Published on April 26, 2016, Indian Express
The battle that changed the course of Indian history is now memorialised by an ordinary white cement pillar and a yellow bust of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last nawab of Bengal, who was betrayed by his own general, Mir Jafar, in the battle against Robert Clive of the East India Company in 1757.
It’s almost as if the rest of India has turned its back on Plassey, a nondescript village in deep Bengal, embedded in the undifferentiated green of paddy, coconut and bamboo. Much better to bury the past than suffer the mortification of remembrance. So much easier to marvel at the enormous Corinthian pillars of the Hazarduari Palace less than 50 km away in Murshidabad — as if the British Museum had been relocated in the sweltering tropics on the banks of the Bhagirathi river — than to excavate the reasons for that betrayal. Greed, vaulting ambition and the inability to see the big picture.
It’s as if, says Sujan Roy, caretaker of the 1907-built inspection bungalow less than 100 yards away from the memorial, one was speaking of the present. “We lost that battle in 1757, but we don’t seem to have learnt much from it. Today, too, politicians jump parties. For example, in 2011, the Congress and Trinamool fought the elections together. Today, it is the Congress and the Left Front. Worse, once they win, they never come back to their constituents,” he said.
That last line has become a bit of a drumbeat in the ongoing 2016 election, but it hides a deeper truth. In north and central Bengal, from the hills and valleys of Darjeeling and Cooch Behar to Malda and Murshidabad — a region which takes care of 76 seats out of 294 in the West Bengal state assembly — the ruling Trinamool Congress has been further disjointed by the coming together of the Left Front and the Congress, traditionally influential in this region.
But what is interesting is that the Left-Congress “jot” or alliance is forcing open the cracks even in southern Bengal, where incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee holds much greater sway. She had swept the panchayat elections in these parts in 2013. In Bengal, it is said that those who control the panchayats control the state.
But in the last few weeks, especially in the wake of the “Narada” news sting in which her party leaders are seen to be taking bribes and the collapse of the flyover in Kolkata, Banerjee seems to be somewhat on the backfoot. Her party leaders have reminded people of their duty to vote for the Trinamool, otherwise their social benefits may be recalled. In Birbhum district, Trinamool leaders are openly squabbling. Banerjee has come closest to an apology, asking the people to vote her back in, give her a chance, otherwise she won’t be able to finish “their work”.
What’s going on in Bengal? Only a foolish man would predict an election, but it’s clear that the rising tide of expectations, fuelled by the instant karma promised by TV, has given the Left-Congress partnership a fighting chance. It’s being called a “kaante ki takkar”, a tight fight. Conversations in tea stalls and paan shops meander equally between the “need to have Mamata Banerjee back as her government has done enormous good work” and “the lakhs in corruption that her close aides have eaten up in the chit fund scams that have destroyed Bengal”.
The fact that the Left-Congress alliance is back in the fight is in itself an incredible sign. Barely a couple of months ago, both parties had been down and out, despondent about their respective fates, unwilling to defy their central leaderships who disapproved of such a potential alliance. But as the ground began to slip rapidly from beneath their feet, both the Congress and the Left realised that if they didn’t fight together to take on the Trinamool, they would be finished.
Today, it is as if the Left cadre has been galvanised for the battle of their lives. Red hammer-and-sickle flags are out everywhere, alongside the Congress “hand” of course, but also measure for measure, taking on the Trinamool’s “flower and leaf”.
In north and central Bengal, agriculture remains the chief source of employment as well as a fallback option when other dreams don’t work. But as you hit the Grand Trunk Road, and agriculture gives way to the industrial belt of Asansol-Durgapur, students of Burdwan University told me that jobs and joblessness remained on top of their minds.
According to the West Bengal government, an economic revival is already in the works — both the economy and the industrial sector grew faster than the national average, as did per capita income. Economists point out that five years of rule isn’t enough to turn things around, that Banerjee needs more time.
But deaths in the north Bengal tea belt, allegedly due to starvation, have shocked and horrified Bengalis. Political analysts believe that the overweening greed among several of Banerjee’s aides, including those who allegedly promoted the chit fund scam, has damaged her credibility, even if she is honest herself.
None of this may have mattered as much until a few weeks ago, before the Left-Congress alliance. Bengal’s people, from before the time of Mir Jafar and Siraj-ud-Daulah, are used to graft and greed, although that does not prevent them from continuing to hope. And, now, since the two former political enemies have come together, voters have begun to dare look at alternatives.
As for the pathetic monument that memorialises the Battle of Plassey, one hopes that the new government considers having a sense of history as important as it takes its everyday, political present. The Archaeological Survey of India representative at the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad told me that nearly five lakh people, mostly from mofussil Bengal, wander through the galleries of the palace every year. The half-finished buildings begun by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee several years ago, which are supposed to house a permanent exhibit, must be completed.
Returning to Plassey — or Palashi, as the Bengalis have it — and confronting our worst fears, including those of defeat and failure, may finally allow us to move on.
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