Harvard historian Sugata Bose has arguably created a record of sorts. The Cambridge-educated Bose, who is Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard, may well be the first Indian American to leave such an exalted position in the U.S. to make a spectacular electoral debut: He contested a Lok Sabha seat and won by a substantial margin.
True, he won on a Trinamool Congress ticket, which swept the polls in his native West Bengal, and he was familiar with the prestigious Jadavpur constituency where he had campaigned earlier for his mother, Krishna Bose, who had previously been elected thrice to the Lok Sabha. The fact that he was the grand-nephew of Netaji Subhas Bose couldn’t have hurt either (he is the author of a marvelously accessible, meticulously documented biography of Netaji) — but he tends to shrug off any family connection to Netaji with the remark: “Everybody is part of Netaji’s family.”
All the advantages in the world, however, cannot explain the decisive victory of a candidate who lives abroad and made his electoral debut. Bose defeated sitting MP Sujan Chakraborty of the CPM by over 125,400 votes.
No, Bose won — a Lok Sabha seat, remember, not a municipal or state assembly election — the old fashioned way: through arduous and laborious retail politics. He crisscrossed his constituency with gusto, delivering stump speeches in Bangla, and clearly his disarming down-to-earth demeanor and earnest appeals struck a chord with the electorate.
India-West tracked him down in Kolkata for an interview. Excerpts follow:
Q. Congratulations on your victory. Tell us a bit about your political views. Briefly, where would you like to see West Bengal and India headed in the next few years?
A. Thank you. You might describe me to your readers as an old-fashioned social democrat. I believe in “samyavada” — equality in a context of balance and harmony. Genuine federalism has to become an intrinsic part of Indian democracy. A free and flexible federal union will in the long term be a stronger Indian Union. I would like to refashion the eastern state of West Bengal as a prosperous and dynamic gateway to Southeast and East Asia.
Q. Your victory was remarkable in many ways: You made your debut as a candidate, you have lived for many years abroad, and yet, if I am not mistaken, you defeated the candidate who had defeated your mother in an earlier election. Why do you think the people of Jadavpur chose to elect you?
A. My mother Krishna Bose had in fact won on three occasions in 1996, 1998, and 1999 to the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas from Jadavpur that had been a red bastion before that. In 2004 the communists looted votes in that constituency, taking advantage of the weak organization of the Trinamool Congress after its 2001 failure to dislodge the Left Front in West Bengal. Had my mother contested this time, she would have won by a much larger margin than I did. I would credit my victory to the developmental work done by Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister, in the last three years and the desire of the people of Jadavpur to have an honest and able representative in Parliament.
Q. It is quite rare to take leave from the rarefied environs of academe — especially one as distinguished as Harvard — to join the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics in India, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Why did you make this change?
A. I could see that the Congress Party was going to crash to a catastrophic defeat. I did not want the forces of religious majoritarianism to be the only alternative before the people of India. I decided to take a stand on the side of those who called for federal unity and wished to fight for the economic interests of a billion working people rather than those of a handful of billionaires.
Q. I understand that you know your constituency fairly well, because on previous occasions you have taken time off from teaching to assist your mother in her electoral campaigns. Draw a thumbnail picture of Jadavpur for us. I understand it’s quite an interesting, diverse mix with lots of people who are emigres/descendants of emigres from what used to be East Pakistan, with a substantial Muslim population, parts of it rural, parts of it semi-urban (do correct me if I am wrong). How did you address what might have been quite different concerns of different people in your constituency?
A. Seven assembly segments make up my fascinating parliamentary constituency. Jadavpur and Tollygunge are fully urban with a large number of descendants of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. Baruipur West, Baruipur East, Sonarpur North, Sonarpur South and Bhangar are mostly rural with urban nodes in Baruipur town and the Rajpur-Sonarpur municipality. Muslims comprise 34 percent of my constituents. I spread the message of Hindu-Muslim unity throughout my campaign. I will work towards bettering the lives of the dispossessed and underprivileged sections of society. Bhangar, for example, is an utterly neglected Muslim-majority rural belt sandwiched between the booming urban sprawl of Rajarhat-Newtown and the Basanti highway that takes tourists to the Sunderbans. I want to transform Bhangar into a model of development with a special focus on education and health.
