The road to Delhi now runs through Kolkata. The Bharatiya Janata Party understood this very well and so invested all they had – from the Modi-Shah machine to Adityanath and their entire leadership, buttressed by the ideological groundwork of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, money power and the open support of a section of the media.

Since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP started to falter in a string of state polls. In the BJP’s calculation, all of that could be reversed over time. West Bengal was a different ball game. After unprecedented gains in 2019, BJP believed that it could seamlessly cross the last frontier to secure its path to victory in the next Lok Sabha elections.

Of course, rational and perceptive observers know that assembly elections do not mirror Lok Sabha choices. Yet in the wake of the spectacle conjured up by the Modi-Shah machine and matched by a media hype, fear had crept in the consciousness of Bengal that the impossible might happen. This fear and disgust led all shades of opinion uniting to defeat the BJP. It worked.

Initially taken aback by their surprise defeat, they soon put their machine to work, hoping to rebuild the road which would take them to Delhi in 2024. Now they would have to work overtime, so even before the new government could be sworn in, an orchestrated attack was launched to provoke, embarrass, harass, persecute and ultimately destabilise the Trinamool Congress regime.

The BJP’s hope lay in the fact that India’s long economic downturn would not dent the market to purchase legislators, a tactic that has been used in several states. Of course, imposing President’s rule on Bengal was the ultimate threat.

The continuous interventions and provocations by the Union government and all its agencies, including the weekend’s controversy about the Centre recalling the state’s chief secretary to Delhi, are all designed to evoke an angry response from the mercurial image of Mamata Banerjee and her supporters. The BJP hopes to make headway in the midst of the chaotic situation its moves might generate.

The new Bengal government instead of tackling the pandemic would be engrossed in this ugly battle with the might of the Modi-Shah machine.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a roadshow in Krishnangar city of West Bengal on April 16. Photo credit: Amit Shah/Twitter

But once the purpose and logic of the Union government’s provocations have become clear, the state’s response must reasoned and restrained. The government, after all, must focus on the work it is entrusted with. But the response of the party, civil society and the non-BJP opposition must take a more forceful form.

Three crucial years

The BJP’s politics is based on grand spectacles. These could be spectacles of collective violence or talking up the so-called Gujarat model of development. When democracy turns into a plebiscite, spectacles are used to win over the majority. The 2024 elections will, on the one hand, be held against the backdrop of the pandemic and popular discontent. On the other hand, there will be the Ram mandir and the Delhi Central Vista project, now referred to as the Modi Mahals. There will, of course, be many other such firework displays.

The BJP’s loss in the West Bengal election provides an alternative to the grandiose designs of the Modi-Shah machine. Can Bengal show an alternative to the Gujarat model? That would be an ideal response to the continuous harassment and provocations the state government is likely to face till 2024.

The big-ticket investment-driven development model or the patron state providing relief and welfare to the people are necessary and important but not sufficient for any development strategy that promises a modicum of justice to the people. Neither is a combination of the two adequate.

The BJP's loss in West Bengal election provides an alternative to the grandiose designs of the Modi-Shah machine. Photo credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

Searching an alternative

Mamata Banerjee’s “duare sarkar” (government-at-doorstep) initiative offers an alternative model of development and democracy. It is simply bringing the two where people actually live and work.

Until not so long ago, India lived in its villages. Mohandas Gandhi’s model focussed on the rural. Now, increasingly, the clear distinction between villages, semi-rural and semi-urban sprawls, small towns and district towns overlap and even merge into each other. The challenge is how to bring development and democracy to the level of the district in its entirety.

However limited or underused, there is a constitutional apparatus of democracy from the village to the district level in the form of panchayat raj, again a Gandhian utopia. There are many things to earn from the Kerala model, including its idea of development from below through the Peoples’ Plan movement. It, however, failed to provide an alternative, it was more replication of the existing development model at the micro-level.

Education and knowledge play an important role in the extant imaginary of development, which follows global standards. Hence India built Indian Institutes of Technology and other such institutions or now are aiming at world-class universities. But have they addressed, leave alone solve, development questions of the people at the district level?

Unwittingly, our educational institutions have played a crucial role in the growth of the global, as well as the Indian, capitalist economy. Today, knowledge is central to the growth dynamic of world capitalism. Some of the largest companies are technology-based and worked by hordes of India trained people.

Re-inventing education system

The success of this model has deeply skewed our entire education system. The IITs and other elite institutions are at the top of this pyramidal model. At every level, the goal is to enter the top. That is the route to success. As a result, though we have a sprawling education system, only a tiny segment is considered worthwhile and successful. The rest is a kind of a waste product. It does not come to much use, except provide some employment.

Perhaps Marx would have described this phenomenon as the free accumulation of capital in the age of the knowledge economy, for we are providing a key input to the global capitalist economy free of cost and without the violence involved in the accumulation process under colonialism.

If we re-animate our education and knowledge system with the lives and economy of the people from below, not only would this generate new economic possibilities, but would also result in a knowledge boom. So our education system at the district level, headed by the district university, will have to do two things.

First, build different kinds of colleges for the needs of the people residing in the district, from medical, nursing and paramedical and health workers colleges to other skill- and profession-based ones. Of course, at the core would be the general colleges of science and arts. These are not impossible tasks, for as health entrepreneur Devi Shetty repeatedly points out that medical colleges, which involve the biggest investments, can be opened at a fraction of that cost. The sharing of the existing physical infrastructure would go a long way in realising this project.

The second and more important task is gearing the knowledge system to address and solve all kinds of problems at the district level, from the economy to town planning, design and architecture among others. This would open up new productive possibilities in the entire district economy, including agriculture and allied activities. The byproduct of this model would be an explosion in our contribution to knowledge. In other words, what was a huge waste, could be turned into an asset.

Sanjeeb Mukherjee has taught politics at the University of Calcutta.