists how Lalu chewed his paan (betel leaf) and spat the red spit out into a bowl, and how when asked one of those airy-fairy questions by an urbane young man from New Delhi, he raised one of his profuse buttocks to let out a loud fart before responding.
The story has become a journalistic legend because if there is one thing that India definitely respects, it is behavioural polish, whether in its businessmen or its politicians. Lalu’s lack of sophistication was deemed as crude and lower class, and he was made fun of in English-language dailies and weeklies, turning this story into a myth. There is however, an irony in the story; one might see the fart as the ultimate finger-up – bugger off as we say Down Under – to those who matter very little to Lalu. I am saying this in context of the recent rush of allegations against the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, by the regional, national and even international press. The didicule-ing and ‘lampooning’ of Didi, apparently in response to her mercurial temperament and unpredictable outbursts, her dictatorial style, her preference for the colour blue, her summary dismissal of the country’s railway minister for raising ticket prices without consulting her (she herself was the previous railway minister and didn’t get a good report card), and her ultimatum to the Prime Minister for revoking the strict yearly repayment of debt by the state. Even The Economist called her the ‘Mischief Minister of West Bengal’ and made fun of her effort to change the name of West Bengal to Paschim Banga. Within a year of her election, the entire world appears to be against her, projecting her as unfit to run the country as Lalu was presented by the bemused media then.
This is amazing; something very suspicious must be working here; let us take a deeper look at what is going on. Are we not conveniently forgetting some bitter truths? For example, the fact that the phallic top of the Ochterlony Monument (now Shahid Minar) was painted an obscene red by the victorious CPI(M)? Why have we forgotten that just recently the Australian Labour Party withdrew its support for Kevin Rudd, forcing him to resign from his position as Foreign Minister of the country because it had the right to do so? Isn’t a Minister just representing his party, and must consult it before making a major decision? Why must we conveniently forget the strange game of name change that is being played by everyone and all over India and blame just Mamata? Just to offer one example, it is still not clear why the Census of India began the avalanche of name-change en masse of villages, blocks and districts. Did the Shiv Sena receive this level of rebuke for turning Bombay into Mumbai? Who, above all, did the CPI(M) consult before changing Calcutta to Kolkata? Did they not despise the criticisms made by the newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, and needed to start their own political mouthpiece, Ganashakti? Quite clearly, Mamata followed exactly what those who held excessive power before her did. The message is loud and clear; Mamata is using CPI(M)’s old techniques to tell them that she is now in command of things. Instead of ridiculing her, one should praise her political astuteness.
I suspect the satire and didicule games are hiding a deeper issue; the bankruptcy of the state not in cultural sensibility but in actual money needed to run its affairs. Consider this. In 2003, the Indian government asked the states to sign the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, which the West Bengal government refused to sign, saying it was part of the set of ‘neo-liberal’ economic strategies of the central government. But just before the elections, when they knew about the impending sure defeat, they signed it with ‘scorched earth’ mentality. This warfare means that the State of West Bengal has inherited a debt of Rs.2 lakh crores (~$40 billion) to the centre as a result, largely a result of financial mismanagement by the CPI(M). Each year, the state is required to repay interest of Rs. 22,000 crores ($4 billion). West Bengal, it doesn’t matter if one calls it Paschim Banga, just cannot repay this amount. It doesn’t have the money. It is not because she is temperamental, but because the Central leaders knows her ability to easily reach the masses as a leader and an elder sister, that straightforward Mamata was able to ask the Centre to seek a repayment holiday.
And satire? Just like financial undermining, satire is a very strong weapon; the timely use of this device can devastate, distract and even destroy an opponent. Make a joke of an enemy, (s)he loses ground, loses face, loses respect. These are values that Indians nurture. And who knows it better than the CPI(M)? They have used it, honed it to perfection, and sent these missiles to many during their long and authoritarian rule of West Bengal for 34 long years. What we are now experiencing is a major satirical offensive against a popularly elected party leader who has inherited a bankrupt state with no or little prospect of industrial development and a stagnating rural economy, lined with porous international borders and poorer states from which the poor are migrating in everyday into the old and decayed industrial areas of Calcutta-Howrah in search of jobs and cash incomes.
