Well, I say embargo. What happened was that Jyotipriya Mullick — him hon’ble Minister of Food and Supplies; drop your salutes here, people — merely said, in a private conversation with TMC workers, that one must refrain from socialising with people one ideologically disagrees with. So says his colleague, TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien. Besides, says he also, Mullick’s comments were taken out of context. (This is the rider without which no contemporary press-statement feels complete.)
The loyalty and spirit in O’Brien’s defence is admirable, particularly since this ‘private conversation’ was conducted at a public rally. Via microphone.
We in Kolkata have, of course, laughed ourselves silly these last few days. An entire government all a-flutter because someone emailed a scrap of political parody! The CID asked to remove anti-government cartoons from Facebook! TMC workers, haha, listen to this, TMC workers asked to turn their faces away if they meet their CPI(M) peers at tea stalls. Tea stalls, for gods’ sake! Bengal’s one-stop neutral territory, [male] community centre, and world-analysis headoffice! It is at this Mecca of bonhomie and expansive tolerance that one is supposed, literally, to turn the other cheek? Hah! And oh, as if banning dissenting newspapers from public libraries wasn’t dictatorial enough, the Chief Minister has now ‘advised’ citizens to watch entertainment channels, because news channels spread anti-government propaganda? Which breed of sheep does she think she is the supreme ruler of, exactly?
And of course, from the small minority that cares about such things, there have been suitably horrified gasps at the wave of violent misogyny in the state: The casual dismissal of rape charges — filed by the family-friend of a former Left Front Speaker of the House — as ‘attempted slander’ against the government and the city police; the instant demotion of the state’s first female Commissioner of Police, who proved those charges; and this week, TMC goons assaulting and stripping a woman in her home, then shoving her out into the streets.
In short, a very satisfactorily condescending time was had by all (except perhaps those that were directly involved in the events above). We were amazed — but not demonstrably terrified — by the ‘fascist’ overtures of our newly-elected government, deeply amused by its visible insecurity, mildly discomfited by its violence against women, and deeply embarrassed by its crass celebration of hard-won power. There is no question that Banerjee’s government deserves this condescension and this mockery. But it is the nature of this mockery, in form and in content, and not Banerjee’s government, that indexes the imminent death of Bengal’s democracy.
There is, of course, no question that Banerjee’s government deserves this condescension, this mockery. But if the labels — fascist, totalitarian, dictatorial — we scornfully applied to our government are in fact accurate, then that scorn should have been sandwiched between knee-knocking fear. Which is rather conspicuously absent. Most social media activism against the spate of malicious insanity above has had a strong element of parody. Fun is being poked, the offending cartoons and new ones are being given ether-time in considerable excess of their wit, and resident citizens are predicting each others’ imminent arrests for so doing. What appears to have been lost in this general air of democratic merry-making is the realisation that if we — a rather small socioeconomic section of the Bengal electorate — are not footing our ‘fascist’ government’s fear bill, then someone else is. Who might that be?
Before fetching our deerstalker, let us consider our new CM briefly. What is Mamata Banerjee, but an ideological tabula rasa upon which we have projected all our aspirations? Well, for one, she is the embodiment of that old adage, “the more it changes, the more it remains the same thing”. The urbane modernity of the internet-enabled, socially conscious demography have been outraged by the touch of the tantrum-prone desperado in Didi’s style of government, but their implied assumption that she is introducing new horrors in Bengal’s political horizons is alarmingly — and I use the word advisedly — naive. This comically horrific whip-cracking has been the hallmark of our administration in rural, suburban and urban fringes for as long as Mamata Banerjee has existed politically, and she has learnt her lessons well. The only difference between her reign and that of the CPI(M)-led Left Front, apart from the former’s terrible party infrastructure, is that Mamata belongs to the social class dismissively labelled “chhotolok” – the crass lower classes – and hasn’t quite learned that the Kolkata demography requires a few cushions to soften the blow of living in a totalitarian regime. Besides, she lacks, or perhaps deliberately eschews, the finesse granted by velvet gloves on even the bloodiest iron fists. Given that she grew up in a political climate where the right to live safely in a neighbourhood, to enrol one’s children in school, to get food aid from the ration shops, hell, to register one’s existence with the authorities, depended on one’s political loyalties, she might well be bewildered and infuriated that the rules of power appear to have changed just when, after decades of being beaten bloody and starved of privileges, she and her party have ascended the throne.
Of course, they haven’t — such rules seldom do — and sooner rather than later, her politically green, power-drunk party will work this out and start padding their fists. With cushions made of organic fibre and embroidered with ethnic needlework. And the People’s Ire of the Metropolitan Area will slowly subside into a comfortable lull of ignorance and indifference about those that shall continue to foot the fear bill, with blood, sweat, and empty stomachs.
Till then, however, we should keep protesting loudly and observe closely as the government pays us no heed at all. It will be good practice for later.