When personality triumphs reason

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When personality triumphs reason

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 | Shikha Mukerjee


In West Bengal, truth has really metamorphosed into the persona of the leader. Challenging the leader has now become tantamount to challenging the truth

There is no disputing that, around West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee over many years and several encounters, a cult of personality has formed, that was built on truth claims that produced a powerful bond between her and a significantly large section of the masses. Her cult status is captured vividly in the description Agni Kanya; literally it would translate into something as commonplace as ‘firebrand’, but that is not quite its significance in the always turbulent and more recently tempestuous politics of West Bengal.

It used to be said that when london sneezed, Kolkata caught a cold, so loyal where the babus to the Empire. The habits seem to die hard. left students’ organisations, including the Students Federation of India, demonstrated in New Delhi outside the Yojana Bhavan against Ms Banerjee. They disbelieved her explanation that Sudipto Gupta has died an accidental death. They demanded an independent inquiry into the killing in police custody. The fall-out: Widespread ransacking, arson, assault on party offices and leaders of the CPI(M), its left allies and the Congress.

In politics, the cult of the personality is associated with theatre, performance and, above all, drama. It stirs up emotions by prodding memories; in the case of Ms Banerjee and West Bengal, the memories of her engagement with ‘CPM violence’, be it her encounters with the police or the cadres of the CPI(M). In public memory, the police and the cadres became the same, not just interchangeable, as the cult of Ms Banerjee blossomed and spread till it eventually became synonymous with poriborton or transformation.

So, politics and the persona of the leader were fused into one truth, poriborton. That poriborton guaranteed a politics-free Government that would deliver efficient governance, be it by the police, bureaucracy, education institutions or any other service that the State was mandated to provide to the people is now blissfully forgotten, as the Presidency University's Vice Chancellor Malabika Sirkar revealed.

There is no connection between Presidency University and the demonstrators in New Delhi and yet, the premises of this institution that epitomised Ms Banerjee's promise of poriborton in West Bengal's education system was broken into, its students and teachers and staff were roughed up and ransacked by flag-bearers of the Trinamool Congress, while the police stood by as they had “no orders”. The cult needed targets and Presidency University was a potent symbol of the left's past. The outspoken condemnation by the Vice Chancellor has provoked the Trinamool Congress to verbally attack her, accusing her of impropriety and by implication falsehood.

The truth is metamorphosed into the persona of the leader. So, challenging the leader by word or action is tantamount to challenging the truth. It was audacious, therefore, for the rag-tag of left student activists, to stage a demonstration at the gates of Yojana Bhavan in New Delhi. It was guaranteed to produce the reaction that it did: One-sided escalating violence that the Trinamool Congress threatened could spin out of control.

The demonstrators’ fault was that they challenged the truth of Ms Banerjee's statement on the killing of Sudipto Gupta in police custody as the prison van or rather the bus entered Presidency Jail compound. To the demonstrators, the custodial death was not an accident. To the demonstrators, Sudipto's death was not a “small incident” or an ‘insignificant matter’.

As a very senior politician, Ms Banerjee would have been better served if she could, in fact, have ensured a violence-free fall-out to her precipitate decision to walk through demonstrators in New Delhi. As a charismatic leader with a cult following, it was perhaps impossible for her to do so.

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