Nepali Times
State Of The State
Letter from Kolkata


HOWRAH BRIDGE LONG AGO: Kolkata is marginally less destitute than it used to be.

KOLKATA - Hindus of the Shakta sect believe that those who have recently lost their mothers should visit the shrine of the Goddess Kali in Kolkata. The Celestial Mother is supposed to release the faithful from filial obligations and free her from all worldly bondage. With her blessings, vices disappear and doors of virtue open.

Widows, orphans, the terminally ill, and the poor once thronged to the Kali temple here to make a living from the piety of pilgrims. That changed a bit with Mother Teresa and her unlimited supply of compassion. The Mother changed the lives of the wretched on the streets of Kolkata and her Sisters of Charity continue her work.

There are still some professional beggars around, but the endless rows of fly-infested lepers and shrieking invalids that once lined the temple entrance are gone. However, much to the disgrace of the Marxist government in West Bengal, vulture-like priests still pounce upon vulnerable devotees.

No organised activity in West Bengal is said to be free of party control. Marxist and Leninist minders of the Kali temple must be getting substantial cuts from the extortionist priests at the temple.

The more things change, the more they remain the same is truer of Kolkata than any other city in the region. This is a place where rickshaws are still pulled rather than pedaled and pushcarts with wooden wheels and bamboo platforms creak along wide avenues under the load of 60 bags of cement. Kolkata was the first city in India to get a functioning metro, but it continues to run trams built in British India.

Ambassador taxis jostle for space with American SUVs on narrow streets which are perpetually dug up to make space for underground utilities. However, unlike the maniacal honkers of New Delhi, drivers in Kolkata don't display road rage and switch off their engines and wait whenever a minor scuffle, a VIP motorcade or a marriage procession holds up traffic.

In the first flush of privatisation in mid-nineties, Kolkata bid farewell to unannounced power-cuts. But the power shortage is back with a vengeance, making visitors from Kathmandu feel perfectly at home.

Despite challenges from the moderate left, radical right and redundant centrists, leftist capitalism continues to prosper in West Bengal. Intolerance of outsiders is less visible even though there is the same contempt here as in Maharashtra for Biharis. Language-based nationalism did help counter religious extremism in the Indian union, but it has ended up exacerbating latent tensions between communities. Perhaps there is some justification in the logic that immigrants should make an extra effort to adapt to host communities.

There is a whiff of elections here too. With a populist railway and central budget, the ruling coalition in New Delhi appears to be preparing itself for snap polls by the year end. Recent elections in Tripura and Meghalaya have shown that the Rahul Gandhi magic isn't working in the north-east. There is resurgent communalism in the south-west with the rabid rightwing politics of Narendra Modi. Regional parties have always dominated the Deep South and the north too is in the thrall of provincial players like Mayawati and Nitish Kumar. So coalition politics is here to stay in India.

Nepal's monarchists may wish otherwise, but the left-orientation of the Indian establishment is unlikely to end despite US pressures. The Indians have learnt to live with Marxist-Leninists. There is no reason for Nepalis to fear the domination of Leninist UML or Stalinist CPN-M in our own constituent assembly. At the very least, once left parties come into power, they are in no hurry to leave.

If Nepal's donors value political stability so much, they would do well to let CA elections produce a left-dominated house. So what if Maharajgunj is renamed Marxgunj and Lainchaur Leninchaur?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)