Visiting Kolkata for the first time after the general elections, I saw a sea change in the political culture I grew up in
Born and brought up in Kolkata in the late 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed an intensely political atmosphere around me from a very young age. For a major chunk of my life — 17 years to be precise — I saw one party and a certain ideology dominating discussions not only in my city, but also in my own house.
I remember sitting with my grandfather and grand uncle as they taught me the nuances of the ideology they believed in. My grandfather told me what an honourable man the late Jyoti Basu was, and how he inspired a whole generation of people, so much so that his party swept Bengal off its feet.
There was so much discussion about this ideology, I too came under its influence. In my mind, Basu was a mythical superhuman-like figure — the superman of Bengal. Whenever he appeared on TV, my family would straight up sit and take notice. I too, as a five-year-old, was enamored by his personality.
Then he stepped down and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya took charge of the chief minister’s chair for the duration of most of my adolescence. The man in power had changed, but the party and the ideology remained the same. Every election, there would be red flags all around the city — with paintings of the sickle, hammer and star symbol on almost every wall.
But slowly and steadily, in my late teens, I saw frustration about the system grow in my family, and also in my colony. The red flags were slowly giving way to green. The sickle, hammer and star wall paintings were being replaced by the grass flower, and headlines and news channels were being dominated by a woman who went on to fast for the interest of the farmers — a woman who came across to me as a fighting figure, rising against the oppression of 34 years, as portrayed by the media then.
In 2011 the unthinkable happened. After 34 years of left rule, Mamata Banerjee formed the TMC government in West Bengal.
This was the time I was wrapping up my school education — and my understanding of politics and of people taking shape. My grandfather was visibly shaken, disappointed at the loss of the party he so whole-heartedly supported —but people like him and my grand uncle were still inclined to the left’s ideals, even though they were done and dusted.
This was the time when I saw posters of a party being replaced by life-size and sometimes huge cutouts of our chief minister, who greeted us with a smile at every nook and corner of the city. Even our college common room wasn’t spared. The party grew stronger as years progressed, but my grandfather remained loyal, even though his favourite party had been pushed to the third position in the Bengal Assembly.
In all this, I never saw Bengalis celebrate religious fanaticism in the name of politics. There was no place for a right wing in my city — or so I thought.
With career opportunities knocking at my door, I shifted base to Delhi two years ago, when my city was still awash with green. Slowly, due to the nature of my job, I engaged with the politics of the capital as I got distanced from the politics of my home state. That was until this general election, when the BJP got a lion’s share of the votes there, and was breathing down the ruling party’s neck.
Friends and family used to say that they could sense a change in the politics of Bengal, but I refused to believe them. Yes, a certain party had won at the Centre, but perhaps that was just an accident. That was until I went home last week for my grandfather’s last rites.
When I landed in the city, I was greeted with the CM’s smiling face outside the airport as usual — but there were hoardings of our PM and home minster accompanying her. On the way home, I could see flags on either side of the road. This time they were neither red nor green but orange. Yes there was still a domination of the grass flower on the walls of the city, but the lotus too was quite dominant.
The next morning, I had to visit my grandmother’s place, and that is when shock awaited me. As Bengalis, we tend to celebrate our heroes. Whether it’s Pochishe Boishakh (Rabindranath’s birthday) or 23rd January (Netaji’s birthday), you will find their photos in every nook and corner, and a national flag hoisted in their honour, with patriotic songs playing in the background.
All this time, I never saw anyone celebrate the birth anniversary of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (which later transformed into the BJP). But as I passed by, I could see photos of the man — loaded with garlands — being worshipped with the same reverence as a Tagore or Bose used to be.
My grand uncle had come to visit my grandmother that day as well, and I was shocked to know that he — a man who I considered loyal to his party even in the worst of times — said that he had voted for BJP, as the Left had lost significance.
Similarly, a ground-level party worker, who was with the left for more than 35 years, is now the principal secretary for the BJP in our area. “I served the party for so many years — it gave me nothing”, said the man, who claimed to have got a hefty sum of money from the highest quarters of the party.
Where was the ideology that my grandfather taught me — one that he was so proud of? Is it so easy to switch sides, just like that? Will a state so proud of its left leaning heritage one day be ruled by the right wing?
With all these questions in mind, I sat in front of my grandfather’s photo wondering what his reaction would be to this change. Maybe like him, the ideology he espoused too does not exist anymore.