Monday, December 31, 2007


It was the best of times and the worst of times. This well-known opening line of A Tale of Two Cities could easily have been written to describe the events of 2007 in West Bengal. When the sun set on 2006, most observers would have agreed that West Bengal was poised to experience a long-awaited process of industrialization. Such an expectation received a severe jolt at the very beginning of this year when violence erupted in Nandigram. This inaugurated a period of violence and uncertainty in Nandigram that was to last for 11 months, and was resolved only through a great show of force by the ruling party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The consequences of this were serious both for the industrialization project, as well as for the society of Calcutta. It did seem that the industrialization project, so dear to the heart of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, would be stalled as protests against the violence and the general callousness of the CPI(M) leadership gathered momentum. The protests acquired a new dimension: they moved out of the recognized political grooves, and were led by important members of Calcutta’s civil society. What was even more significant is that the majority of the protesters were those who would identify themselves as being of the Left. Never before in thirty years of Left Front rule had sections of the Left intelligentsia come out on the streets to demonstrate against actions taken by a Left government.

Many felt that it was a welcome development. It did appear that civil society, in embryo in West Bengal from the middle of the 19th century, had finally emerged, if not full-blown, but at least in a recognizable form. The protests were obviously directed at the actions taken by CPI(M) cadre and the inactivity of the government, but they also expressed a growing dismay with and rejection of the established political channels of articulating dissent against the government. The remarkable procession that made its way from College Street to Esplanade on November 14 was bereft of all political slogans and banners. In fact, it was a silent procession of protest, something that Calcutta has seldom seen. It was a show of dissent that neither the government nor the CPI(M) could afford to ignore, if they were to continue their dominance of the state.

The response, even from the chief minister, initially floundered. This gave currency to the impression that West Bengal was indeed living through the worst of times. Mr Bhattacharjee realized that he could not allow such an impression to gain ground. He had kindled the hopes of building a new West Bengal. He thus reverted to his honest and transparent persona. He admitted his government’s failures in handling the deteriorating law and order situation in West Bengal. He also confessed that his initial reactions had been somewhat unbecoming of his august position as chief minister of the state. He followed this up by making his first visit to Nandigram since the eruption of violence in the first days of 2007. In Nandigram he spoke as chief minister of the state rather than as a leader of his party.

The year thus comes to a close with a glimmer of hope. The chief minister has retrieved his script that described a new and vibrant West Bengal. Away from politics, there was the emergence of civil society eager to act as the conscience of the people, and as a warning to political parties not to be too smug. It was, to slightly alter a Chinese proverb, an interesting year.