They were disciplined, moved in neat ranks, and had a mean bite. They were everywhere, all over my Kolkata childhood.
They would bust you for necking at dark parks, playing the Sex Pistols too loud, coming back home buzzed at midnight, or not enlisting for their students’ wing even before filling out the college enrolment form. They would intervene if you had an altercation with an autorickshaw driver, dumped a girl, kicked a football through a neighbour’s glass panes or screamed at your tenant.
I have seen a 70-something landlord being tied to an electric pole and beaten up by party ‘cadre’ for asking the tenant for rent. Teenagers would be stripped to their underwear and made to do sit-ups in full view of neighbours for dating a girl whom a member of the ‘cadre’ fancied.
It is, therefore, difficult to believe that the red ants have left our collective pants after 34 years. It is a sudden hollowness of being, a pleasant bereavement, a feeling of which Nick Hornby would say, “There are these gaps in speech where you just have to put a ‘f**k’.”
Left’s arithmetical rout to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool falls far short of accurately expressing the extent of psychological rout it suffered on Friday. Trinamool voters did not materialise out of the state’s river-wet air. CPI(M)’s own mighty numbers have voted against it.
Ironically, many who could have safely been bullies of local clubs and office unions for another 34 years have set themselves free of the grim power of control. If they do not demand similar powers in exchange of loyalty to the new regime, it would take us down a baffling road of human motive: Why did they vote against a regime they seemed to be comfortably ensconced in?
Usually, journeys of powerful regimes come to a halt slowly, brakes screeching across many years of decay, like a train. The Left rule in West Bengal has been an exception. In four short years from the Nandigram bloodbath, it got trounced at least thrice. It did not need a new generation to come and change things. In fact, people like me who left the state to do well elsewhere did not go back to avenge their exile. The very people who stayed back voted the Left out.
This election showed up limitations of CPI(M)’s land-based politics (since land itself is finite) when done over decades. The party had little to offer beyond vague rhetoric and a sense of power to its cadre; neither land, nor jobs in industry. Politics of land got them at best contracts in the construction sector or auto-rickshaw permits.
The exception being the state secretariat, which has a huge excess staff of Class IV employees, peons and orderlies chosen from the cadre (Writers' Building also has, apart from five cooperative-run canteens, 22 authorised food-stalls across its corridors, despite the massive fire hazard they pose, as noted in an official audit).
What the red ants did instead was to turn vast areas of Kolkata and many towns into “bridhyashram”, or old age homes, by driving away youngsters in search of jobs.
Migration started with the best intellectual talent leaving the state, followed by unskilled labourers, zari workers, diamond cutters, cooks, waiters and even sex workers.
The Economic And Political Weekly says, “The proportion of urban-to-urban male lifetime outmigrants has not only remained the largest in West Bengal among all major states during 1981-1991, it increased to nearly 47 per cent (as against the all-India figure of about 32 per cent) in the 1991 Census.”
Even village-to-city migration from West Bengal was around 50 per cent in 1981-1991, a big majority going to other states.
So brazen and nonchalant the Left Front government had become about urban brain drain that in 2001, a train was launched between Howrah and Bangalore called the ‘Exam Special’.
It ferried hapless students with large tiffin-carriers stuffed with machher jhol, who appeared for exams to Karnataka’s numerous private engineering colleges. For a so-called intellectual state like West Bengal, this was open surrender of academic high ground.
That Exam Special train symbolised the exile of the state’s young and educated by an unspoken decree of an arrogant, rotting regime. Boys and girls over the years have boarded trains from Howrah station or taken flights from Dumdum airport with red ants all over their childhood and young adulthood.
It is as if somebody has finally sprayed a full can of hope on the anthill.