Bengal’s election results may have been a verdict on the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and how it fared in 294 constituencies but in essence this is really a victory for just one person – Mamata Banerjee. As Banerjee’s second term in office takes off, a comparison with Bengal’s first chief minister might throw interesting light on the state’s propensity to vote for charismatic leaders, up and above the political parties they represent, and its implications for the state and its people. Few Bengalis remember the name of Bengal’s first chief minister, a fiery politician, better known as Sher-e-Bangla. He was as loved and popular as Banerjee is now but the consequences of the landslide victory, which armed him for two terms in office, were not pleasant for Bengal and hence, the warning.
Even as a history enthusiast, I did not know much about Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq. I first read about him while doing my master’s. Since then, however, his politics has fascinated me. I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on his two tenures as chief minister, from 1937 to 1943. The years I spent researching on Huq, in Calcutta, Delhi, Dhaka, London and Cambridge, and writing about him, coincided with Banerjee’s final phase of struggle against the Left and her mercurial rise since 2011. Several times, and quite effortlessly, I could trace similarities in personalities between the two politicians. Admittedly, the world of politics was vastly different in the late 1930s but there are significant takeaways in this comparison.
The Government of India Act 1935, the longest Act passed by the British parliament, had granted provincial autonomy to India. In 1936-1937, elections were held and provinces all across India voted all-Indian ministries to power. In Bengal, the Act expanded the electorate by 600%. This enabled a rural leader like Huq, party head of Krishak Proja Party (KPP), in his late sixties, to audaciously declare that he would contest from any constituency that Khwaja Nazimuddin, a Muslim Leaguer would contest from. Nazimuddin chose Patuakhali (now in Bangladesh), a constituency situated within his extensive zamindari and still lost. Huq had compared the contest to the Battle of Plassey and Battle of Waterloo. Huq’s historical references, a mainstay of his politics, were as common as Banerjee’s Tagore and Vivekananda citations. Unlike the Bose brothers (Sarat Chandra Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose), who were born into affluence and other notable Muslim politicians who, almost always, came from the landed gentry, Huq had humble beginnings. Banerjee too stands out in this regard, especially when compared with chief ministers like Jyoti Basu and Siddhartha Shankar Ray. While they are the bhadralok, Banerjee is anything but respectable.
Interestingly though, for the unlettered peasants of Bengal, main support base for Huq and now Banerjee, history war lessons and Tagore’s prose meant and still mean nothing. So, while Huq’s speeches were aimed at the middle class and the elite, with whom he had to negotiate political business, his strength lay in his common man credentials. These credentials Huq prized over everything else. So, in his election campaigns, he would ask for muri and phaane bhaat from villagers, and rhetorically ask if Nazimuddin could cross pole bridges like him. Banerjee won her second term in office but she is still the symbol of austerity and as is clear from her recent tweets, she intends to keep it that way.
In lieu of ideology
In 2011, Banerjee ran on one agenda, the Left must go. Of course, she promised development for Bengal and she delivered rather well but that can hardly be called an ideology or something specific to TMC. Can a party ever win by promising under-development? As is evident from the brief description of Huq’s election campaign, he too, did not have an ideology. His sole motive was to defeat Nazimuddin. Ideologically entrenched communist rule in Bengal left it as one of the most backward states in India, so it may not be essentially a blessing but it checks authoritarianism. In 2011, Banerjee saw her victory as a victory for democracy. But clearly there is no way to understand why she saw censoring newspapers in government funded libraries and arrest of Jadavpur University professor, on the ground of sharing cartoons of Banerjee, as protection of that said democracy. Inconsistency is not new to the political profession but the confidence with which she dismissed criticism was alarming. The national and international media hinted towards her defeat in 2016. Alas, the political predictions!
A quick flash back to Huq and see if he was as mercurial as Banerjee, if not more. British Reforms Officer, L. G. Pinnell, in his diary, calls Huq “amoral.” Governor John Anderson, who finally invited him to become the chief minister, thought that Huq was “completely devoid of principle.” Yet Huq took office in April 1937. In the midst of strikes and demand for the release of political prisoners from all quarters and a hard-to-pass bill that would abolish zamindari, Huq’s only solid electoral promise was that he defected from the KPP and joined the Bengal Muslim League by the end of the year. Huq had breathed life into the KPP and it made his victory possible but then he sabotaged its other leaders and rendered the party defunct within some years. His politics acquired communal overtones after he joined the Muslim League. He made blatant anti-Hindu remarks, which was surprising because one of the reasons Anderson invited him to become the chief minister was because he was the only candidate with whom both Hindu and Muslim leaders were happy to work with. But perhaps doubly surprising is Anderson’s letter to Viceroy Linlithgow in November 1937. He wrote, “Actually from an administrative point of view, I attach little importance to it and in fact he is not the kind of person to attempt to carry such threats into practice.” It seemed that Huq’s contemporaries understood some of his antics but no one knew the larger picture, his larger political game.
