In early May, after a bitterly fought election, parts of West Bengal were overtaken by a terrible spell of violence. Cadres of the winning party, the Trinamool Congress, allegedly decided to hand out a lesson to the footsoldiers of the Sangh Parivar which had, in the preceding months and weeks, dished out its own brand of highhandedness on West Bengal’s ruling party. Caught in this revanchism were groups of young men and women trying to organise relief for people caught in the deadly second wave of the pandemic sweeping the state — and other parts of the country. This spirit of do-goodism actually drew from political ideology — the volunteers were members of the CPI(M)’s student wing, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), and its other youth organisations. Their party had drawn a cipher in the elections. Ten years ago, however, it held the reins of power in West Bengal; its cadres ruled the streets of Calcutta.
There are a few analyses of its demise, but scholarship on West Bengal’s once-mighty party is poorer in the lack of a cadre’s eye view — an account that describes the CPM’s control over virtually all facets of life in West Bengal and the unravelling of this dominance. Sourjya Bhowmick’s Gangster State, The Rise and Fall of the CPI(M) in West Bengal is an admirable attempt to fill this gap.
Bhowmick is not the narrator of Gangster State. But there can be little doubt in the reader’s mind that Rajat Lahiri, as the book’s main protagonist, is speaking for Bhowmick. As a member of the SFI, and the party’s youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), Rajat is witness to how the party exercised its sway in the day-to-day lives of people, from housing enclaves to university campuses — settling neighbourhood disputes, breaking down shops of recalcitrant hawkers and even interfering in family matters. The party had “entrenched itself in every nook and corner of the Bengali home and spread its tentacles in each family home. This both benefitted and harmed the people of the state in equal measure”.
Ascriptions of lumpenism would, however, be reductive. Though there can be little doubt that hooliganism and bullying played a big part of the CPM modus operandi, there was a time when a substantial section of the cadre was deeply moved by idealism. Remnants of idealism remain, and surface from time to time, like in the young volunteers braving the pandemic. But they are thwarted by a moribund leadership that has very little clue of the day-to-day struggles waged by people, their aspirations and disappointments — one that derides attempts to organise canteens and fair vegetable shops to mitigate the destitution created by COVID-19 as an attempt at NGO-isation. Frustrated, many, like Rajat, find their calling elsewhere.