Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
A Rajasthani colleague of mine once told me a joke about West Bengal. West Bengal is the state that has produced world famous economists but the state is economically poor whereas Gujarat has produced very few world famous economists but its economy is doing well. We laughed while having our lunch although I pointed out that Gujarat is not as shining as it is made out to be.
Jokes apart, the point has some merit which deserves attention if one wants to understand the problems which prevent West Bengal from achieving the kind of development indicators that it should have. If one looks at West Bengal's history, we shall see that its development story is charged with ideological and intellectual battles. It abolished the Zamindari system, initiated land reforms and Panchayati raj. It threw out the Congress government from power after Emergency. It developed strong arguments for greater power for the states vis-a-vis the Centre. West Bengal was also the hotbed of radical Maoist alternative thinking. In more recent times, civil society organisations have promoted organic farming, rights of sex workers, rights of mental health patients and the dignity of farmers in the context of land acquisition. Every evening there are discussions on television news channels where intellectuals/opinion makers discuss various issues that affect the state. West Bengal can still boast of some outstanding academic institutions, a strong vernacular press, an intellectually powerful theatre movement, song writers and film makers. Probably in no other state the vernacular intellectuals enjoy so much respect and attention.
Therefore isn't it strange that the literacy rate of West Bengal is 77.1 per cent whereas the literacy rate of Himachal Pradesh is 83.8 per cent and that of Mizoram 91.6 per cent? Isn't it also strange that in spite of most intellectuals being socialistically inclined, 11 out of 18 districts of the state excluding Kolkata is included in the 'backward districts' list of the Government of India? Isn't it strange that West Bengal's human development rank in the country is not in the top five but somewhere in the middle? Is it simply because of administrative failure or wickedness of political parties or do the intellectuals/opinion makers have serious drawbacks?
I think they do.
If we carefully look at the intellectual class of Bengal, we shall see that they are mostly from Kolkata, they are urban with very little connection with rural society and usually belong to the upper castes. I do not believe that being rich or upper caste is a sin and an upper caste person cannot represent the lower castes or the 'dalit'. Don't get me wrong here. But over the years a significant transformation has taken place in the intellectual class - they have lost their connection with rural Bengal. Tagore had to look after his ancestral Zamindari and therefore came in contact with rural Bengal and hence got interested in its development issues. A writer like Tarashankar Banerjee was in fact from the district of Birbhum on which he wrote.
However, if we look at Bengali literature in recent years, we shall see that the rural world or the world of the underprivileged has almost disappeared. Same is true of Bengali middle-class cinema. They do reflect issues such as questions of sexuality, gender and identity but it has become rare to find a film about slums or rural poor. In theatre also this trend can be seen.
Secondly, over the years 'development' has become a specialised and to a large extent a technical matter. Thus one needs to be a full-time specialist in a particular area of development in order to make sense of what's happening and comment on what needs to be done. So knowing some important ideas of Marx or Mao will not help in understanding why MGNREGS is not functioning in West Bengal or how Infant Mortality Rate can be improved. I mentioned Marx and Mao not to discredit either of these two thinkers but because most Bengali intellectuals have been brought up in an intellectual tradition that goes back to either of them. Even Tagore or Vivekananda can be only a source of inspiration rather than a source of knowledge as to what needs to be done to improve the conditions of rural poor. Thus there is a knowledge gap among writers/poets/song writers/painters/film makers/theatre personalities which they unfortunately do not acknowledge. Yet they mostly constitute the "seen on TV" category of intellectuals in the state.
Thirdly, there are very few intellectuals who are not biased towards a particular political party and the disease of sycophancy has affected even some very bright minds. In recent times, the level of sycophancy has reached absurd proportions when the present chief minister's worth as a painter has been compared to that of Rabindranath Tagore. It has been demonstrated that it is very easy to buy the mind of the intellectuals by making them members of certain state-level committees. A little bit of money and power is enough to buy the services of important intellectuals. Therefore there are very few intellectuals who can take a firm stand based on careful examination of facts. Loyalty to a particular political party usually overrides loyalty towards West Bengal.
Fourthly, since most academicians are working in universities that are controlled by the government, it is fairly easy to stop their voice or ensure that they sing according to the desired tune. Who would like to repeat the example of Ambikash Mahapatra of Jadavpur University when he was arrested for forwarding a cartoon? Who would like to endanger his or her retirement benefits?
Fifthly, the brightest of the academicians are often not interested in the affairs of the state but more interested in the globalised world of academic conferences/journals/foreign tours. Some of them many, every now and then, write an article as to what the government needs to do but do not have the time or patience to keep pursuing and following up on a particular issue. This explains why West Bengal produces great economists who teach in Harvard or LSE but do not have any influence over state budget.
Finally, there is a silent consensus among the intellectuals and the political parties of the state - they are not interested in Centrally Sponsored Schemes or programmes which are the primary source of funding for development issues. Hence almost no intellectual is interested in whether MGNREGS or NRHM or NRLM of other poverty alleviation programmes are being properly implemented in the state. In the land of intellectuals, data-based activism is almost absent.
But perhaps the greatest crisis of the intellectuals of the state is that they know that conventional Marxism is not working but they are unable to accept capitalism either. And for some strange reason, social democracy has never been in vogue in the state.