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‘Gangster State’: How and why the Left fell in Bengal

Sandip Ghose | Updated on August 10, 2021

Big picture: Gangster State is not a tale of a failed polity — it is the saga of destruction of a region from the pinnacle of glory   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

In his debut book, Sourjya Bhowmick documents the unravelling of the communist experiment in the state

* In the absence of economic development, the dream of a rising proletariat turned out to be a nightmare of lumpen raj

* Why or how did Bengalis allow the systematic degeneration of academia and intellectual ecosystem is not explained

* It also very poignantly captures the frustration of new generation party workers such as Bhowmick... which finally led to their disenchantment and exit from active politics

***

In his first book Gangster State, journalist Sourjya Bhowmick takes up an important and challenging chapter of contemporary history — the unravelling of the communist experiment in West Bengal [led by the Communist Party of India — Marxist, aka CPI(M)] — on which not much has been written so far. It is a subject that is close to his heart — perhaps, a bit too close — having himself been a part of the denouement. As an insider he had an endoscopic view of the malignancy that crept into the innards of the party. At the same time, it also denied him the perspective of distance.

Gangster State: The Rise and Fall of the CPI(M) in West Bengal / Sourjya Bhowmick / Pan Macmillan / Non-fiction / ₹ 650

 

Although Bhowmick calls it “creative non-fiction” — the book is, in fact, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, in which the protagonist — Rajat Lahiri — is a replica of Bhowmick himself. The book spans across the mid 1990s to the late 2000s. This would be roughly the period when Bhowmick came of age in his dalliance with the leftist student movement (he was in active politics between 2004 to 2011) before the inevitable disillusionment. However, by then, the veneer of communism had already begun to wear off the CPI(M) in West Bengal. In the absence of economic development, the dream of a rising proletariat turned out to be a nightmare of lumpen raj.

In chronicling the times through the life-story of the narrator, Bhowmick misses the larger picture and the context of the Left’s ascent in Bengal, when the rest of India was moving towards a capitalist model of industrialisation, infrastructure development, modernisation of agriculture, and growth of the services industry (including ITES). Getting far too caught up in the happenings within the campuses and the party, he also fails to capture the societal changes happening around the politics of destruction. While the flight of industry is well known, the reasons for the exodus of talent is not so obvious. Though the political tussle inside the iconic Presidency College gives readers a glimpse of what went wrong in the famed education institutions of Bengal, it does not get into the core of the malaise. Why or how did Bengalis allow the systematic degeneration of academia and intellectual ecosystem is not explained.

Having lived through those times, Bhowmick provides interesting vignettes of college life, para politics, the advent of syndicates (the precursor of tola-baji) and party sponsored land-mafia. The politician, builder and developer nexus. All these trends have evolved and been further consolidated over time even after the exit of the Left. The more things change the more it remains the same, as they say.

This may be new to those not familiar with Bengal and, I dare say, even for Bengalis who left the state long ago but still hold some romantic notions about their homeland. However, the narrative falls between the cracks of genres. It lacks the intensity of a political drama or the sharpness of a period commentary. Movies of Satyajit Ray (The Calcutta Trilogy), Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha (Apanjon — made into Mere Apne in Hindi) have archived for posterity the ’60s and ’70s edition of the same phenomenon. Or in a different setting, so too Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

The section about the struggle and contradiction of Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s ‘perestroika’ phase in the party and his ultimate Waterloo at Singur is riveting. It also very poignantly captures the frustration of new generation party workers such as Bhowmick at the missed opportunity, which finally led to their disenchantment and exit from active politics. The subsequent decline of the CPI(M) has also been quite graphically chronicled. However, a further deep dive into the causes of the organisational collapse would have been revealing.

In the epilogue, Bhowmick covers the epic battle of 2021 between the Trinamool and BJP that crushed the CPI(M) to near decimation. But, the reader would have loved to read his analysis of why Bengalis opted for a CPI(M) redux in Trinamool and rejected BJP’s promise for “asol poriborton”. Is it sub-regional chauvinism or simply an insulated, anachronistic mindset out of sync with the rest of the world?

Gangster State is not a tale of a failed polity — it is the saga of destruction of a region from the pinnacle of glory in every field due to misguided sensibilities. Sadly, it is the generation of Bhowmick that had to pay the biggest share of the cost for it by trading off their future for the sins of the preceding generation.

Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator and corporate strategy advisor

Published on August 10, 2021

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