In 2011, when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) knocked over a 34-year-old Left Front government in West Bengal, the key slogan was ‘poriborton’ – positive change.
Eight years later, in the Lok Sabha elections, the people of Bengal (crucially, not just Bengalis) are making choices that will mould, in all probability, a new version of Bengal. Mamata may have coined ‘poriborton’ for 2011, but the term will probably apply far better to 2019, when the elections are done and dusted.
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The bald fact is this: the BJP is going to emerge as the second-largest party in the state in terms of vote share, which suggests considerable support for its ideology. What does that mean in terms of ‘poriborton’?
Are Bengalis Fighting Non-Bengalis This Time in Bengal?
Let us briefly debunk what has been touted as ‘cause and effect’ in the wake of the recent destruction of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue during a BJP procession led by Amit Shah. It has been suggested that this is an indication that Bengalis will fight non-Bengalis in the state, because a Bengali icon’s statue has been desecrated. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two reasons for that: one, non-Bengali support was vital to Mamata Banerjee’s ouster of the Left in 2011, and she along with her party have turned that into a protection racket, where the businesses run by Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sikhs and Biharis, as well as jobs doled out to labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa (the labourers are erstwhile members of CITU, mostly) are ‘traded’ for unquestioning support to TMC.
Second, all said and done, non-Bengalis of whatever ilk, living in Kolkata and Bengal, have integrated very successfully into the evolving cultural fabric of the state, and the sort of conflict being projected based on this one event, would fly in the face of that.
The Comeback of Religion-Based Politics In Bengal
Here is a quick enumeration of the ways in which the state is being redefined.
First, religion is making a huge comeback in the Bengali political psyche. When an extremist faction developed in India’s anti-colonial struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century, it grew around explicit devotion for Hindu deities, especially Kali. Young men joined terror societies in droves and became the subject of myths and folk songs.
This Hindu nationalist stream persisted, gathering massive strength in the sordid atmosphere of Partition riots in 1947, finding an apt image in the persona of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. A rising tide of Leftist scholarship, politics and on-ground action, snuffed this out.
During the second half of the twentieth century, you were mostly laughed out of the room if you were overtly religious in your politics. The removal of the Left in 201, and its rapid dissolution into nothingness on the ground, has given the Sangh Parivar, buoyant after BJP’s national victory, space to regenerate religious ‘abracadabra’ in politics. Religion (not religious politics) had persisted among Bengalis in two ways: in the worship of local deities by subalterns in interior Bengal, and in the iconoclastic party atmosphere of the modern city Durga Puja. BJP has attacked both. It has injected religion into every topic of political discussion in Bengal: migration from Bangladesh (and the consequent rise in percentage of Muslims), culture (Tagore, Amartya Sen and other cultural icons were anti-Hindu, they say, when they propounded secularism as the only valid philosophy), and nationalism (secularism is effete and exposes the country to dangers.)
Pursuit of Knowledge Vs Pursuit of ‘Mammon’
The BJP is seeking to change ‘worship’ itself, which, among Bengalis, has usually been sleepy and sociable. The BJP has demonstrated over the last five years, a model new to Bengal: hundreds of devotees, mostly young men and children, take to the streets in rowdy, loud parades, armed with trishuls, swords and sometimes more. They assert their right to ram through densely-packed Muslim ghettos and neighbourhoods. Social media is flooded with rabid anti-Muslim posts when administrative authorities try to do anything about this.
Second, Bengali culture – something indefinable, but always in evidence throughout the last century, through the massive output of cinema, theatre, poetry, literature in general, and even fairly erudite lectures in the many institutions peppering Kolkata and other cities in Bengal – is an issue this election. The people of Bengal are being told by the BJP to choose a different path. The party has attacked intellectuals and derided their fecundity as a major reason for social inequities, and, especially, lack of economic growth.
