Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'Same Side Goal' Politics, Bengal’s New Brand Image?

By Dipankar Sinha (Guest Writer)

The people of West Bengal want to live with security and dignity and desire the fulfilment of basic needs and amenities in everyday life. There are too many pressing issues in the state waiting to get the attention of authorities. Unfortunately, it seems that the powers that be are playing a thankless and self-destructive game of "same side goal".

Politics is widely known to have produced a bewildering variety of actions and reactions. Could West Bengal remain far behind? Considering the trends towards what we would prefer to describe as the “same side goal” politics in the state, one can assert that it cannot.
It is common knowledge that politics in West Bengal has a reasonably long and diverse heritage. Bengal politics was a major guiding force in the freedom movement in late colonial India. Since the Partition of India in 1947, the western part of Bengal, which remained with India, has continued to produce a variety of reputed leaders, committed activists and intense movements of differing ideological hues. They might have their respective limitations for which the state had to bear the cost, but it never had a situation like the one it has today – politics guided by the same side goal instinct.

Backdrop of Negativity
There is certainly a backdrop of negativity attached to the same side goal politics in contemporary West Bengal. Beyond the “normal” political activities, the Bengal brand of politics was as much associated with high action-orientation, including the most radical and violent kind, as with utter non-action orientation. While the hyperactive phase reached its peak with the Naxalite movement and the hyper-reactive counteractions of the Congress government in the late 1960s and 1970s, the “non-action” phase, which followed it, had a longer run. The latter phase was significantly marked by “popular” slogans – “cholche na cholbe na” (nothing moves, nothing would move) and “bhenge dao, gunriye dao” (break, demolish) – which would seek to bring anything and everything under the sun to a screeching halt. 

The slogans were also backed up by an astonishing number of strikes and bandhs – often sponsored, no less astonishingly, by those in the seat of power. The negativity had infected all the major political parties in the state. Both these phases did not surely bring either glory or material benefits to the state and its people. In the process it only badly hurt the image of West Bengal and the state continued to slide down the economic and human development ladder rapidly. In course of time, the state earned the dubious distinctions of being an “under-performer”, “non-performer” and “laggard” in the development scenario of India. Some would warn about the impending disaster the state was heading for. Some would even argue that the state was already in ruins. This is despite the fact that many hailing from the same state would contribute substantially to development elsewhere – within India and abroad.

Self-inflicted Wound
This in a way also revealed how politics in West Bengal could cause a self-inflicted wound in terms of pulling the state, which had some initial comparative advantages to surge ahead, backward in the race for growth and development. Some prefer to call it “suicidal politics”, which may not have captured the complex dynamics condensed in same side goal politics. In it the concerned actors in politics would act in such a manner that they themselves would put their own party in a disadvantageous position, rather than letting or waiting for their competitors to do so. Nothing remains static in the world and politics cannot be an exception. In the earlier version of politics the concerned political parties would indulge in it to maximise advantage for themselves. As a result, the state suffered, but not so much the political parties. However tragic the outcome may be, for the state, this kind of political act had a certain kind logic of its own, at least in crude political terms – power-grabbing, vote banks and all. 

However, the latest version is more perplexing, and therefore, more difficult to comprehend. The same side goal politics is affecting the political parties from within. Any keen analyst of West Bengal politics would invariably notice a very interesting trend – that on many occasions more than their adversaries, the two major political parties are bent on hurting themselves from within, often to the extent of providing huge political mileage to the other on a platter. It is not hard to trace the emergence of the same side goal politics with the dramatic ascendance of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state. Yet, that party is not the only player in it. This kind of politics cannot take-off without the presence and effective participation of an adversary which in this case is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M), following the same rules of the game. So many examples of this kind of politics are now there to pick up. The recent incidence of manhandling of the state’s ministers in Delhi by the activists of the Students’ Federation of India has considerably weakened the opportunity of rejuvenating the credibility of the organisation in the aftermath of the tragic death, under police escort, of its state committee leader in Kolkata. 

The reaction of the TMC activists, which led to the destruction of a number of party offices of the CPI(M) and the ruckus in the Presidency University, on the other hand, was not really a credible act, to say the least. Politically speaking, a non-violent protest highlighting the point that the chief minister and her cabinet colleagues were being prevented by the Left activists from having a scheduled meeting for demanding more funds for the development of the state would have put the adversaries of the state government in a tight spot. However, this incident is only one among the many as far as the same side goal politics is concerned. Many would recall that on the eve of the state assembly elections, a veteran CPI(M) leader and former member of the Parliament, made crude and uncivil personal attacks against Mamata Banerjee. It was done in a most despicable way to undermine her dignity. This generated shock waves among many, including the CPI(M) sympathisers. 

