Lakshman Seth and the Sheriff of Nandigram: Raghu Karnad


This is a guest post by RAGHU KARNAD

May 17, 2009
Beauty is all about the details, and these beautiful election results keep parading out sweet new details for our appreciation. What I’m currently delighted about is the voters of Tamluk in West Bengal dispatching their Communist MP, Lakshman Seth.

Seth has been in the Lok Sabha since 1998, stashin’ away the crores and adding fortifications to his eerie headquarters in Haldia. People say he did a good job of developing the Haldia port. Sure enough, if the business of America is business, then the industriousness of Lakshman Seth is directed purely towards industrialization. How come? Seth is also Chairman of the Haldia Development Authority. Because he allegedly gets a cut out of every industrial operation on his turf (what we dissertation-writers call ‘rent-seeking’). There’s a theory that this is why Nandigram was chosen as the site for the Salim plant, and why the resistance was so bitterly punished when the siege fell (but this is just very plausible hearsay).

I was in Nandigram last year when panchayat elections were being held. Seth’s Sheriff of Nottingham — a police inspector named Debasis Chakrabarty — was in fine form. The party had promised to withdraw him for the duration of the polling, but he was strutting the stage like John Gielgud. He was followed, as he always is, by a personal videographer: capturing his brutishness for the memories, I guess. I watched him as he publically framed a colleague, a CRPF officer who had stopped CPI(M) mob from lynching two Trinamool men.

And I heard a bit from Lakshman Seth directly, too. I was interviewing the CRPF commander, Alok Raj, who had descended on the district, patrolling continuously to keep the peace. A brave man, possibly a hero. In the middle of the interview, Raj’s phone rings: Lakshman Seth. Raj puts the phone’s loudspeaker on, so that all the reporters who have piled into my scene can hear Seth command him to remain in his camp. Raj refuses. Seth threatens him. Raj hangs up. Later, Seth brings charges of insubordination against Raj in front of the CRPF high command.

The CPI(M) was pretty much wallopped in the polls, losing a third of the 2,303 panchayats they had controlled, including those in Nandigram. At the time I — and everybody else — wrote that this couldn’t bode well for the Lok Sabha elections. But the Tamluk party committee changed nothing about its losing formula: first they opposed the Politburo’s limp attempt to give the ticket to somebody else, and the ticket went back to Seth. Then they let Seth release his wolves on Nandigram again, and the grungy district hospital was flooded again with the victims of nighttime shootings and beatings. And once again, they lost, and Seth is finally out of power (and so is everybody else).

The thing about men like Seth — “strongmen” to the media, but to me something more like feudal lords in the industrial age — is that after a decade, their control of a district apparatus is so strong, it is impossible for even the party’s central command to oppose them. To purge a guy like Seth might require a declaration of inter-party warfare, a war in which he would obtain as many allies as you. He keeps his district in the party-fold, so it is better for you to just shut up and mind your biznazz on Alimuddin Street.

Which is why I wonder if the K.O.-punch that the CPI(M) just took in West Bengal signals the end of its road — or whether it signals renewed possibilities, a chance to cut off the Lakshman Seths in large numbers and liberate itself from the tyranny of the grassroots. Certainly the party wasn’t going to win Nandigram polls at any level until Seth was gone, even if they tried to do it at gunpoint. Now they have a chance to replace him with somebody for whom the electorate feels something less than hysterical resentment. The same argument may apply to the rest of their incumbents. Cue the news-y closing line: for the CPI(M), its time to start injecting fresh blood, and stop spilling it.

May 27, 2009
Update: as further indication that this election could be chemo for the CPI(M) — ending the malignancy without killing the party — the Telegraph reports today that the CM wants to sack Seth’s Chairmanship of the HDA.

One thought on “Lakshman Seth and the Sheriff of Nandigram: Raghu Karnad”

  1. Thanks, Raghu. Yes, it was a beautiful result – as it so often is when the mighty and the arrogant fall. And ‘feudal lord in an industrial age’ is a very precise description of Lakshman Seth, and hundreds of other petty dictators who keep the CPM political machine running in West Bengal. His fall was, above all, a triumphant vindication of the struggles in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-07.

