The Left Front in West Bengal could not have had it this bad in 34 years of its rule – in terms of the full-fledged, adverse media campaign against it (mainstream English and regional language media, almost all of it). Some of the print media has taken this to almost bizarre limits. For instance, one English paper (Telegraph, which has appointed itself the election manager of Mamata Banerjee / Trinamool) carried nearly banner sized front page headlines on a “tsunami” called Mamata while describing the speed with which she walks, covering more kilometers on foot than Buddhadeb Bhattacharya does in his jeep; and what she eats in order to walk that much – and her entire day’s diet is mentioned. Mamata seems more like a media candidate than that of a party. The mainstream media here seems to have put her up as the Chief Minister candidate; or the industry lobby working through the media. One candidate occupies front page banner-size headlines, and several pages within one single newspaper, including its city supplement pages.
In any other state, such ‘news’ would have been sent to the election commission as a petition on charges of a total media sell-out. It did not happen here for whatever reason. And there are inane, almost nonsensical and definitely apolitical (in tone and critical engagement) columns by obviously apolitical, urbane socialites (especially two of them, one Mr Ruchir Joshi, and another by name of Suhel Seth) who describe the Trinamool padayatras as first-person accounts (carefully mentioning how they take time out to actually get to the streets of Kolkata with the candidates, or without them, and the sense of how they are actually getting out on the streets, is important). Their accounts are focused on the inane - how a certain candidate waves his / her hands; takes sweets, flowers, etc from the crowd, how a certain candidate has given up on his board-room suits (he is an industrialist-turned politician) for a simple white dhoti kurta attire and is equally comfortable in tradition and modernity - in the board room and on the streets.
Every other day we have Mamata eulogies camouflaged as news – “she walks, he (Buddhadeb) wades on wheels.” (April 10th, 2011, Telegraph). This print media also supplements the newspaper business with ‘art’ exhibitions; and gives huge coverage to an art exhibition by one particular artiste named Shuvoprasanno who uses his brush to critique the Left showing their left arms amputated in one of his paintings. Then there is huge celebratory coverage for Mamata’s art exhibition and each of her paintings is reported to have been sold for more than a lakh. Her exhibition, meanwhile, is attended by certain well-known names in the artist fraternity. This whole affair is fairly interesting, more than elections in my home state AP ever has been – of course, in AP, many contemporary artistes prefer to stay away from politics, for most part. The point is not about what a certain artiste is painting, but the time of his exhibition and his proximity to Mamata. One would not be surprised if there was some other motive behind Telegraph’s ‘scoop’ on an exhibition of ‘fake’ Tagore paintings – the matter is being investigated now.
The electoral discourse in West Bengal is shallow today, and there is no constructive, critically engaging opposition. The opposition is only for the Communist ideology, or ‘vamvad’, as a single-point, negative agenda, which is troubling. And it speaks for the failure of the Left Front as much as it does for failure of the sense with which media needs to distance itself from political power play. Mamata’s ma, mati manush propaganda, seems to be an eyewash for the real change that she aims to bring in, or will be forced to bring in, with Congress at her neck once it comes to power. But there is no serious discussion happening on this.
This opposition to the Left and Left Front might have been significant, had there been a discourse on poverty and distress itself, with some fine research and substantiation; it would have been better still to have just people on the streets, or in villages give their opinions or even if there was a critique of seeming double-standards if it were about the gradually mushrooming shopping mall culture in Kolkata under the Left Front rule. But none of this is present in the media hate campaign not just against the Left Front, but Communist ideology itself. Of course the same papers once in a while do give space to op-eds by Left intellectuals, to probably give a semblance of being neutral, but in truth neutral they certainly are not, and it cannot be missed on whose side they have pitched themselves.
In terms of issues, only Nandigram figures occasionally, as an event, and not a process, but in Kolkata, the talk has been persistently about “change” which actually is not a change for the poor or the marginalised but for the middle classes who are looking at certain kinds of industry and benefits from fundamentalist market-ism that has swept across states such as AP, Gujarat and Bangalore. They are looking at certain kinds of job markets which, even in order to maintain a chimera of ideology (if it is seen in that sense) the Left Front rule cannot provide for them. Hence the backing for Mamata and gang comes from the section of the wealthy and urban middle classes, and the ma, maati, manush slogan here does not seem to mean the poor, marginalised of the state, because they do not figure even in candidates’ speeches (one has heard a few in Kolkata) which concentrate on Left-bashing alone.
There is not yet a blueprint for the nature of development and change promised – is it in terms of moratorium on land acquisition from farmers for industries and real estate? It does not seem so. Is it about agricultural reforms – to bring back food crops in place of commercial cropping? It does not seem so. In what way would distress migration be curbed? One does not hear about it. Most speeches of the Trinamool candidates refer to West Bengal being the most backward (even behind Bihar) in education and industry. The media added to this with the census figures stating that the state had produced fewer children in the last few years than other states. The mainstream English media linked this too to 34 years of misrule which led to migration of ‘fertile’ population from West Bengal to other states, and lack of opportunities which prevented people from having children.
Left Front in West Bengal is probably seeking reasons for such a massive sweep in favour of Mamata and her party. Is it merely her ‘street politics’ that has managed to sway almost the entire media in her favour? Was Nandigram her only and best weapon to emerge Jayalalithaa-like? If people on both the Left and other sides are reading it this way, they are perhaps mistaken. Today the poll battle is not merely, as I see it, about Mamata and the Left, per se, but a fight between different forms of economic and ideological developments. It is a concerted effort made by a section of media, supported by a certain class, against Communism. If the Left Front loses West Bengal this time, which is looking unlikely as initial reports from the ground suggest, it will take it several years to make a comeback. If it does lose we shall witness an economic change based on principles of unequal competition in an unequal global market and Kolkata will be the Hyderabad of West Bengal, developed to the liking of an increasing mass of urban upper or upwardly mobile middle class.
But it does not seem like the Left Front is going to lose in a major way as it is being predicted in most media. And it is possible that Mamata could just be a bubble built up by the media. In fact, it now seems like the bubble will burst after all.