Bengal 2021: Can Mamata Banerjee Fight & Restore Libertarianism?

Mamata must alter political narrative, culture, diction by channeling Bengal’s faith in its core beliefs.

4 min read
Image of Mamata Banerjee and Bengal map used for representational purposes.

‘Utho Go Bharata Lakshmi’ — Atul Prasad’s iconic song, which rallied millions during the partition of Bengal in 1905, remains relevant even today. Loosely translated, it exhorts Bharat Mata (Ma Shakti as the divine feminine power in traditional Hindu thought) to rise against the British. As a society which has experienced the horrors of partition twice, the abiding desire for social cohesion and abhorrence to polarisation remains at its core.

India is witnessing many fundamental changes to its being whether it be in its economic policies, social behaviour, international relations or the concept and definition of a liberal democracy.

One can argue on the relative efficacies of many of these interventions, especially its demonstrated ability in handling some long festering issues like the Ram Mandir, Kashmir, triple talaq, etc, or those on the economic policies, distribution of social benefits, addressing corruption, etc. What is beyond the realm of argument, though, is the level of polarisation in the society today and the widespread ‘perception’ of an orchestrated design to restrict levels of civil liberties for the ordinary citizen.

The recent reports of Freedom House and V Dem, downgrading us to ‘partly free’ and an ‘elected autocracy’ is just one international recognition of this alarming trend.

Mamata’s Ability to Take On BJP Juggernaut

Loss of freedom is indeed a sobering phenomenon — and must make us introspect on what we hold dear above all. It is this which should be at the core of the ‘poriborton’ (change) debate in the 2021 Bengal elections. I view this election as not merely a regional election but one whose outcome will make a long-lasting impact in national politics, just like the rise of Adityanath post-2017 UP elections. Only this time, the matters are far more fundamental with the situation in Punjab and the BJP’s wipe out in the recent local elections, economic uncertainties and PM Modi’s waning charisma to hold onto allies and supporters due to a host of reasons since the heady days of 2014.

Post the demise of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, Mamata is perhaps the only relevant mass regional leader in India apart from Sharad Pawar.

She is one who also fits the bill of personally being a clean politician like the PM. Her party is an entirely different matter! Hence, her ability to take on the BJP machinery is immense. But she runs the danger of falling into the trap of responding to their elevating rhetoric on peripheral issues rather than focussing on the core issue of what we, as a people, fundamentally stand for.

Why Mamata Must Drop Fear & Minority Appeasement

It is, thus, Mamata who needs to set the agenda to checkmate the BJP in Bengal. Hindutva ideology, as contra-distinct from those of Hinduism preached by Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and a multitude of other great spiritual leaders — does not naturally resonate in Bengal. This should be obvious as the BJP’s ‘poriborton yatra’ has thus far evinced limited interest.

But the BJP has effectively built a strong grassroots organisation since 2014 in Bengal, and its political response to the reign of unnecessary terror unleashed by the TMC on the erstwhile CPM and Congress cadres in the rural and suburban areas must be acknowledged. This is what drove supporters of the CPM to the BJP’s fold as was evidenced in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, after the TMC swept the 2018 panchayat polls where 34 percent of the seats remain uncontested due to what is colloquially called ‘Elaka Dhokol’.

In my view, this was a totally unnecessary move by the TMC — with a massive mandate and a charismatic mass leader — which fundamentally led a large section of the population right into the waiting embrace of the BJP.

The astute leader that she is, Mamata must now drop fear and minority appeasement politics from her repertoire and focus on the vulnerabilities in the BJP’s ideology and polarising policies in the context of the Bengali ethos of social cohesion, where neither religion nor caste have had any major role to play post-Independence and its traumatic partition.

When Speech Becomes a Violent Act

The toxic nature of public discourse we are witnessing in these elections is a depiction of a creeping move away from the libertarian thought embedded in our polity, where subtle political invocation is replaced with social mortification, pluralism with conformity, and factuality with opinionated versions of the truth.

The manner of resolving conflicts in a civilised society is through reasoned, objective and balanced debate (that is, speech), and not the rabid discourse we are witnessing in legislatures, Twitter or TV debates.

When speech itself becomes a violent act (trolls, public discourse or electioneering), can physical violence be far behind?

That the vocabulary of economic development couched in this polarising illiberal dogma can quite justifiably confuse the narrative for the electorate, was demonstrated by Trump in a seemingly mature democracy like the US.

All this achieves is an adversarial brand of politics in pitting one against the other — through verbal and mob violence — based on either religion or caste or race. This culture and diction of political language is not what we must encourage, and before it takes root, should be at the core of what politicians like Mamata Banerjee must assume leadership to fight against.

Mamata’s Chance to Lead India

The great American judge and judicial philosopher, Learned Hand, once said: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no Constitution, law or court can do much to help it. Strengthening the spirit of liberty in an age of growing illiberalism globally is our moral obligation above all else.”

Politicians have the organisational capability and the constitutional mandate to spread the message of an alternative narrative and fight for it. Biden has risen to it. Mamata has the opportunity to lead it in India. She is perhaps the only leader who can prove that “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” is made relevant again after 100 years.

Utho Go Bharata Lakshmi.

(Prabal Basu Roy is a Sloan Fellow from the London Business School. 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.)

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