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'Cholbe na', not now, not ever

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Do bandhs reflect a culture of negativism?

They say the more things change, the more they remain the same. This holds especially true for West Bengal, which had hoped for a break from its dismal past when Mamata Banerjee called for poriborton (change) nearly a year and half ago. You have to be foolishly optimistic to believe that this is likely any more. Ironically, Banerjee today has emerged as the most potent symbol of status quo.

'Cholbe na' has been the most popular slogan in Bengal since the turbulent 1970s and has come to overwhelmingly define all shades of politics in the state since then. Be it the violent opposition to computerisation in the 1980s or the hostility to FDI in retail now, the narrative in Bengal has never changed. Even the apparently beneficial Metro Rail project met with more than its share of resistance in the '70s and '80s. In fact, any idea, plan or project that threatens the established order evokes immediate suspicion and opposition in Bengal. Protests, resistance to change and opposition - quite often mindless - have become embedded in the psyche of the people.

"Bengal has a culture of negativism. We are not open to even trying out new ideas. Take FDI in retail. Bengal can always wait for some other states to implement it and see how it goes there before taking a final decision on opening its doors to foreign retail chains. But no, we have to oppose it tooth and nail right from the beginning, " says Abhijit Sen, co-chairman of the Kolkata-headquartered Nicco Group. Conservationist and prominent Kolkata resident G M Kapur says "good economics doesn't make good politics" in West Bengal.

"Bengalis are generally happy with their lot and are averse to change. A Bengali would spend his life looking for a job rather than start a small business. Lack of entrepreneurship among Bengalis is symbolic of their aversion to change and this finds reflection in the state's politics as well, " says film producer Arijit Dutta.

"Bengalis by and large like a lot more of debate and discourse on any new idea than may be necessary and this arises from our need to show ourselves as intellectually inclined, " says communications expert Chandradeep Mitra. Writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, though declining to comment on the prevailing politics, says: "If minds are enlightened through education, progress is possible".
But there is another point of view - that the resistance to change comes only from politicians. "Bengal has been progressive. It is our politicians who oppose change, " says prominent historian Barun De.

A lot of observers believe that the people of Bengal do not share Mamata's horror of big retail chains. "Look at the large crowds at Spencer's and Big Bazaar, " points out Kallol Datta, CMD of the 149-year-old Andrew Yule group.

Kalyan Kar, co-founder and MD of Infinity Knowledge Ventures, has an offbeat take on how Bengal deals with change. He says once the state embraces a change it will assimilate it with exceptional fervour. "When we change, we change the fastest. This has happened throughout our history, be it in sports, cinema, literature or anything else. We are very critical of any new style or genre or idea, but become ardent advocates of them later. "

The dominant ideology of the state, says economist Abhirup Sarkar, is leftist no matter who is in power. He explains that change always brings some pain in the short term, and the poor suffer the most. This is not acceptable to the leftist way of thinking. "People here are also less enterprising. That is why the opposition to FDI in retail is so pronounced here - they fear the displacement of many from their vocations or from their marginal economic status, " he says.

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