Many years ago, freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale made a grand pronouncement that made him most beloved of all Bengali people: ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’. For this, he was “honoured” by being made an honorary Bengali and his name was conveniently changed to Gokhel (easier to pronounce for the average Bengali, don’t tell the Thackeray family).
Poor man must be shuddering in his eternal rest.
Imagine if the fate of India was about to follow that of Bengal. I don’t really care that Kolkata is being painted in blue and white stripes. After all, Jaipur is happy being pink and most Indian cities are comfortable with grungy brown. Or even that Rabindra sangeet is being blared from traffic signals. Everywhere else it’s a combination of badly sung out-of-tune religious songs and hits from the Hindi phillum industry.
But paranoia at the top, where everything from fire to death to rape to humour is a conspiracy against the new government? The arrest of a chemistry professor for forwarding a cartoon which made fun of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is the latest act of lunacy. This has nothing to do with whether Bengalis have a sense of humour or not. It has to do with creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Several who suffered under the Left front before this would have experienced both and many of those hoped that the Trinamool would somehow be different.
Instead, the past nine months have been an endless stream of bizarre responses to anything that happens at all. The main TV spokesperson for the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal is India’s most famous quiz master, Derek O’Brien. This is what he told PTL: “Let me categorically state that the Trinamool Congress never had nor does it intend to have any cell to monitor social media.”
In the same report, the head of the party’s cyber team said, “these rumours are being spread by those with other agendas. The freedom of the press is non-negotiable”. And yet, Mamata Banerjee’s representative at the chief ministers’ conference raises the bogey of cyber crime and asks for more assistance and the police charge the professor with “outraging the modesty of women”. Who to believe?
The people with “other agendas” are presumably leftists and other such unmentionables. Trinamool Congress members by the way are now barred from falling in love with CPM members, as matters of heart will interfere with the battle being fought. Bengal, as we now know, is at war with itself!
West Bengal has few employment opportunities, low human development rates and a culture — I’m not talking about the singing and dancing here — where you are used to being rewarded for doing nothing. Under the circumstances, falling in love with anyone at all must be a welcome escape.
It is a common psychological escape mechanism that when a problem seems insurmountable, the mind will divert itself to other issues. It cannot be easy trying to clean up 34 years of muck created by someone else. But Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress have fought hard for that privilege and were mandated by the people to sort the state out. Sadly, it seems too much to hope that they actually had a game plan in place.
Throwing tantrums at every turn is not the act of a mature leadership and unfortunately wearing rubber slippers, or eating jhaal moori, or even humble beginnings is an inadequate defence here. Encouraging mob rule — the scourge of the last dispensation — is even worse. Gokhale (or Gokhel) didn’t work, so that leaves philosopher George Santayana. You know the one: those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona