Yesterday marked 30 years of continuous rule by the left in West Bengal. Two images in my mind tell me all I need to know about the benefits or otherwise of that long uninterrupted spell of governance or otherwise.
One is Nandigram. The questioning of what passes for 'development', the violence and killing that came as answer ... what else is there to say? Justice and development, courtesy West Bengal's left front government: for better or worse, embodied forever in my mind by the thought of a government turning on its own people. A government that claims to stand for the people, turning on its people.
The second is from a deserted crossroad in Purulia district, eight years ago. A friend was taking me from one village to another on his motorbike, and we stopped at this dusty intersection for a cup of chai. Also sitting there, incongruously, was a dapper little man, spiffily dressed and thirty-something, reading a newspaper and drinking chai as well.
My friend greeted him. He mumbled something and nodded, then went back to his paper. Afterwards, I asked my friend about him. "Oh," said my friend, "he's a teacher in the government school." (Which, I later learned, is about 10 km away.)
Hmm. So at mid-morning on a weekday in the middle of March, why was this teacher lounging here, drinking chai, instead of teaching students at his school? "Oh," said my friend, chuckling at the city-bred innocence of my questions, "he never goes to the school! Well, except once a month, when he reports there to collect his pay!"
Education, courtesy West Bengal's left front government: for better or worse, embodied forever in my mind by the memory of that chai-sipping 'schoolteacher'.
So why has such a regime lasted 30 years?
Many reasons I can think of, but here's the one that probably disturbs me most: the failure of the right to offer a credible alternative to the voter who goes to the polls. Not just in West Bengal, but all over this country.
Yet for too long in this country, we heard only, or largely, the voice of the left. That's why the 'socialism' that we enshrined in our Constitution. That's why the peculiar tyranny that political parties in this country must swear by socialism if they want to be recognised. That much sworn, of course parties interpret that word as they wish. But where does that leave a rightist party that repudiates socialism, that even finds it repugnant, and wants to be true to itself - as we would want any party to be? What is such a party to do?
The remnants of Minoo Masani's old Swatantra Party, guided by the excellent S V Raju, is actually trying to challenge this. They want to register a political party that rejects socialism. But as Raju wrote to Mint recently, "under current law, no party that refuses to accept socialism can get registered as a political party." Why should they be ideologically hamstrung by swearing allegiance to an idea they reject? Raju has gone to court to challenge this. But how absurd that it takes a fight in court to simply hold true to your convictions! I wish courage and stamina to these men in what will be a long battle: they filed their petition in 1996!
But with that said, there's a flip side to the failure. The right parties that have found prominence in this country - that even managed to form a coalition at the Centre for five years - are unable to escape the seductive charm of the appeal along religious lines. No, it's worse. It's not that they are unable to escape it, it's that they crave it. That they know no other way to be. They give us nationalism equated to religion, and dress that up as rightist thinking.
You'd think a mere glance across our western border would be enough to understand the great danger of, the utter hoax of, religious nationalism. But clearly it isn't. We have those in our country who aspire only to mirror the sickness in Pakistan. And there lies a great irony of modern India.
Years of Congress rule, or misrule, left Indians like me weary, despondent and longing for a change. Poverty, corruption, inefficiency, unaccountability, injustice, the despotism of the Emergency - these were the things that came to define India under the Congress. So Indians like me welcomed the rise of the BJP: for the first time, here was a national alternative to the Congress. Here was hope of deliverance from the many ills of the Congress brand of socialism. Here was hope for true democracy, in the sense of a strong and vibrant right.
Yet in power, the BJP proved itself no less than a Congress clone, and in many ways even worse. If you can believe that. This party was just as indifferent to corruption and poverty and unaccountability, just as unwilling to tackle injustice, but just as willing to perpetrate it. Indeed: if the Congress plumbed new depths of Indian evil with the Delhi massacres of 1984, the BJP plumbed the same depths in Gujarat in 2002. And their own special icing on top was the way they rode to power on religious appeals, subtle and not-so-subtle. The way they hold fast to those appeals.
The irony, the tragedy, is that this has left us with no alternative, no hope. The Congress failed us so we turned 'right', to the BJP. The BJP failed us, so where do we turn? Where is the party that will shun both socialism and religion and give us a credible Indian right? Fighting for its ideology in the High Court, that's where.
That being so, I remain confident of seeing at least one sight when I next travel past that junction in Purulia. That same dapper schoolteacher, or perhaps his successor, will be there sipping chai instead of teaching Indian kids. Instead of doing the Indian job he collects wages to do.