Presently, Mamata Banerjee and her party are busy rejoicing. They have taken over the mantle of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. The new mayor has replaced the old aristocratic ‘advocate’ mayor of the ‘Red’ days. In this backdrop, can the present upsurge in West Bengal in any way be equated with the momentous French Revolution of 1789?
In the first week of June 2010, under the administrative jurisdiction of the district of North 24-Parganas, in broad daylight at around 9 am, a lady was coming out of her house to commute toward her office. To her utter dismay, she discovered two hooligans speeding away on a motorbike and dropping low-intensity bombs around.
The area is not far off from the International Airport of Kolkata, named ironically, in the Left bastion, after Subhas Chandra Bose.
Later on in the day though, the lady academician learnt that it was a tussle between the two ‘major’ political parties of Bengal. Nonetheless, the next day, newspapers reported the death of a real-estate developer in the area having no political association.
There is hardly any gainsaying the fact that Bengal (read West Bengal) is traversing through a period of upheaval. Murder, arson, pillage are not abnormal in some pockets of the province. This upheaval might as well be interpreted as a phase transition from the state of ‘stagnation’ to a state of … well, needs analysis in depth and breadth before one can theorise or even best can surmise about that next ‘state’.
The panchayat elections were over in 2008. It carried a bad omen for the ‘Red’ in Bengal. After two years, in May 2010— a repeat telecast of events in the Municipal elections. This time the impact on the psyche of the people regarding the ‘infallibility’ of the Red has been much more profound.
Presently, Mamata-di and her party are busy rejoicing. They are also taking over the mantle of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. The new mayor has replaced the old aristocratic ‘advocate’ mayor of the ‘Red’ days. The ‘Red’ are surely lamenting their decision of implementation of the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts, 1992; aka local self government.
2011 is expected to usher in the so-called ‘change’ in Bengal after a long, excruciatingly painful and cancerous era of the Left–a period of structural deformations and ‘mal-reformations’.
In this backdrop, it might not be a frivolous supposition to compare the present democratic upsurge in West Bengal with the revolutionary events of France in 1789. It might not be a ludicrous proposition to draw a parallel between the mood of insurrection and political chaos in then Paris with the present inferno in Kolkata.
A caveat though: an emotional and hence a direct ‘headless’ comparison with posterity is bound to produce a distorted theoretical thesis.
There were three key reasons which could be accorded significance in order to substantiate the precipitation of the French Revolution in May 1789. First was the ineptitude of then monarch Louis XVI. Second, the antagonisms within as well as without the social strata and third, and in fact the most important was the dismal state of finances of France.
Monarchical France in 1789 was socially divided into three major groups: the Church (First Estate), the Nobility (Second Estate) and the Third Estate had the Bourgeoisie and the poor peasantry. Interestingly, like Bengal of today, about 70 per cent of French population belonged to the peasant class. The bourgeoisie were rising in terms of financial status. And the church and the nobility were representatives of the old feudal order, manifesting ‘stagnation’.
No doubt, neither the nobility nor the church was monolithic, homogeneous structures. They too had their stratification.
Does Bengal of today have the ingredients of the pre-revolutionary days of France to foment a rebellion? Yes and No both.
An autopsy of the social structure of Bengal would show up three distinct classes: the ‘favoured capitalists’ resembling a first estate and the Party Apparatchiki mirroring a second estate similar to then French society. The third estate is composed of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry. Furthermore, the bourgeoisie comprises the IT-professionals, academic, intellectuals, merchants, real-estate developers, small businessmen et al. The industrial labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers, petty workers, urban poor et al composes the proletariat.
The ecclesiastical clergy in France in the eighteenth century enjoyed privileges in the form of lands granted to them by the state. By all means, hardly can their be any denial that a similar state of affairs exists in Bengal today as ‘land grants’ at exorbitantly low rates have been proffered to select business houses to carry on with the juggernaut of laissez-faire capitalism and free-booting in the name of utilitarianism.
Most significant is the Party Apparatchiki, a remnant of the Stalinist regime of erstwhile Soviet Russia. It covers a wide spectrum: from a rickshaw-puller to an industrialist or a sportsperson and not surprisingly an intellectual or a professional. It is joie-de-vivre for the Party-man or woman. She enjoys privilege, prestige and power.