    Renewed possibilities…well, I must confess I’m sceptical about the possibility of renewal within the CPM, or at any rate its West Bengal branch, which seems to me rotten to the core. Where will the fresh blood you hope for come from? The internal structure of the West Bengal CPM has been hollowed our systematically, and there really seems to be nothing at all left there but a formidable machine geared to the preservation of control at all levels – bereft of ideas, principles, and imagination. I don’t know if there’s any form of political chemotherapy that will work: the malignancy is everywhere, from the tithe-collectors who extort compulsory and regular contributions to the party funds, to the SFI activists who routinely beat up opposition students in colleges, and try to impose dress codes on women students, to hospitals starved of funding and equipment and controlled by party patronage, and a public health system among the very worst in the world, to academic appointments monitored, doctored and controlled by the party elite and their hangers-on, to the cadres who beat up and intimidate potential Opposition voters prior to elections, to a local CITU that strangles any signs of real workers’ politics…the list is, quite literally, endless.

    Losing power, and losing it comprehensively, in 2011, might help the CPM. Even there, though, I can’t see it happening without a very ugly process: Mamata may well unleash savage revenge for all these years of repression, and the cadres may then leave the CPM en masse, leaving in their wake nothing but a broken, terrorized shell of a party – in other words, something like what the CPM has reduced all dissenting voices to over the last two decades. This is not a pretty scenario – but it may well happen. And if it doesn’t happen, and the CPM manages miraculously to retain power, I don’t see any hopes whatsoever of any change other than the purely cosmetic. In West Bengal at least, the CPM’s power has to be comprehensively destroyed at all levels if it is to have even the faintest chance of positive renewal – and, of course, the more likely outcome of such destruction is political death. None of this is going to be nice – but all of it will simply be the result of processes initiated by the CPM itself.

    I’m no Trinamul supporter, and I remain sceptical about the hopes many left-minded people seem to have of them – witness the way ex-Naxals and progressive activists have flocked to their ranks. Unlike the Communists of earlier generations, who led some of the most significant movements of their time, often with courage and commitment, the Trinamul IS an entirely opportunistic party, with no self-definition other than being anti-CPM. Mamata’s alliance with the movements in Nandigram and Singur were driven purely by this.

    But we do need to take note of this (apparent) irony – the CPM is, unambiguously, the party of the Right in West Bengal, and whatever the TMC’s pathologies, it stands firmly to the left of the CPM – which is saying nothing much, because so would a lamp-post, in today’s West Bengal. I don’t hold much hope for the transformation of the TMC into a radical-democratic force, which is what the state needs so desperately at the moment – but positive energies are more likely to come from the TMC (or shall we say less unlikely) than from this ‘Left’. I’d rather see an independent party of the Left emerge in West Bengal, that can move beyond the TMC, but that’s just a dream. The point, however, is that the machinery of corruption and coercion within the West Bengal CPM is just too entrenched to admit of internal reform. The leadership of the West Bengal unit is, more than any other political force in the whole country (and I mean this quite literally) the agent of big business, and thoroughly and completely authoritarian. And the rot inside the party doesn’t end or even begin with the leadership – it’s in the rank and file. Devika’s posts about Kerala on this blog tell us of significant churning and rebellion at the grassroots level within the CPM there – it may lead nowhere but at least it’s happening. I doubt there are any equivalents in West Bengal. I doubt there’s anything left to salvage.

    Saying all this gives me no pleasure – there were times when things were different, certainly, there were times when the CPM (and, much more, the earlier undivided CPI) stood for popular struggle and justice, and viewed in the long term, it’s difficult to see the hollowing out of the Left as anything other than tragedy. More immediately, of course, it’s pure, darkly comic farce. And in the short term, as your post makes clear, there’s also much to celebrate in Humpty Dumpty’s fall. Let me put it rhetorically, and against the sadness I myself occasionally feel: the complete erasure of the CPM with all its traditions, good as well as bad, is unequivocally a price worth paying for Lakshman Seth’s fall, to which the only legitimate reaction is joy, triumph, and an appreciation of the beauty of it all, which came through so well in your post.

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