It seems that only by regularly and endlessly instituting elections we make the country's governing process. By governing with the aid of an electoral process a society of unrest is being governed. The political class is being continuously reconstituted through national, state, and now municipal and panchayat elections. And, add to these several other elections, for instance to chambers, associations, party executive organs, unions, and other public bodies. It is a permanent plebiscite. Each five year segment in the life of a state is marked by at least three major elections and numerous small elections.
So few years back when in 2009 on the eve of the previous general elections Mamata Banerjee had famously said the Lok Sabha elections were the semi final, and winning the state assembly elections in 2011 was the ultimate competition, little did she know that in this eternal roulette of earning legitimacy no election is semi final or final. She will have to constantly conjure up populist techniques to win the game. Where she initiated a new style of governance, it is still uncertain, although discernible. Where she has followed the Left Front mode it is clear. Hence, her edginess is evident and understandable.
This edginess was evident before the panchayat elections too. Then she had needlessly knocked up quarrels with the State Election Commission, losing thereby the goodwill of a sizeable section of the middle classes on consideration of propriety, and even when she was in a winning situation she did not know which way to proceed in this legitimacy game. However, once the peasantry gave her overwhelming approval in the panchayat elections, the indecisiveness was gone. Her grip over Bengal politics had returned.
Perhaps, we are now witnessing a similar situation, though it is too early to say definitely. The ritual of elections which had helped her to attain power is now proving an albatross around her neck. Possibly this time too the results will confirm her predominant place in Bengal politics. Yet the social basis of her power — the numerous layers of petty producers and the vast mass of informal and unorganised labour — will tell on her sooner rather than later as she continues to prevaricate, swing from one populist mode to another, and continue with her mix of old modes and new styles. The brew is too uncertain to last, unless she and her party can evolve a distinct style of governance over a range of issues.
Yet this desire for a new and clean style of governance can turn out to be only a middle class hankering for clean politics. What the middle classes often cannot discern are the new beginnings in this murky atmosphere. The Bengal angle is nothing if it is not the mark of new beginnings in the muddiest and murkiest of pools.
Take the instance of the great number of artistes and performers introduced by her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), in the fray. The daughter of a legendary actress of a bygone era and an actress in her own right, a theatre personality, two soccer celebrities who were captains of the national soccer teams in the past, two cine performers of some repute, a runaway success actor in today's West Bengal film industry, and a professor of history of distinguished provenance, all of them backed by a posse of celebrity painters, artistes, and journalists — these are among the notable election candidates of the party. The opposition is tearing away at the TMC's policy of introducing these people in the election fray as party candidates, "guest politicians" as the former calls. The charge is that Mamata is playing with serious politics. Dalliances with the glamour world were not the mark of Bengal politics till now, and the TMC's candidates list shows how she treats politics and Parliament, the holiest of national institutions, with her scandalous light hearted electoral moves.
The complaint has some substance, particularly in a milieu where prioritising intellectuals, when giving recognition to who's who in Bengal today, has a long tradition. Intellectuals have been the public face of protest politics for long in this part of the land. The Left Front too at times introduced cine artistes and theatre personalities, but the record of these personalities in serving Left politics was by and large impeccable. In other states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh cine personalities have joined politics and fought elections. The BJP has been pronounced in mobilising actors and actresses with right wing views. But all these were nothing compared to what has happened in West Bengal currently shocking the sense of cultural self-propriety of the educated class here.
Guest politician is a strange term. We are also right in feeling a sense of shock with what Mamata Banerjee has done. Her electoral army is an equally strange band of politicians, some decent people, no nonsense managers, fund raisers, good Samaritans, and few leaders with missionary zeal in doing things wished by the leader. They will give no quarter to Congress, CPI(M), or the BJP. What binds this rag tag army is populism coupled with loyalty to the leader. They have a healthy, at times extremely unhealthy, scepticism towards political and governing institutions, and have nothing of the reverence to institutions displayed by the Left leaders, which was of course often sham. Yet is it not true that industrialists as well as wives, daughters and sons of entrenched political leaders have often been members of Parliament and have only deputised for others? Were they not equally guests? In the contentious scenario of West Bengal, Mamata has pulled down a hallowed political tradition.
The Bengal countryside of course does not care much for this tradition. People are jostling to gain direct, close views of these candidates and, mind you, they will also raise uncomfortable questions about ethics and responsibility in public politics. More so, when one finds besides the guest politicians of TMC, a renowned magician, a singer, and a performer have opted for BJP tickets. TMC's tactics may backfire.
Yet it is also true that politics is ripping open the society by novel means. New people are gaining access to the institutionalised domain of political resources and the process. Even with movie stars and soccer celebrities as the mast, issues are being hotly discussed, policies deliberated in the scorching heat of April. Mamata is claiming, nothing is wrong in inviting various sections of society to join the carnival, which after all the whole business is.
The strangest thing is that, not the organised party of the working class or the much hyped intellectuals are doing this. In this case the agency is in the form of a vast mass of petty producers, small businessmen, unorganised labour, and other denizens of the lower depths. Elections, at times at least, are working as "unconscious locomotive of history", to recall one of the most memorable phrases about the role of British rule in India in dragging a cocooned society out in the open.
It is true that they have no strategic vision, no roadmap. Their steps are clumsy, often producing shocks with unanticipated actions, where reverence to pedigree and fame do not mean much. Yet step by step old no-nos are being pulled down. Claims to political resources have widened.
In another two years, by the time the next Assembly elections take place in West Bengal, perhaps we shall have a clearer picture of the nectar and poison after the churning process is over.
The author is Director, Calcutta Research Group