learning on the job

A free-thinking Harvard historian wins fans across party lines amid dysfunctions of Parliament

Few thought Sugata Bose would be able to adapt to the heat and dust of politics. He has proved them all wrong.

When Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee “arm-twisted” Cambridge-educated Harvard historian Sugata Bose to contest the general election from the Jadavpur constituency, her choice was met with great scepticism.

There were doubts whether a serious academic would be able to negotiate his way through India’s chaotic electoral political scene. Questions were also raised about Bose’s ability to withstand the rigours of a poll campaign or to give rousing speeches in Bengali.

But Bose proved his sceptics wrong. The grandnephew of Subhash Chandra Bose registered an impressive victory and has since made valuable contributions to parliamentary proceedings.

Old lessons come handy

As Bose himself says, he was no stranger to electoral politics. He had helped his mother, three-time MP Krishna Bose, in her election campaigns. So it was not entirely difficult for him to adjust to the rough and tumble of politics, though he admits that contesting a Lok Sabha election did require a “lot of physical stamina”, making quite a change from the rarefied environs of academia.

The academic work too helped him connect with the rural electorate in his constituency, Bose says. He had visited every district of West Bengal as a student since his area of work focused on agrarian issues. “I was able to relate to the peasantry because of this work,” Bose said. “I had no difficulty in talking to the people or giving speeches as I am reasonably fluent in Bangla.”

Despite his familiarity with his constituency, Bose said campaigning in Jadavpur and listening to people’s woes proved to be a “sobering experience”. “Even six-and-a-half decades after Independence, the needs of the people are so basic: education, health, roads, electricity and safe drinking water,” Bose pointed out.

Active participant

During the six months that Bose has been in the Lok Sabha, he has tried to use every opportunity to participate in debates and also played a proactive role as member of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs.

Bose won instant praise from members across political lines with his maiden speech when he warned the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government not to confuse “uniformity with unity” and “majoritarianism with democracy”. He followed this up with similar memorable contributions during the debate on the Union budget and the discussion on communal violence.

Although Bose admits he misses academics since “it is my identity”, he is enjoying his stint in Parliament. Having been an observer of Parliament earlier, he says, nothing took him by surprise.

He likes participating in a parliamentary debate which he likens to teaching a massive online course. “Not only do you address your colleagues in Parliament but the speeches are soon available to a much larger audience once they are uploaded on YouTube and social media platforms,” said Bose.

Critical speeches work better

The academic-turned-politician is, however, not happy with the prolonged disruptions in Parliament and, to that extent, is disappointed with the recently-concluded winter session. For a person like him, he says, it is important for Parliament to function to be able to make a contribution.

At the same time, Bose believes, disruptions are inevitable on occasions. For instance, in the winter session, it was important for the Opposition to raise the issues of black money and religious conversions. “The Opposition has to adopt the agitation mode sometimes but, purely from a personal viewpoint, I believe we can be more effective as an Opposition by making a powerful, critical speech,” he added. “It is a far better way of cornering the government.”

As a free-thinking academic, Bose does not hesitate to speak out on issues like the Saradha chit fund scam, which has singed the Trinamool Congress. He created quite a stir in his party recently when he declared, “Those who have misappropriated poor people’s money should be punished whichever political party they may belong to.” He says it is important to improve the party’s image and purge the corrupt elements that have crept in.

BJP's growth in Bengal

Even on economic issues, Bose says, he is not dogmatic and believes there is no harm in accepting changes in the Insurance Bill, though he would like the government to invest more in health and education sectors. “It is my personal view that foreign investment in insurance sector can be raised but ultimately I’ll go with the majority decision.”

Referring to the BJP’s growth in West Bengal, Bose believes there is a possibility that the saffron party may replace the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as the principal Opposition force in the state.

The BJP, he says, is still organisationally weak in the rural areas, where the Trinamool Congress remains strong, but it has taken root in the urban areas. “The youth, in particular, are taken in by Modi and his promises. But if he fails to deliver, this support base will not stay.”

At the end of six months, how does Bose see his stint in Parliament?

“I joined politics as I felt that at a critical moment in India’s political history, I should make a contribution,” Bose replied. And after a thoughtful pause, he added, “It’s been a challenging environment in which I have adjusted, to be able to make a contribution by starting a political debate on issues. I’m not in the government, so that’s the best I can do.”

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