And Kolkata shrugged

It seems that every year, Salman Rushdie plans to attend yet another literary festival in India, gets the bum's rush from opportunistic fundamentalists yet again, and there's yet another round of ritual breastbeating over the mutilated corpse of free speech. The lamentation distracts attention from an interesting feature of these events. Both the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012 and the Kolkata Literary Meet this year were held just before elections in which the Muslim vote played an important role. If festival organisers took the trouble to check the Election Commission's website before inviting Rushdie, he could come and go in peace, leaving his audiences appreciating his wit and candour and the front pages unburdened by needless controversy.

Rushdie was prevented from attending the January 2012 JLF even by videophone. Hoping to nurture their Muslim votebank in UP, which went to the polls a month later, the Congress in Rajasthan helped keep Rushdie out. This year, West Bengal is scheduled to hold panchayat polls in May. Both the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress go to embarrassing lengths to woo Muslim voters and, having headed Rushdie off, Mamata Banerjee has scored.

Though it is now out of warranty, Bengalis persist in valuing Gopal Krishna Gokhale's century-old endorsement: "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." It is applied in seriousness to the state's progressive politics and in jest to its derelict economy. So one would have expected public outrage — or at least an outbreak of black humour — at being upstaged by Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, regions that Kolkata's bhadralok disdain as "upcountry". But the city seems to have shrugged and carried on, and everyone who matters has denied responsibility.

Mamata Banerjee has ignored the charge of using the administration to generate a controversy. The Left is always prepared to hit the streets and heckle the government with slogans of "jabab chai, jabab dao! (we want an answer, answer us)". But it is ducking the question in this case, since it values the Muslim vote as much as the chief minister does. And the clever and affable Tridib Kumar Chatterjee, secretary of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, which organises the Book Fair, has laughed off Rushdie's travel plans as an enduring mystery, on par with the Bermuda Triangle. It is quite unusual for a creative person or an artistic issue to be used so cavalierly in this city.

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