Indian Decade

Populism and Paschimbanga

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has chosen to rename the state Paschimbanga. Does it matter?

Mamata Banerjee, the new chief minister of the state of West Bengal, has chosen to rename the state Paschimbanga, literally ‘western Bengal’ in Bengali, the native language of the state and the region. (A variant of Bengali is also spoken in the neighbouring country of Bangladesh). The term ‘West Bengal’ came about in 1947 with the partition of British India into the states of India and Pakistan. At that time, the state of Bengal was broken up and a part of it became East Pakistan, while the other was referred to as West Bengal.

The change in nomenclature is part and parcel of a populist trend that started some years ago with the names of major cities reverting to their putatively pristine names, with Bombay being renamed Mumbai, Calcutta renamed Kolkata and Madras as Chennai. These gestures won the support of the masses and some intellectuals who claimed that India's heritage was being ‘recovered’ and the vestiges of colonial rule were being effaced.

But the merits of such an arguments aside, the changes in nomenclature have come at a substantial cost to businesses and, of course, to the exchequers of all these cities and their respective states. More to the point, while the renaming might have led to a sense of renewed pride on the part of the citizenry, it didn’t instil any greater regard for civic responsibility. Nor did it ameliorate the many urban ills that afflict these cities. Their sewage systems remained antiquated and overburdened, their public parks have remained in their shambolic state, their sidewalks continue to crumble and their traffic problems continue unabated.

The latest change to Paschimbanga will, no doubt, once again contribute to a brief surge in popularity amongst segments of the electorate for Banerjee. However, it won’t improve the state’s sagging infrastructure, its problematic law and order situation or its fiscal woes. Instead, after the fleeting feelings of pride and joy recede, the hapless denizens of the state will realize that the myriad problems that had besieged them are still all around.