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Queuing even to leave

Mamata’s siren promise: change,but not too much

Written by Antara Das |
April 6, 2009 12:44:08 am

In West Bengal,they call it the “Ambulance Express”. Every afternoon,it chugs out of the station at Howrah,towards Chennai,a bulk of its passengers being Bengal’s diseased and ailing,sick and long-suffering. The desultory conversation of the passengers (of what is formally known as the Coromandel Express) usually revolves around the competing medical merits of a Vellore,a Chennai or even Bangalore,with an occasional sigh for the crumbling health infrastructure of the home state.

But even the doomed residents of a moribund province may live in hope; a yellowed,moth-eaten structure,living its autumn,may yet offer a fresh spurt of life when the worst is over. Such hyperbole,you wonder,and all because the two main opposition parties in the state — the Trinamool Congress and the Congress — have decided to ally before the elections,to better equip themselves to take on the might of a government in power for 32 years,which openly flaunts a “machinery” to win popular votes? You wonder,because you have never been part of that queue of desperate hopefuls trying to flee your stagnating home state,in search of better education,promising livelihood options or even improved medication.

Not everybody tries to escape though; depopulation is definitely not one of West Bengal’s banes. If you are a have-not in this Marxist utopia,then welcome to a lifetime of navigating through appallingly ill-maintained government hospitals,where a tout will determine how many fellow patients you will share a bed (or corridor space) with,or where newborns must come equipped with the skills to save themselves from hordes of mice or mauling dogs. Or put your children through government schools,where the idiosyncrasies of party ideologues would decide whether they get to learn English early in life or not,where party faithfuls are recruited as teachers and where school schedules can become hostage to party jamborees.

That is why there is such festive cheer about this long-awaited,newly-formed alliance (the Congress and Trinamool did not ally for the 2004 Lok Sabha and 2006 assembly elections). The optimism stems not just from the dent that the Left parties may suffer,or the fewer seats they might win while contending with a unified opposition (the Left won 35 out of the 42 seats in West Bengal in the 2004 elections). The sole agenda is ousting the CPM — Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly declared to thunderous applause — to deliver Bengal from that pestilence. In other words,to achieve in real life what she had been play-acting for several decades. That promise of deliverance is why the masses flock to listen to her,ignoring the fact that her party’s recently-published manifesto champions positions that are traditionally held by the Left,that she is as much opposed to disinvestment of public sector units and foreign direct investment in retail as Prakash Karat. After all,it is so much easier to adopt and accept a champion who is going to effect the transition without herself being a disturbing departure from the norm.

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What that eventual transition might lead to,and whether it could resuscitate much that is ailing,is worth pondering on. The struggle against forcible land acquisition for setting up industry was the crowning achievement of Mamata’s career,with,strangely enough,the ouster of the Tata car factory being its most precious jewel. Strange,because with elections around the corner,there is possibly no other political leader in the country worth the votes she seeks who could have proudly proclaimed (which Mamata did the day Nano was launched in Mumbai) that she could hardly care less where the car,symbolic of an employment generating project,was being launched.

But then Mamata champions dubious causes with an élan that can be matched only by the very Marxists she fights tooth and nail. In January this year,she brought large parts of Kolkata to a standstill,trying to prevent (successfully) a state government attempt to implement a high court ban on polluting,two-stroke autorickshaws,without ever having to explain why citizens should suffer noxious fumes just because a bunch of unscrupulous autorickshaw drivers will not upgrade their vehicles.

Such regressive postures that people have learnt to be familiar with for decades now might ultimately work out for the best. It would help in avoiding unnecessary rupture,or painful readjustments to new dispensations. Her politics of disruption will not work against her,for Mamata knows too well that the odd bandh day is cherished,especially in those dreary monsoon months in Bengal when people get tired of wading through waist-high slush,and pray to the bandh gods for some munificence. Or when a bandh comes conveniently packaged with other public holidays,slackening life’s pace that tiny bit more. Till different times prevail,let people cherish an afternoon away from the drudgeries of work,comparing the follies and foibles of the CPM and Trinamool. Not much of a choice,but it’s all they have.

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