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Kolkata: a tale of two rallies

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: September 23, 2014, 10:59 PM IST
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The dream of "Paribartan" or change in West Bengal has turned into a nightmare at the end of three years and a bit of the TMC regime. Over the last three years, there have been many cases of rapes, sexual assault, assault on teachers and academic institutions, violence against party workers of opposition parties, violence during Panchayat and Loksabha elections. In August, an ICDS worker in Kanthi (East Medinipur district) who is the wife of a CPIM party worker was allegedly paraded naked and then raped and murdered. This was also accompanied by the increasing heat of Saradha ponzi scam where the ongoing CBI investigation led to the arrest of TMC leader and former DGP, Rajat Majumdar. The Chief Minister, meanwhile, had a high profile visit to Singapore and it was told that lot of investment is on its way from Singapore, even though the reality of the state was that more and more jute mills were closing down.

All this, one would have expected, to have some impact on the by-election which was held in two constituencies in the state. It didn't. The loser continued to be the CPIM and the spoils were shared equally between TMC and BJP. In a significant victory, BJP won a seat previously held by CPIM for many years, confirming the speculation that there is an en-masse shift of cadres from CPIM to BJP as the former is seen to be too weak now to resist the physical threat from TMC.

When we try to understand why there was such a huge rally of more than 1,00,000 people in Kolkata on September 20, in support of the students of Jadavpur University who were beaten up at night by the police and allegedly by hoodlums as well, this is the context that we need to keep in mind. A year ago, when hoodlums had attacked Presidency University, the protest rally was impressive but not in terms of numbers.

The one that was held on a rain-drenched afternoon of September 20 saw the participation of not only students from different colleges and universities but also citizens who are alienated from conventional electoral politics. It will be a mistake to think that those who participated were not affiliated to any political party but their participation was not dictated by their respective parties. The students of Jadavpur University also used the social media to maximum effect as a result of which there was massive support generated from different parts of the world. The students demanded the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor who was responsible for inviting the police to "rescue" him.

The rally or the "micheel", however, acquired a significance that went beyond the specific issue of the Jadavpur University. The movement has raised, although not for the first time, the question as to whether representative democracy through the party system is at all working or not. There is a sense of disenchantment not just with certain political parties but with party-centric democratic politics itself. In other words, one can see here a resonance of the agitation following the Nirbhaya rape case where the protestors did not subscribe to any political party as such but pressed on an issue till the government relented and took fast-track action.

The case in West Bengal however followed a different track. Immediately after the student rally, TMC leaders met the father of the victim of sexual assault and "convinced" him to have faith in the Vice-Chancellor and issue a statement against the student agitation. The student wing of TMC then decided to launch its own rally to demonstrate that the people of the state were with them. Thus on September 22, a rally was organized by the TMC student wing which raised questions as to whether the students were agitating because they were not allowed to smoke and drink inside the campus. The strategy clearly was to do character assassination and show the students as morally degraded. Unfortunately, for TMC, the mainstream corporate media chose the side of the Jadavpur students and exposed that many of the participants were firstly not students and secondly, had no clue as to what the rally was all about. One of the news channels also exposed that the organizers of the rally in fact had sent an SMS to the participants warning them of consequences if they did not attend the rally.

The difference between the two rallies was obvious. One was that of citizens, the other was that of a party machinery. There was, however, another difference which is significant. The first was attended largely by citizens of Kolkata and by people who have enough social capital to challenge the threats of the ruling party. The second was largely attended by people belonging to a lower class and from the suburbs. In fact the attack on the "degraded westernized morality" of the Jadavpur students was aimed at a lower class audience that has a more conservative mindset.

This is linked to a larger question - who needs the party and why? The students and intellectuals who are agitating against the party-centric politics are also probably those who in their day-to-day survival do not need the party as such. In other words, the political party for them is not linked to their economy of livelihood; they belong to a higher level of society. The second rally was attended by those who are linked to the party-politics of the state as access to the party is important for their survival and supporting a party is not just a matter of theoretical discussions. This dependency is sometimes scorned by elite intellectuals/activists as a sign of intellectual backwardness or inability to move beyond old ideas but it is not as simple as that. As Raghuram Rajan has recently argued, when the welfare state is not functioning well, it is necessary for the subaltern to associate with politicians who can get them what they need - a BPL card, a ration card or a temporary job even if these politicians are corrupt.

Thus for all its idealism, one needs to think carefully how far the negative approach towards party politics can go. What is perhaps needed is a discourse on how to reinvent party-politics rather than to reject party-politics as a whole. As I salute the "independent student movement" for what they have done, I would also like them to imagine and create a new political party that would be free from the vices that have afflicted the present ones. If not today, then tomorrow.
First Published: September 23, 2014, 10:59 PM IST