Notes From an Old Leftist in Fading Red Bengal

by Robert Hirschfield Jun 27, 2010
Robert Hirschfield reflects on his “low grade affection” for a political party in India and how political change is yet one more filter through which to look at place.

A FEW MONTHS ago, waves of trucks from rural West Bengal flying red flags spotted with hammers and sickles converged on the Maidan in Calcutta.

The India of adoration to Shiva, Kali, and Microsoft Word suddenly vanished. Was I in Nicaragua? Romania? Was I young again?

There was a picture in the papers when I arrived of a group of white-haired old men giving the clench-fisted communist salute to a white-haired dead man, their comrade, Jyoti Basu. Basu was for many years West Bengal’s Chief Minister.

The shot resembled a relic from some Communist Bloc archive. Or a still from a filmmaker’s political ghost story. But not a Bollywood filmmaker. Too grim for Bollywood.

Strange to think of the wintry clenched fist in West Bengal with its gentle ponds and coconut trees. The CPIM (Communist Party of India Marxist) has ruled West Bengal for the past thirty three years. I realize this is obscene.

There is something wrong with my feeling nostalgic for all the years I never even knew the CPIM was in power in Bengal. Communist parties with actual ruling Secretariats and cadre who know how to spit out the word “reactionary” from the appropriate place deep in the intestines, are not easy to come by in our post-red world.

The CPIM is widely expected to be defeated by Mamata Banerjee, India’s Minister of Railways, and her populist Tiranmool Party in next year’s elections. This doesn’t entirely please me. Bengalis hear this and say, “Are you crazy?” That helps ground me.

I see them fussing over the grass in their ideological cemetery. Don’t they know they themselves are among the dead?

I hated the old Communist parties whose dreary exhortations on class politics fell on our heads like acid rain.

But I admit to a low-grade affection for the CPIM. I see them fussing over the grass in their ideological cemetery. Don’t they know they themselves are among the dead?

My apologies to the people of Bengal who under Communist rule have seen their state remain among India’s poorest. To be fair, the CPIM put through land reform in its early years, expanded education, made West Bengal India’s first state to have a Minister of Environment. But an eternity of incumbency has led, people say, to complacency, to the mislaying of its political compass, to incompetence.

Everywhere I go in Calcutta I am chased by hammers and sickles. What if Mamata, humbly assembled in a white sari and flip-flops in her posters, but said to be an autocrat, launches a campaign to change street names? Gone Karl Marx Street. Gone Lenin Street. Gone Ho Chi Min Street. Gone my sly smile of topographical vindication. Our victories have been few.

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