The question is, does it matter to those who voted her in? It would be utterly silly to think that the rural (and urban) poor in West Bengal are regretting electing her. Most landless illiterates in rural areas, the urban poor, and those who became tired and frustrated with walking in endless processions with the red flag of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for its 34 years of rule, are paying very little attention to the primarily English-speaking media and getting on with the business of rebuilding lives. These are people who continue to provide the khamota (power) to Mamata, not the genteel and educated classes.
So, from our privileged position, how can we interpret this satirical offensive against Mamata? What do we make of it? In my view, with the election of Mamata, several old powerhouses in West Bengal are beginning to break down. Things that were seen as important, as valuable, as ‘good’, either did not remain so or no one cared about them enough to explain to people that things are changing. What we are seeing is a new kind of class struggle to finally disconnect from our colonial past, one in which class must not be confused solely with economic power, but seen more as a complex constellation of things that represented power in the past.
It is this ‘class’ – generally expressed most fully in one’s ability to speak and write a sophisticated kind of English – but also other things such as the ability to drop names and a natural manner when recalling old pals and contacts, even family and relations in high places – that define the aspiring Indian middle classes. If Mamata (or, for that matter, Lalu) speaks in poor English, it becomes okay to make fun of her. The middle classes in India, one must remember, are not just an economic category, but comprise and fully manifest the gamut of social and cultural characteristics some of which may have been inherited directly from its colonial rulers. Most Indian politicians, including those who believe in and fight for the working classes and masses, display (or are expected to exhibit) these characteristics. Strangely, Mamata does not, which may be the reason why she is being used as the butt of jokes! Because the politicians know that being middle class is safe; showing one’s middle-ness is a source of power. Similarly, many women politicians display their family connections along with their large bindis. Indeed, they are not outside of the society they live in, and if they do not flaunt, the journalists from New Delhi would tear them into pieces.
I was brought up with the middle class mentality of Indians because more than any other ethnic or language group of India, the Bengalis are the most affected by this middle-class syndrome. For most Bengalis, being middle-class is equated with the ultimate ‘bhadra’ (genteel) existence; indeed most middle class men and women are known either as bhadralok or bhadramahila, categories that have been put under the microscope by sociologists and historians in order to write treatises which in turn gained them access to public respect and marked them most definitely as bhadra. If there is one definitive trait that mark the Bengalis, one must say is this bhadrata; the trait is usually a varied combination of a love for polite conversation, dislike for physical work, the assurance of a salary at the beginning of the month, a penchant for travel to the seaside temple town of Puri or the hill town of Darjeeling with a camera in the bag, a preference for an afternoon sleep on Sundays after a heavy meal of rice and fish-curry, and ahhmmm – of course! – a love for Tagore. Bengalis love to see themselves as politically more aware than our illiterate and uncultured Bihari or Oriya neighbours. The comment by one of my acquaintances exemplify this high-brow attitude: ‘One wonders how this woman got voted in in the first place though, that too from the populace of West Bengal that is supposed to be politically savvy !’ A sad thing, such a comment, because it reflects a tremendous gap in the understanding of the rural context of today’s West Bengal. It also represents the typical urbane snobbishness that the dhoti-clad babus of the CPI(M) party had come to represent in their remarkable disdain of the poor as also illiterate and uncultured, and hence the subject of ridicule. Such an ahistorical, apolitical perspective of Mamata sits uncomfortably with the complex social-cultural milieu within which West Bengal’s politicians and the voters exist. I had, in the past, observed that one cannot understand West Bengal politics without understanding its history and society. This was precisely the way in which the ruling nationalist Congress Party viewed the communists in 1950s when the latter expanded their support base amongst the rural farmers, industrial proletarians and, above all, the refugees from East Bengal.
A new power structure emerged in rural West Bengal when the CPI(M) consolidated its powerbase after the 1993 elections. In villages, older landlords lost their support base and new, panchayat-based power groups rose to take control of village social and economic lives. Following on from that experience, one can say that a new class identity is beginning to emerge with the rise of Mamata; a class identity that might, at last, cut itself loose from colonial hangover and recreate understandings of what it means to be a Bengali in West Bengal in the year of 2012. Like the rise of Lalu, Mamata’s rise to political power would not be silent; this is a major change and what we are hearing could be the creaking of the old and decayed power structures that are breaking up now. One certainly hopes that Mamata will survive the fiscal trauma, which is the real problem at hand; the satire onslaught and the backlash of the bhadraloks would not be very difficult to tide over until the Left is able to review, reorganise and mutate itself.