Here is a piece of trivia about Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her favourite colours are blue and white. Everyone who lives in Bengal already knows this because all prominent government buildings are painted blue and white. The colours also appear prominently in the beautifully designed new emblem of the state of West Bengal. The Chief Minister created it herself. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee has a flair for both art and music and she is not shy to express herself.
Before you start to feel all warm and fuzzy about this, let me tell me how the Chief Minister weaponizes her tastes as an instrument of state power. In Bengal, blue and white is the colour of conformity. From government buildings to flyovers to schools, everything has to be painted blue and white. State ministers, party functionaries and even ordinary party workers use these colours to show their loyalty to all the powerful Chief Minister. In 2018, there was a bit of controversy when a Ramakrishna Mission school resisted changing its historic saffron colour to the TMC chief’s favoured blue and white. But otherwise, everyone falls in line. So far, so good, maybe.
But this gets a lot darker. Government buildings and party workers looking to please their superiors might be okay, but what about your house? Do common citizens also have to paint their houses blue and white? What if they don’t like those colours? Well, the Chief Minister essentially made her disapproval very clear.
Her obsession with blue and white goes so far that in 2014, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation announced an initiative to paint the city in these colours. Those who agree will not have to pay property tax for a year.
Beyond the “Tughaq like” nature of this order, consider what is really happening here. It’s essentially a loyalty test. If you don’t paint your house blue and white, you have turned your house into a visible symbol of dissent against the Chief Minister’s wishes. Everyone walking down the street can see it, including the unemployed youths at your friendly neighbourhood TMC party office. The CM found an ingenious way to get around the system of secret ballots.
Believe it or not, North Korea conducts elections every five years like clockwork. There is only one party and one candidate nominated per constituency. All citizens line up, go to the voting booth where they are given a ballot paper with only one option: YES. The purpose of this election is obviously not to give democratic choice, but it operates as a census and a test of party loyalty. It is rumoured that people can go and ask the officials publicly for a “NO” ballot, but nobody ever seems to have taken that risk.
In Bengal, the idea seems similar. Putting an entire population through a public loyalty test. Who wants to advertise themselves as dissenters? Let’s find out.
It isn’t just painting houses. The Chief Minister’s love of “art” turns every aspect of public life into a loyalty test. Every year during the festival season, the TMC releases a Durga Puja theme song, usually written by Mamata Banerjee herself. Local Puja committees receive assistance from the state government. When collecting this financial help, they receive copies of this song from the local police station. As long your Puja pandal is playing this song at top volume, you are good.
See the pattern? Art and music are just window dressing for something far more sinister. The state in West Bengal essentially dictates public expression. A moment of silence here for Bengal’s famously creative and famously self-admiring class of intellectuals. This is what they have reduced themselves to.
There is a reason that authoritarian regimes love uniformity so much. It isn’t because they feel their choice of colour or music is the best. It is about showing conformity in every moment of your life. The idea here is that of a “party society” borrowed from Communists, but which the TMC made its own. There are no gulags in West Bengal. But in towns, cities or villages, you live within the iron grip of the “party.” The line between party, government and society disappears. Want a water connection? Go to the party. Want to celebrate Durga Puja? There is a party approved way of doing it too. It’s much easier to fall in line than to become an outcast, or worse.
The stories mentioned here are old. Some are from 2018, some from 2014-15 or even earlier. That’s exactly the point. Nobody cared then and nobody cares now. They put an entire metropolis of 10 million people through a party loyalty test and nobody noticed. That’s what liberal privilege is. Meanwhile, the media have been pulling out their hair over Narendra Modi wanting to revamp Central Vista in Delhi. Imagine if the BJP ruled civic bodies were to press for everyone in Delhi to paint their house saffron. What if Yogi Adityanath wanted something similar in Lucknow?
It would never work and maybe it shouldn’t. We want diversity, not conformity.
Mamata Banerjee would tell you that she got her idea of a blue and white “uniform” for Kolkata when she was on a visit to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur. Incidentally, Jaipur only came to be that way because the local Maharaja in 1876 wanted to please the visiting Prince of Wales. You know the ever benevolent British crown in India. Their motto was “Maa, Maati, Manush…,” I think.