Bengalis are repeatedly being told – and a lot of them are beginning to say it themselves now – that Gujarat, Maharashtra and states in the South are far less obsessed with intellect, and instead focus on hard work and discipline.
Many Bengalis have bought this story, and are trying to make themselves over in the Gujarati or Marwari image. It helps that these two communities, which have immense contribution to Bengal over several centuries, are financial powerhouses compared to Bengalis. As support switches to the BJP in significant measure, Bengalis will be voting against their history of preferring intellectual reputation to financial standing.
BJP Is Pitting the Upper-Caste ‘Bhadralok’ Against Underprivileged Castes
Before we look at the third, here is a thought: if the two listed above were the only currents of change, the BJP wouldn’t stand a chance of a healthy vote share. Some would shift over, most wouldn’t. What then, is the key to the significant numbers lining up for the BJP in the current elections?
The key is the third trend, almost invisible, that can be put down to a carefully veiled appeal based on caste.
Caste, along with religion, was a taboo topic in Bengal during the days of the Left and even the early days of the TMC raj. The BJP has addressed large sections of lower-caste Bengali population, excluded from prominence and reputation during the previous era, with the message that they are the victims of an upper-caste conspiracy.
The BJP suggests that behind the English-educated intellectualism of the Bengali bhadralok is a perpetuation of age-old upper-caste supremacy. This has meant that lower-castes in the hilly, tribal or forest areas, or in the interior Bengali zones of abject urban and rural poverty, have been told by the upper-caste gentry what to ask of society, and what to expect.
So, the celebrations of Ram Navami or Hanuman Puja, BJP suggests to these people, is a show of power that upsets that applecart. The excluded people can now have their own idiom of existence which differs from that of the refined bhadralok. Rubbishing Rabindranath is an iconoclastic route to achieving equality of intellect. If Rabindranath is the architect of the Bengali worldview, then demolishing him creates a new playing field, on which something new can be constructed.
The contours of that new Bengali intellect, says the BJP, is available from the RSS – passion for one’s nation and religion, a yearning for muscle power and disciplined pursuit of Mammon. They add, and quite sotto voce, that the other element of that identity is murderous anger against Muslims.
The BJP Is Wrong About ‘Exclusion’ in Bengal
The BJP is by no means alone in tapping into the formerly excluded people of Bengal. The TMC had done this in a different way, borrowing from the Left Front playbook: they had created lumpen gangs in regional pockets (mostly previously Leftist gundas who changed sides overnight in 2011), who they allowed freedom to ‘control’ those pockets. The BJP is working in these areas: they are showcasing aspirations of dominance in a society where tribals, forest-dwellers and the poor have generally remained on the fringe and been used only for votes by other parties.
The BJP is, of course, wrong. The 19th century Enlightenment in Bengal resulted in a real negation of caste among the educated, and their worldview was one of universal humanism, not one guided by narrow casteist motivations. Tagore was anything but an exclusivist.
He was the greatest unifying force for all who spoke the Bengali language and others who read him in translation to this day on either side of the border, and all over the world. He was often the one route for the average Bengali to higher levels of thought and emotion.
Tagore & Other Bengali Icons Stood Against Deprivation & Exclusion
Bengali poets and authors wrote of hunger, deprivation and class conflict, not artful exhortations meant to subjugate anyone. Bengali cinema and theatre has a glorious tradition of defining and attacking the establishment, and often in ways that gained recognition globally. The BJP’s version is corrupted by its communal, casteist and narrow nationalistic DNA.
The BJP’s strategy is, however, clearly working. On 23 May, when the results are declared, it will become obvious whether the support their divisive agenda has translated into actual seats or is, at least this time around, seen in a rising tide of vote share. If neither happens, Bengal, as we have known it, would be restored, at least in part. That seems unlikely, though. It appears that the atmosphere in Bengal has changed, and this vitiated conversation will outlast this election.
(The author is a former journalist based out of Kolkata, and currently, a political analyst. He tweets @givenupongodot. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)