No one knew that in 1941, Huq would defect again, this time from the now powerful Muslim League. He wrote to Liaquat Ali Khan in September 1941, that he detested the “autocracy of a single individual,” referring to Jinnah. So, he secretly contrived to have a no-confidence motion passed against his own league ministry, while planning his next coalition with Sarat Bose and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. In December 1941, he moved from one chief ministerial position to another. Poverty was all around in Bengal. His electoral promise from his first win was left unrealised. But on being sworn in again, Huq gave another hope to the people of Bengal and they believed again. He announced that Bengal would now have better “communal harmony” now that he was working with Bose and Mookherjee. For the record, Huq’s first ministry had Hindu ministers as well. His politics was impossible and daring and no one knew what Huq would do next, just like no one knew that the cotton-sari-clad Banerjee would have the grand oath taking ceremony she had recently. In both the cases, we see, in lieu of an ideology, what frames Huq and Banerjee’s politics is that they are both “uncertain quantity” in their political worlds. For any other politician this could be a liability but Huq, in his days, and Banerjee, now, get a pass on everything they do. Banerjee’s recent win only shows that her critics have to renege on their predictions about her eventual fall.
Charismatic mass leader
How did Huq manage to defect from two parties and yet retain the love and affection from the masses? In his times, noted scientist P.C. Ray called him a “true Bengali” from “head to toe.” His arch opponent, Huseyn Suhrawardy nailed it when he said that Huq had “deep insight into human character and mass psychology.” The few historians who have studied Huq have commented on his admirable quality of keeping his constituency beholden to himself and not to the party he represented. So when he joined the Muslim League, his rustic image was never challenged and his most grievous shortcomings like making communally charged statements and corruption were seen as minor aberrations. Huq was often seen as a victim and as someone who was too naive to play by the rules of organised city politics. Sounds vaguely familiar?
Banerjee’s charisma has also worked on millions of Bengalis. Her populist politics has not been great for the state but that kind of logic has not deterred the masses from loving her. But like Huq, she rises above the party. Has the party become stronger since its most illustrious member has become chief minister? Does it dominate over its members and keep them in check? Is there democracy within the party? Surfing the TMC website makes it clear that the party is Banerjee and Banerjee is the party. Banerjee’s innumerable publications, poems and paintings are curated on the website and all other party members are faceless. Of course, the TMC is rightfully Banerjee’s baby but since 2011, when the rumpus died down, through handling of Sharadha scam, the Park Street rape case, to name a few, Banerjee has shown herself to be adamant, dictatorial, irrational and intolerant. It was good that 34 years of communist rule ended in a democratic state and it is still great that Banerjee has earned the verdict to govern Bengal for one more term but govern she must, not dictate, not manipulate but govern.
End and beginning
So what happened to Huq? In March 1943, Governor John Arthur Herbert, finding Huq utterly incompetent in administering the province, manipulated him into resigning, after which Huq’s career went into a sharp decline. What is of greater consequence is what happened to the people of Bengal who loved and hero-worshipped him for decades and reposed their faith in him. Much has been said about the famine that hit Bengal in 1943 and killed millions. What the archives revealed to me, however, is that unchecked corruption, primarily because Huq was busy stabilising his position in his coalitions instead of serving the people, was also what made the famine worse. Mookherjee left a record of Huq’s incompetence and unwillingness to give his ministries a real chance at governance because he was so invested in maintaining his own power. But a few words here and there, an image propagated, a few trips to the countryside and Sher-e-Bangla reigned over people’s hearts again. Even when his rhetoric and actions had long parted ways, his charisma had remained intact.
If the discipline of history has haters, it is probably because it teaches lessons and no one wants to be taught. The peasants of colonial Bengal knew very little about the political world in which Huq was operating. Banerjee’s supporters know more as the public space has expanded exponentially in the last decade. Today, it is not just foolish to remain moonstruck by a leader’s charisma and not demand better governance. Lest, Bengal trades freedom of speech and liberty to read any newspaper it wants you to. For better jobs and more toilets (and Banerjee has done well on those fronts) – people must know that they can have both and deserve more. No politician should get away calling an election result “historic” like Derek O Brien did. What Bengal needs is historic development and with it, the complete freedom of expression.