That he would then be let off with a light warning by a party which supposedly prioritises discipline, had disappointed many. In a sort of counteract, a prominent TMC leader, who is an established lawyer and a member of the Parliament, described the then chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, in the same manner – attacking him personally and making unnecessary and unsubstantiated charges about his personal life. While the two topmost leaders of the respective parties, namely, Banerjee and Bhattacharya, would not generally cross the proverbial Laxmanrekha and restrain themselves from personally attacking each other in the name of politics the next-rung leaders would do it at their sweet will.

Hitting below the Belt
Interestingly, the “relative restraint” of Banerjee and Bhattacharya, insofar as direct and regular personal attacks are concerned, does not necessarily make them lesser players in the same side goal politics of the state. They would become part of it by talking too much at times. Both of them during their respective tenures as the chief minister of the state made a number of unnecessary comments. This, in turn, considerably eroded their legitimacy, if not as eminent leaders but as the political beacons of the state. Thus, Bhattacharya’s threat to the then opposition (TMC), issued as a chief minister, that “we would break their heads” was as disastrous as the present chief minister’s comment, made in the contest of the Park Street rape case, that “all these are pre-designed” to malign her government. In the case of Bhattacharya it did not go well with his dignified bhadralok image. In the case of Banerjee, it was not fitting well with her popular image of a “down-to-earth” lady ever willing to help fellow citizens in distress. 

Nor would they earn many brownie points by attacking the media, from which they cannot disengage themselves, for generating “negative publicity” and for “falsifying and exaggerating”. Rather than making the list of such examples longer it is pertinent to ask why is this happening in a state which takes pride in itself as having a saner political culture. One can well understand the aggressive acts of political annihilation of opponents in the race for power. One can even understand that in the midst of cut-throat competition for power, there would be some occasional instances of “hitting below the belt”. But how does one explain the increasing tendency to maximise such efforts, that too to such an extent, that it banishes rational parameters of politics into oblivion and turns against one’s own political interest?

Tinkering Strategy
The most interesting part of the same side goal politics is that the actors like the players, who cause same side goals in games like football themselves may not know beforehand that they are indulging in it. Perhaps, a moment of insecurity, and the feeling, more perceived than real, of being beleaguered by adversaries may induce one to be involved in it. The history of football has a number of instances of renowned players committing the same side goal. Same is the case with politics in contemporary West Bengal. Why would otherwise established politicians, backed up by the people’s mandate, act in such manner? In the specific case of West Bengal, it might be the case that both the major parties in their own ways are yet to come out of the shadow of the three decade plus long Left front rule. 

The CPI(M) on their part, after enjoying power for such a long time, has to show that they have come to terms with the new reality in order to act as the responsible opposition. The TMC, on the other hand, is yet to shed its excessive oppositional reflexes to act more like the party in power. The tendency to attribute its own failures and deficiencies in governance to the legacy of the “long Left front rule” might have carried weight up to a point, but as its own rule becomes longer with the passing of each day such explanation would increasingly look like an excuse. For the CPI(M), the task of reorganising and rejuvenating the party in the aftermath of huge electoral adversity is stupendous – much more extensive and intensive than what their proclaimed strategy of shuddhikaran (rectification) calls for. 

Cleansing the party of opportunity-seekers, who had infiltrated it during its rule, is a hard but unavoidable assignment. For the TMC, the task is no less easy because, as the age-old political dictum suggests, it is easy to be in the opposition than to be in the hot seat of governance. Power has a slippery quality; it tends to slip if not held firmly with the resolve of efficient and effective governance. If regimented rule has taken toll in good governance, replacing it with a rag-tag, footloose organisation is not a viable solution.

Political Polarisation
For both the parties the tinkering strategy of improvement, however tempting, would not pay dividend in the long run. The problem is even more complex because the relations between the two parties have come to such a pass that even in much-needed and much-awaited development issues there is little possibility of dialogue. On almost every issue of public concern people are compelled to remain spectators to the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two parties. Especially because such hostile confrontation is packaged with “inappropriate”, utterly unnecessary words and body language, the chance of constructive interaction and healthy debate between the two major contending political forces becomes a remote possibility. If one goes by the conventional wisdom, the “civil society” in West Bengal is supposed to be strong and vibrant. Yet, the fact remains that it has not lived up to the expectations. 

The political polarisation that the state is witnessing has also cast its shadow on the civil society too. Among the intellectuals, many barring some notable exceptions, are sharply divided and being so they reflect “irreconcilable” differences on various events and issues. The media, especially the electronic media, is highly partisan and would adopt polar opposite stances even on issues, such as, declining law and order or acts of violence and vandalism or physical repression of women, which hardly leave scope for differing interpretations. The media would be more interested in imposing its own opinions and telling people “how to think”, rather than providing information on “what to think about”. 