Privilege; in terms of acquiring a job or starting a business. A mere standard eight pass out may get a job of a sports instructor in a school. A graduation degree is phenomenal to land him into the domain of a teacher. A school drop-out? Nothing to worry. If you venerate the non-charismatic Red party leaders, you are ought to be elevated to a real-estate developer
Prestige; in terms of mounting the social ladder. A Red banner of the CPI-Marxist assures him the extra androgen to pump his chest to inflationary levels.
Power; in terms of daily business. If an auto-rickshaw driver commands that you have to vacate the seat without obvious reasons, you have to. Nobody can save you, the police being the farthest and remotest object. If a Party-man with a lathi asks your vehicle to take right turn, you are bound to agree without even contemplating to ask for the reason; the traffic police being non-existent.
Unlike the French society of the 1780s though, upward social mobility is a bit more feasible. One may join the Red banner and be a part of the odious ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. Hence, politically ‘unconscious’ or ‘non-conscious’ characters are disliked. Political rivals are intimidated and if possible, annihilated.
Now, can the Tennis Court Oath in May 1789 which marked the momentous French Revolution, has a contemporary in today’s Bengal in the form of the swearing in ceremony of the councillors in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation by the Trinamool Congress? Shall a new charter for Bengal be written in 2011 after the Assembly Elections? Can the fall of the Bastille be re-enacted in the July 2010 Martyr’s Day commemoration by the Trinamool Congress?
Be it Paris of 1789 or Petrograd of 1917 or Bishkek of 2010, people come out in the streets, massacre the authoritative power structures and loot the cache of ammunition if and only if abject poverty becomes a homogeneous and isotropic phenomenon. Mobocracy becomes the order of the day if and only if the prices of staple food reach astronomical elevations.
Few months back, prices of potatoes in Bengal escalated. It even forced the non-charismatic Red leaders to proffer a ‘stabilised market’ in the styles of the medieval stalwart Alauddin Khalji so as to control the price of the staple tuberous crop of the ‘Aloo-Bhaate Bengali’.
Yet, the scenes of the 1789 Paris were not re-enacted. Simmering tensions are fine, a cauldron is still fine, but an outburst can be very well avoided till two square meal is available at affordable prices. And to ensure that, the Red leaders don’t need to bother much. A fertile rural hinterland, diversion of calamitous winds toward Bangladesh and economic integration with mainland India would continue to secure them from mass upsurges of the worst variety.
The lack of political power experienced by the bourgeoisie (minus the Party Apparatchiki) is the greatest parameter which is influencing the present turn of the tide in favour of the Trinamool Congress. Mamata-di’s charisma notwithstanding.
The French Revolution did not occur in an intellectual vacuum. Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and Rosseau spearheaded the intellectual revolution, years before the actual physical revolution took place. Rousseau’s concepts of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘general will’ played substantial part in radicalising the movement. At present, there is a bunch of intellectuals who have received prominence through the media. The author considers them to be a motley group of professionals: painters, sculptures, singers, actors, litterateurs et al who have successfully tamed the supply-demand curve in their respective domains. Barring a handful, author Mahasweta Devi (of Hajar Churasir fame) being one of them, the others do not stand qualified to be termed as ‘intellectuals’. To render opinions is one thing, but to claim scholastic aptitude of the genre of Voltaire or Rousseau is completely different.
However, one thing is definitely clear. The Red has faltered to deliver on the basis of the Social Contract. And Bengal requires no philosopher to remind them this horrendous act of the Left. Universal adult suffrage was a novel and revolutionary concept in 1789. It is a rooted concept in India after six decades of independence.
So, although ‘bread riots’ are unfeasible in today’s Bengal but ‘ballot riots’ are perfectly plausible. And that is what is continually happening since 2008. 2011 is bound to see its logical culmination. Otherwise, historical materialism would suffer a collision with a cul-de-sac. Furthermore, peasant and tribal insurrections in rural Bengal have gradually dug graveyards for the Left.
Louis XVI had to run for his life when radicals hounded him out from the Royal palace. Could we witness a similar situation in 2011 near the Writer’s Building? Interestingly, it was the radical Left ‘Jacobins’ in Paris who finally guillotined Louis XVI in 1792 whereas it is the reactionary Left in Bengal more than two hundred years later which is facing the gallows.
Perform or perish could have still salvaged the Left in 2007. A Singur, a Nandigram, a Lalgarh and a host of other mass murders have given rise to a spiraling lack of confidence of the ‘Bengali Manoos’ in the Red.
At this juncture, for the Left: “political power is a perishable material.”
By Uddipan Mukherjee