Q. During the campaign you have traveled extensively and talked to a lot of people in your constituency. What was your gut sense about the main complaints and desires of your voters?
A. The needs and demands of most voters are still very basic — safe drinking water, better roads, rural electrification. It was heartening to see that even the poorest of the poor want good education for their children. The biggest failures of 34 years of communist rule in West Bengal were in the areas of education and health. They have to be put on the top of our political agenda.
Q. At the state level, Trinamool leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has a lot to be pleased about. Trinamool won a huge victory in terms of numbers of seats. However, India’s first-past-the-post system masks some ominous signs. The Bharatiya Janata Party not only made its debut in the state with two Lok Sabha seats, it also did unexpectedly well in many constituencies, coming second. What is your perspective on this?
A. Trinamool Congress has done exceedingly well fighting the elections on its own against the CPI (M), BJP and Congress. The BJP has unfortunately increased its vote share in West Bengal and has won two out of 42 seats, one courtesy the Gurkha Mukti Morcha in Darjeeling. It is a temporary gain from (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s polarizing campaign. He threatened to expel all “Bangladeshis” after 16 May. The language of citizenship was simply a cover for anti-minority prejudice. Some urban youth were also taken in by his shock and awe campaign funded by big business houses. Bengal’s political culture and tradition will ensure that the so-called Modi wave will soon reach breakwater in this part of India.
Q. Your statements seem to suggest that you consider the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideology primarily ascendant in the north and west and a poor fit for India as a whole. A broad coalition of regional leaders like Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalithaa and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, you appear to think, provide the broad contours of governance more suited to India. That has clearly not come to pass. How do you assess Modi’s remarkable victory? How do you see Indian polity and society unfolding in the near future?
A. The scale of Modi’s victory is to be explained by the collapse of the Congress and the failure of the regional parties of UP and Bihar. The BJP won 71 out of its 282 seats from UP alone, 73 with its small ally Apna Dal. Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalithaa, West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik did extremely well in their own states. The BJP won 31 percent of the vote, the Congress 19 percent. So regional parties won fully 50 percent of the vote, a few aligned with the so-called national parties but most on their own steam. A federal front of regional parties will emerge as the BJP’s main challenger in the future.
Q. Indian politics in general faces considerable challenges. One major challenge has become the crass commercialization and criminalization of politics. An NGO study found one-third of federal lawmakers have serious criminal charges against them. Also, the cost of running for a Lok Sabha seat has gone completely out of control in many cases. On top of all this there is the terrible “paid news” scandals, and some newspapers like the Dainik Jagaran have reporters who double as managing advertising beats. How can you have a robust democracy if these issues are not addressed? What are your thoughts on this?
A. Unbridled money power has tarnished the substance and quality of Indian democracy in these elections. There are no easy solutions. My party stands for state funding, but the party in power benefits from the patronage of giant corporations and will block any legislative move in that direction. We have to persevere in building up a crescendo of public opinion to free Indian democracy from the chains of what you call crass commercialization.
Q. A slight digression, if you don’t mind, but given your distinguished academic career — educated at Cambridge, teaching at Harvard — I can’t resist asking this question. You — and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, among others — have been engaged in restoring Kolkata’s storied Presidency College to its old glory. Tell us a bit of your experience in the endeavor and how you are going about the task.
A. In the last three years the Presidency Mentor Group that I chair has made substantial progress in rejuvenating the iconic Presidency College, now University, as a center of excellence. It has been a remarkable turnaround after three decades of steep decline. We have so far recruited about 180 excellent faculty members based on academic merit alone and chosen by selection committees composed of leaders in each discipline or field. We are now focused on improving and enhancing academic infrastructure. We are working on a medium-term plan leading up to the 200th anniversary in January 2017.
Q. I have no doubt your constituents are delighted to have you represent them, but you are also one of the most distinguished historians on South Asia. It would be a sad day indeed if Jadavpur’s gain became Harvard’s loss. What are your plans regarding this?
A. We all have multiple identities. My primary identity will always be that of an historian and scholar. I will continue to write books. I am simply trying to help out in the political sphere at a critical moment in India’s political history.
Q. Many thanks for your replies. Do feel free to add any comments of your own.
A. I love the U.S. East Coast, but am happy that there is interest in my little political adventure in India on the West Coast as well.