As the election results started coming in on Friday the 13th, and the spectacular rout of the Left Front in West Bengal became clear, my mind went back to the spring of 1977. I was a student of St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, too young to vote, but old enough to recognize the significance of the election then being conducted. This followed the lifting of a State of Emergency, during which Opposition politicians had been put in prison and the democratic rights of citizens withdrawn.
While in jail, the leaders and cadres of parties opposed to the Congress of Indira Gandhi had suppressed their differences—personal and ideological—and formed a united Janata Party. The leader asked to campaign in Delhi University was Atal Behari Vajpayee, in part because the university had long been a stronghold of the Jana Sangh’s youth wing.
I went to hear Vajpayee speak at the Maurice Nagar Chowk. He spoke brilliantly, although at this distance in time I cannot recall exactly what he said. We were charmed and moved by his oratory, but still thought it was in a losing cause. The Congress Party had never lost a General Election—why would it do so now?
Insulated in our hostels, playing cricket and playing the guitar, the students of St. Stephen’s College had not been exposed to the horrors of the Emergency. But tens of millions of other Indians had. These now came out to vote for anyone but Indira. The Congress lost all seats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and most seats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan as well.
The Congress’s defeat in the General Elections of 1977 was unexpected; the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal this May expected. Still, there are some notable parallels. For one thing, a party in power for three decades had finally been unseated. For another, the wave had swept away all the stalwarts on the losing (previously ruling) side. Even Mamata Banerjee did not think that Buddhadev Bhattacharya would lose his own seat. (This was as surprising as the defeat of Indira Gandhi in her own pocket borough of Rae Bareilly in 1977.) Finally, both elections witnessed the release of a suppressed anger, a mass anger, of citizens subject to the actions of an increasingly arbritrary and brutal state. Turkman Gate (where houses of poor Muslims were demolished) and Moradabad (where poor Muslims and Hindus were dragged away to be vasectomized) were to Indira’s Congress what Nandigram and Singur became to Buddhadev’s Left Front.
So, hearing of the West Bengal results, I was reminded of the Lok Sabha elections of 1977. But as the day wore on, another and possibly more relevant parallel came to mind. This was with the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh in 1983. When the Congress lost the General Elections in 1977, it still won 41 out of 42 seats in Andhra. In this state it seemed unconquerable—until one maverick came along to challenge it.
This man was the film actor Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao. ‘NTR’ (as he was popularly known) had previously shown little interest in politics. His own films dealt with mythological rather than social themes. But when Rajiv Gandhi, then Congress General Secretary, scolded the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh at Hyderabad airport, NTR was outraged. By insulting the elected head of the State, this political novice from New Delhi, who owed his position solely to his lineage, had insulted the Telugu people themselves.
Rama Rao now put his acting career on hold, and ventured into politics. He began a Telugu Desam Party, which participated in the next Assembly elections. Political commentators wrote off the TDP at birth. It had no structure, no organization, no ideology. It was led by a man whose appearance and personality combined the mystic and the comic. The Congress, on the other hand, had deep roots in the Andhra country. T. Prakasam, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, N. G. Ranga, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan—there was a long list of Telugu-speaking patriots of national renown, all associated with the Congress Party.
Not for the first or last time, the pundits of the press called it wrong. The Congress in Andhra was vanquished by a man dressed in saffron who travelled in a van dressed up as a chariot. The imagery was religious, but the message was resolutely political. NTR stood for the self-respect of the Andhras. They were not vassals of rulers from the North but a proud and ancient people, with a record of achievement in literature, music, architecture, the arts, and—not least—state-making. Such was the past; in the present, however, Congressmen in Hyderabad had become chamchas of their bosses in New Delhi. It had thus fallen to NTR to restore pride in the collective and combined history of the Telugu speaking people.
Mamata Banerjee is a woman, not a man. She is a lifelong political activist, not a film star who turned reluctantly to politics. Still, there remains one striking parallel between Andhra Pradesh in 1983 and West Bengal in 2011. In both cases, an individual took on a vast, complex, well-funded and socially embedded political organization. In both cases, the will of the person proved superior to the power of the party.
This second parallel is perhaps more plausible than the first. This compares like to like—one state election to another, rather than a state election to a national election. In 2011, the Left Front had been in power for thirty-four years in West Bengal. When NTR decided on a change of career, the Congress had been undefeated in Andhra Pradesh since Independence. The opposition to one-party rule took shape in the form, above all, of a person. Charles De Gaulle mistakenly believed France to be an extension of himself. But the Trinamool would be nothing without Mamata. The TDP was created from scratch by NTR. The organization was secondary to the leader, indeed the organization was subsumed by the leader, whose individual charisma and courage triumphed over the party that controlled their state.
In the early afternoon of the 13th, the television channels offered a comparison of their own. Mamata Banerjee, they said, was the Indian Lech Walesa. The dockyard leader also came from a modest social background, and represented the interests of the proletariat more reliably than the Communists who were in power in Poland. In both respects he was akin to the Didi of Kalighat.
Mamata Banerjee’s own supporters may see her win as sui generis—as having no precursors of any kind. To be sure, her personality is, so to say, her own, while the victory of the TMC-led alliance is a product of the distinctive history of West Bengal. Still, each of the three comparisons offered here is suggestive—up to a point. Each allows us to see the West Bengal elections in a fresh light. Like that of the Janata Party, the victory of Mamata and the TMC is a product of widespread popular anger against authoritarian rule; like that of NTR, it is an affirmation of an individual’s will against the power of an organization; like that of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, it shames the betrayal of the people by Communists who claimed to be speaking in the name of the people.
One last point—which must be made, even at the risk of seeming to spoil the party. Janata in 1977, NTR in 1983, and Solidarity and Walesa after 1989—all won elections they would not, a year or two previously, have expected to win. (In the first and third instances, these were elections which, a year or two previously, they would not have thought would be held.) In all cases, the popular enthusiasm that sustained and nourished them in opposition dissipated soon after they came to office. The Janata Party, for India; NTR and the TDP, for Andhra; and Lech Walesa and his party, for Poland—all provided administrations lacking in focus and intent. If Mamata Banerjee and her TMC emulate them in this respect, they could, quite quickly, find themselves in Opposition once more.