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West Bengal : Changing Colours

Posted on Mar 15 2014 | IBNS

By Deepak Parvatiyar, West Bengal : Changing Colours Changing Challenges By Sitaram Sharma, Publisher: Rupa Publications, Price: Rs 295

Sitaram Sharma's "West Bengal: Changing Colours Changing Challenges" offers a ringside view of the changing political scene in West Bengal - one of the last bastions of the Communists in the country - in the last half century. It reflects on the prevailing complexities of the socio-economic and political environment in the state and attempts to explore the factors that lay behind the success of the Left in 1977 and their return to power in election after election till 2011, and identifies the influx of refugees from East Pakistan as an important factor for Red ruling the state for so long.

The book suggests that the government's failure to rehabilitate the refugees, whose numbers kept increasing and by the 1960s crossed five million, resulted in their opting for the communists who appeared to be the only viable opposition at that time. Another reason for the rise of the Left in West Bengal, according to the book, was the split in the state Congress after the general elections in 1967.

With a section under Ajoy Mukherji, a Congress leader famous for his role in the Quit India movement of 1942 forming a separate party, and the support of the CPI (M) which emerged as the largest party in elections in the state, in 1967 and 1969 two successive attempts were made to form governments in West Bengal. Both the governments were short lived and were ultimately dismissed that resulted in the state being brought under President's rule. Emergency was the final nail in the Congress's coffin in the state and in the 1977 elections the Left was elected with a clear majority.

The book claims the "excellent work" done by the Left government in the sphere of land reforms in its initial years - 1977 to 1987 - created the foundation on which the Left front was able to win in successive elections.

The fading of the Red and the ascendance of Green has been dealt in detain in the book with the author covering the Singur and Nandigram episodes in fairly great detail. Of particular interest and of great value to those who would be writing the history of this period is an account given by the author of the negotiations to settle the dispute over the Singur land that were carried on between the Left Front government and Mamata Bannerjee with the then governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi acting as a mediator and Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee also later being roped in as an adviser to the Governor. However the talks failed. Gopalkrishna Gandhi was sorry because he genuinely wanted a settlement.

"The bottom line was that the failed talks turned out to be a spring board for Mamata who never looked back", concludes the author, who feels the slogan of Ma Mati Manush had touched a chord in hearts and minds of the people.

Written more from a journalist's perspective rather than of a historian's, the book makes an interesting reading also because of the first hand anecdotes of the author - a journalist, diplomat (Sharma is the honorary Consul of the Republic of Belarus), and a peace activist. Consider this: "I recall a story of Indira Gandhi and the war in which I was a silent observer. I was a member of a delegation of the Small Newspapers Association which had an appointment with the prime minister on the evening of 3 December 1971.......During the meeting with the prime minister, a slip was passed to her. She read it, did not react and continued in her affable style. We later learnt that the note contained the news that Pakistan had started a war by attacking five of India's air bases..."

Sitaram Sharma's book offers an insight into the identity and culture of West Bengal and offers a lucid understanding of the current developments in the state.

(The view expressed in the article is of the writer, not of IBNS)

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