The evening before the Communistsfell in Bengal, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee sat in a small room in her home near a stinking canal in Kolkata. In her off-white sari and rubber sandals, she appeared more calm and confident than I had ever seen her before. Sweaty, access-happy journalists, party functionaries and a portly, camera-toting city mayor kept her company. Didi fiddled with her BlackBerry and daubed paint on canvas.
“Why don’t you sing?” she suddenly asked a journalist. Suitably proud, the happy hack glowed, looked around in mock embarrassment, and broke into Rabindrasangeet. Soon, many other journalists in the room had joined the chorus. “Sing louder!” Banerjee said. The crescendo rose, more people joined in.
Ruchir Joshi. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
Too many cooks usually spoil the broth, so the chorus inevitably went off-key. “Sing better,” Banerjee admonished the press pack playfully. Almost on cue a journalist launched into another Rabindrasangeet. “More aro aro aro dao pran (Give me more life, give me more life),” almost reflecting the popular mood. Others joined in. Watching all this, I remember thinking: As long as the chorus continues, the Communists can stop dreaming of making a comeback. Outside, millions who had voted for Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party awaited poriborton or change. It had been Banerjee’s clarion call during the campaign.
Banerjee succeeded in dislodging the sclerotic Communists and pulled off a historic regime change. It is too early to say whether she will now bring in the poriborton people really want—more jobs, improved services, depoliticized institutions and better governance. But when Ruchir Joshi went on the road in Bengal this summer to file a bunch of pithy dispatches on the campaign for Kolkata’s The Telegraph newspaper, poriborton was already in the air. Travelling in Kolkata and the countryside, he captures some of this desperate yearning for change and brings to life the heat and dust and slogans of a momentous campaign set against the ennui and “slow motion bustle” of life in Bengal.
Joshi’s dispatches from “Waste-Bungle” are witty and perceptive. He writes about a Mamata-baiting apparatchik who rants against her with much “revolutionary pelvic thrusting” at a public meeting. The veteran Communist betrays the vulgarity of the bhadralok, and helps his party lose several thousand votes in the process. He meets a Maoist sympathizer with a Sai Baba ringtone on his mobile phone. There are fleeting references to a newspaper debate in Kolkata in the run-up to the election, an exhibition of paintings by Banerjee, a public meeting of Blighted Bengal’s flotsam and jetsam, whose lives will possibly never change despite a regime change, and a trip to Darjeeling to look into the resurrection of a muddled statehood movement. There are even goats fornicating on the sidelines of a campaign meeting—Joshi feels they may be already celebrating the impending poriborton.
Change we can believe in? Children during this year’s West Bengal election. Photo: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times
There are some callow, unidentified political pundits talking about the darker and grimmer future for Bengal: one in which the “Red Gang” is imploding because it is out of power and can offer no patronage, and the “Green Gang” stands discredited after their venality and ineptitude has been thoroughly exposed. Politics all over India has become increasingly lumpenized, and Bengal is no exception. Are Bengal’s problems the problems of its politicians alone? Or are they symptomatic of a society in slow decline?
Don’t look for any insights in Joshi’s book. His diaries work as scattered snapshots of a campaign written to stingy newspaper deadlines. Stitched together in a slim book, they are less effective than what they were when I first read some of the pieces in The Telegraph.
The biggest pity is that Joshi doesn’t meet the dramatis personae—the dour, José Saramago-loving Stalinist and “chief bookkeeper of Leftist grievance” Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the spitfire populist and amateur painter of “childlike” paintings, Mamata Banerjee. That could have made for two interesting chapters.
Poriborton! An Election Diary: HarperCollins, 162 pages, Rs199.
After the votes are counted and “that woman”—as the commissars loved calling Banerjee—has won, a taxi driver tells Joshi and his friend that nothing will change in Bengal. Banerjee is an obdurate politician with a lot of spunk. But her early days in power show that she continues to revel in the politics of grievance and opposition and proffers no vision for a beleaguered state in the way, for example, her peer in neighbouring Bihar, Nitish Kumar, does. Without a larger vision, poriborton , as Joshi suspects, will remain a chimera.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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