While this phenomenon is also found elsewhere in India, in West Bengal it has become cruder, particularly since the highly volatile Singur incident – marked by a stand-off between the Left front government and Tata Motors on the one hand, and various oppositional political forces with the TMC at the forefront, on the other hand. The incident had vertically split the political forces and the media. With more such instances it seems that the mainstream media have taken it upon themselves to defend the cause of either of the two major political parties. Thus, in televised panel discussions one would frequently see even anchors becoming openly partisan, often ridiculing those invitees who speak against the standpoint of a specific political party favoured by the concerned channel.

Pop-Up Civil Society
What West Bengal lacks today is a sustained effort to build up a durable civil society. Civil Society not being a ready-made and temporary venture, the durability factor is important for constructing, generating and sustaining civil will from the bottom up – with negotiations of numerous and heterogeneous actors, factors and contexts. The occasional processions and street-corner meetings have reasonable symbolic value but they are not exactly a substitute for the hard work that is required at the grass-roots level. In this regard, the civil society in West Bengal can learn one or two lessons from Bangladesh, where the struggle for a secular, modern state combined with the demand for severe punishment for war criminals is being waged in the streets, with the involvement of various segments of the society – not just the urban educated (upper) middle class. 

There is an emerging argument that the high politicisation and consequent political polarisation in West Bengal suck in the potential members of emergent civil society, thereby leaving lesser scope for creation of a durable civil society. Even if one need not readily subscribe to that argument the fact is that the version that is being mostly witnessed now can be called “pop-up civil society”. It is single issue-centric and it requires a specific issue to emerge, to be picked up by the media with all publicity blitz and laid on the table as a suitable item for orchestrated debate. The issues are highlighted as “leads” in newspapers and on prime-time television-based panel discussions for a certain period of time, but they recede into background soon after. Such issues, not unexpectedly, are invariably identified by the media and branded as important. One would thus find that some prominent members of the civil society in debates and discussions would refer more to the “reports by the media”, rather than their own source of information, to make extremely definitive comments. 

The “own source of information” requires regular face-to-face interactions and exchange of ideas and opinions on various issues – beyond the set domain and location of the media. Such trend, in turn, also aggravates the detachment of the opinion makers from the grass roots. There are voices of radical organisations, independent-minded individuals, social media activists and non-mainstream print media like little magazines, but they lack the amplifying power and vast reach of those patronised by the mainstream media. Such overwhelming dependence on the mainstream media leads to a situation in which in a slow but steady way the “agenda setting function” is monopolised by it. It nurtures mediatised reality in which the mainstream media transgresses the power of other institutions to develop their own logic and perspective on ongoing issues and events. It is a binary scenario. The more the media would be given the upper hand in this manner, the lesser chance the civil society has in playing a constructive role in agenda setting and in making its effective presence felt. 

Therefore, in a different kind of ball game, which is not exactly a replication of the one that concerns mainstream political partiers, the civil society in West Bengal in its own way becomes an actor in the same side goal politics, undermining its own potential and remaining, at least for now, non-inclusive. The concluding observation can be brief, but straightforward. Like elsewhere, for the ordinary people of West Bengal, what is of utmost concern is the right to live with security and dignity along with the fulfilment of basic needs and amenities in everyday life. There are too many pressing issues in the state waiting to get attention of the powers that be. The problem is that the same side goal politics complicates their problems from an unforeseen vantage point, lending West Bengal a brand image that it may not have sought at all.

In the period since this article was first written there has been no change in the manner in which West Bengal’s political parties conduct themselves. However, of late the TMC leaves the CPI(M) behind in scoring same side goals. The latter is showing some restraint – a belated tactical move, even if no one is sure of its duration. The former, on the other hand, is playing it to the maximum extent in the face of an alarming decline in law and order and an increasing spate of violence against women, in particular. 

Two specimens would suffice. The manner in which the victim was blamed in the death, under police custody, of a student activist of the rival party and later terming it a “small affair”, and the manner in which the queries of the women of Kamduni, who were protesting against the gang rape and gruesome murder of their young friend, were dismissed and denigrated. These recent events have shaken “civil society” out of its stupor and at least a section of them with wider participation of ordinary people, have come out in the street expressing disgust at the manner in which the TMC government and the chief minister have dealt with violence against women. On a larger plane, they seem to be questioning the very mode of governance. 

This dilutes, to some degree, the elitist orientation of “civil society”. Most significantly, the ordinary people of the worst-affected areas, with the example set by those of Kamduni, have on their own come out to articulate their angst and are doing so in an increasingly convincing manner. This might be a wake-up call not just to the government but to the opposition and the “civil society” as well. With the voices and faces of ordinary people becoming more audible and visible it might just open up space for new politics away from the present “same side goal” politics in West Bengal.

(About the Writer: Dipankar Sinha teaches in the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, Kolkata)