The word ‘exceptionalism’ is being repeatedly used in the run-up to the Bengal elections.
There is much chatter that there isn’t any ‘real’ Bengali ‘exceptionalism’ – as the BJP is on the rise there – and that the true hubs of ‘exceptionalism’ are Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
However, in this vacuous debate lies indications of why the Indian intelligentsia completely failed to understand Indian politics in the last few years.
Congress’s Decline, Mandir & Mandal — and Flawed Political Beliefs
Two broad beliefs dominated supposedly ‘evolved’ thoughts on politics in India, a decade ago. One, that society had to be necessarily made sense of in fragments — and not as a whole — and, as an extension of this, that there were supposedly two meta-regions in India: the large, populous, ‘cow-belt’, or Hindi belt, which was ‘feudal, ‘backward’, gender-discriminatory, communal and casteist’, and Bengal-plus-South-India, which — with the sole exception of Karnataka — was progressive and thereby, a default anti-dote to Hindutva politics.
The categories were so neat as to be completely shallow, as time would tell.
The belief that society was to be made sense of in fragments wasn’t developed in vacuo. It was a result of the decline of the Congress — which could once rule almost the whole of India with ease, thus generating a sense of pan-Indian political convergence amid diversity.
The Congress declined around 1990, when the BJP took away chunks of Hindus — Congress-supporting dominant caste Hindus in particular — in north India around the Ram temple campaign, and the Samajwadi Party and RJD took away Muslims, creating a M-Y vote bank with Muslims and Yadavs at the core.
Hinduism in north India was splintered around the axis of forward and disadvantaged caste groups, as these developments took place in the heady days of Mandir and Mandal.
The academia reacted by putting in place theories of fragmentation as central to any analysis of India. Christophe Jaffrelot and many others began to view politics around this fragmentation along caste lines. Many now also began to see caste as an antidote to Hindutva.
False Belief About BJP’s ‘Natural Limits’
The other belief was that the BJP had its natural limits. It would not breach ‘progressive’ Bengal, or even Assam and Tripura, which were allegedly very different from the Hindi-heartland.
As the BJP declined in UP by 2009 — winning just 10 seats in the Lok Sabha — but kept winning Gujarat, a new hypothesis came up. This was of a ‘regressive’ Gujarati ‘exceptionalism’. Modi could win the urbanised, Hindutva-heavy, Sangh laboratory of Gujarat, but would not be able to do the same in largely agrarian and rural UP and Bihar. In other words, the BJP’s tally under him would not rise much.
The year 2014 shattered this belief, as UP and, to a lesser extent, Bihar responded to Modi just like Gujarat was expected to.
And the BJP in the coming years took Assam — where its pitch against illegal immigration from Bangladesh resonated with the Assamese, and the entry of Himanta Biswa Sarma also helped — and Tripura, and began to grow dramatically in Bengal, winning 18 seats and 40-percent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP’s surge in Bengal has made the coming polls in the state keenly watched. For, on the Bengal results depends the future life of Bengali ‘exceptionalism’, a myth that had become commonsensical among intellectuals.
What the myth stood for, however, was the claims of articulate sections of the Kolkata Bhadralok, or middle class, and largely dominant caste, educated people. Their self-image — largely vis-à-vis north India — had been stretched thin over the whole of Bengal to produce a myth of ‘exceptionalism’ that stood out for its lack of rigour.
The myth is on its deathbed right now. Irrespective of the result, the BJP is right now very much in contention for power, and has demonstrated in 2019 its ability to dominate heavily Dalit and indigenous pockets of north Bengal and Jangalmahal.
Reports say it is also threatening the TMC’s strongholds in south Bengal.
Also endangered now is the tendency to view Hinduism as necessarily divided by caste. The rise of Hindutva has politically organised Hindus around axes of caste configurations, bringing about a multiplier effect. In UP, Hindutva has combined the dominant castes with large chunks of non-Yadav OBCs and sections of Dalits, creating a combination that is difficult to defeat as of now. In Bihar, the BJP brings in dominant castes, and ally Nitish Kumar draws in extremely disadvantaged castes, thus denying the RJD — which still attempts the M-Y combination — electoral success.
In Bengal, too, the BJP has made deep inroads among Dalits and indigenous people, who have been at the receiving end of TMC’s political violence and allegedly ‘high corruption’.
Many intellectuals had not seen this coming.
The reasons are several. They forgot that convergence and divergence of political behaviour among social groups are two trends that may become powerful or weak at given moments.
The Congress, till the 1960s, was a beneficiary of a large convergence of votes across social strata, despite social divisions of caste, region, language and community.
Then began a process of divergence: middle-level castes organised around farmer and socialist politics since the 1960s, the dominant castes moved towards Hindutva around 1990, and Dalits, particularly in UP, attempted an autonomous politics under the BSP in the 1990s.
Social science literature on the deepening of democracy, and the rise of the plebeians, began to abound to capture this trend.
Rise of Social Media — And Booming Fake News Factories
However, another shift began in the last decade. The coming of smartphones and the social media gave rise to a new imagined community across social strata and regions. This was largely woven around polarising messages that were mostly fake. Muslims got ‘othered’ in large parts of India, the Congress was painted as the fountainhead of ‘nepotistic corruption’, Rahul Gandhi got internalised as an ‘incapable dynast’ and Narendra Modi got projected as the ‘man who would lead India’ to the status of a superpower.
Added to these messages — forwarded, discussed and internalised — was social engineering by the BJP in north India. It made use of the belief among extremely disadvantaged castes, that OBC politics was actually just Yadav politics and opened the doors of representation for them.
The numbers of non-Yadav OBCs in the UP assembly jumped in 2017.
These two factors brought forth a new wave of convergence of thought amid diversity on the ground. The BJP had succeeded in carving out a new Hindutva unity in diversity, the successor of the more secular unity in diversity projected by the Congress till the 1960s.
Failure of the Left & Its Dated Understanding of Caste & Class Politics
Just as many social groups were not with the Congress even then, many aren’t with the BJP even now. But the party has enough support across the caste and regional divide to be able to win many elections convincingly and carve out clear Lok Sabha majorities.
The Indian intelligentsia failed to notice this. In fact, the left decided to evoke caste — Kanhaiya Kumar repeatedly evoked BR Ambedkar in his speeches on a JNU campus that 15 years back saw Karl Marx being talked about — at a moment when caste was evolving into an ally of Hindutva — and not an antidote.
The left missed the bus in more ways than one: it talked just class when caste had become a political fault-line in the 1990s, and took to caste as an antidote to Hindutva when the latter had already employed it to expand its reach.
From the looks of it, the Congress still has no idea as to how this wave of cross-caste and cross-region Hindutva consolidation is to be addressed.
However, the writing on the wall is clear. Exceptionalism as also fragmentation are no longer useful tools to understand politics. They may yet again become useful at some time in the future, but what we are witnessing today is a trend of convergence amid diversity.
(Dr Vikas Pathak is a media educator and a senior journalist who has worked with The Hindu, The Indian Express, Hindusthan Times, etc. He’s the author of 'Contesting Nationalisms'. He tweets @vikaspathak76. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)