Theatre of the absurd

Shiv Visvanathan
Academic associated with compost heap

AMOMENT of crisis is a moment’s return to the roots. History returns to its roots when the primordial and archetypal people respond by enacting what they do best. This is true for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. When the BJP threatened her with a CBI inquiry, she responded in the way she knew best. She returned to the theatre of street politics announcing she was starting a satyagraha against the BJP’s violation of the Constitution. 

Mamata Banerjee is an archetypal performer. It is her ability to confront CPM violence through street-level politics that won her power. She returns to the streets every time that power is threatened. 

Street theatre, as Mamata plays, has a simplistic structure. There is Mamata playing the Joan of Arc against the forces of evil. It is a world of black and white and eventually it is power and the message of her histrionics that win the day. The melodrama plays out as she recharges like Aeneas, as she renews her contract with the people. There is neither subtlety nor complexity. The script has to stay simple, the drama has to remain stark for the result to be predictable. The audience, like a chorus, has to acclaim her. It is this perennial melodrama that has been the source of her strength and spelt the magic of her career. It is satyagraha only in a nominal sense because such drama can ingest enormous degrees of violence, as the CPM learnt to its disadvantage. 

When the BJP ushered in an investigation into the Saradha chit fund scandal, Mamata’s response was predictable. She immediately claimed that the constitutional process was breaking down, that the BJP was undermining critical institutions by misusing them to attack or embarrass the Opposition. This message found an instant echo in the likes of Chandrababu Naidu and Rahul Gandhi. Babu was, in fact, the first to object, claiming that it was a violation of constitutional politics. The Opposition played the perfect chorus to Mamata’s theatre. At this stage, it did not mind that she was hogging attention. What was critical was that she was embarrassing Modi and Rajnath. 

There was a violation of protocol, the CBI needs the West Bengal Government’s permission to conduct an investigation. Mamata’s magic wand turned it into a constitutional crisis, a threat to the future of federalism. On day one, she stole the show, especially as the media gave her all attention. 

Time, even a few days, has a way of spoiling melodramas, which need new fuel from gossip and scandal; they need the immediacy of spoof to drive home the point. The audience has to respond in visceral ways. It cannot change and split into different constituencies because politics then moves beyond the immediacy of street theatre. Instead of a knee-jerk narrative, Mamata, while receiving accolades, was confronting the ambivalence of the middle class. A chit fund is a middle-class wager into the future, its way of saving something for old age. What stunned many in the middle class was her refusal to investigate the fund. The middle class was suddenly sulking in the background. Their Didi was calling the wrong shots.  

No one denied the power of the drama, the ridiculousness of a huge police posse taking the CBI officers to police station. One realised it was a surrogate war between West Bengal and the Centre, more the beginning of a call to battle against Modi. 

One part of the audience gloated at the turn of events, coming soon after Priyanka’s entry into the electoral arena. Mamata’s call was a renewal cry of battle. Yet, there were sceptics in the wider middle class. Her audience was no longer in direct touch with her. Many dream of moving from the streets to a middle-class life. To them, her call for struggle seemed uncalled for. They interpreted it as a threat to law and order. They read the script as one scandal meeting another. They, too, felt a distance from their favourite heroine. The middle class, probably remembering the Trinamool-CPM wars, was voting for a stability that made street theatre and street politics seem out of place. Something seemed wrong with her script. Her hunches were right, but the audience was changing. An audience changing or rethinking can be the greatest threat to a politician’s career. 

While Mamata was beating the constitutional dream, the BJP and the CBI were raising governance issues. A top court had handed over the probe to the CBI. As a result, it did not feel that the state government’s permission was essential. The BJP emphasised that while Mamata was hysterical about federal rules, she was sanguine about chit fund corruption. 

The Saradha scam is an old one, surfacing in 2013. What was damaging was that the key player, Sudipto Sen, had invested equally in the political realm. Saradha represented a dream gone wrong. Mamata did not distance herself from it. To be fair, Sen cultivated relations with the Congress and was even a great patron of the Kolkata police, distributing motorcycles to patrol policemen. There was a touch of weakness here in Mamata that became a large chink as the BJP decided to investigate. 

What Kolkata then had was multiple theatres. A chit fund scandal. An immobilisation of governance. A crisis of federalism. A clarion call to the Opposition to rally around Mamata. It was the case of too many scripts competing for the same space.  

Fortunately for all contestants, the SC intervened, directed the police to cooperate, but warned the CBI not to arrest any cop. It gave relief to all sides, both parties claiming victory. In one sense, it was an anticlimax. A butter ad caught the spirit when it appealed to both sides. But this will be a temporary respite. She can only be ‘utterly, butterly Mamata’. Now for the next round between Mamata and the BJP as the pace of the elections hots up.