Bengal’s historic contradictions surface in contemporary politics by Pallavi Roy

By Sunil Pun|May 15, 2019|General|0 comments

SOAS South Asia Institute Scholars on the Indian Elections 2019

The 2019 general elections are being described as one of the most significant along with the ones held after independence in 1951 and after the ‘Emergency’ in 1977. These elections are being seen as almost a referendum for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) aggressively populist, exclusionary and right-wing Hindutva politics. There is a lot at stake for the party which has so far not performed well outside the North Indian belt. This time it also hopes to make significant inroads in West Bengal, a state not known for sectarian politics.

Despite this, the BJP is now the main opposition in a state that till ten years ago was ruled by a coalition of Communist parties for 35 years. In 2011 the Trinamool Congress (TMC) swept aside the Communists riding on anti-incumbency and opportunistic populism. But the BJP mainly with the help of its parent organisation the fundamentalist Hindutva Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been making quiet and determined progress in a bastion long considered impenetrable by the Hindu right.

For a student of Bengali history this ought not to come as a surprise. The contradiction of what is now West Bengal but was then undivided Bengal in British India is that it was the birthplace of progressive anti-colonial nationalism through the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, social reform in Hinduism through Ram Mohan Roy and Kshiti Mohan Sen, all of whom were famous figures of the Bengali ‘Renaissance’, as well of modern Hindu nationalism through personalities like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Undivided Bengal was also the theatre of some of the fiercest sectarian politics between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League in the 1940s leading up to partition and independence in 1947.

Post-1947 West Bengal retained Congress rule but equally retained a nuanced anti-Delhi stance under Bidhan Chandra Roy the first chief minister who can be credited with laying the foundations of the modern state of West Bengal. His demise led to a fraying of Congress influence in the state and the Communists who came to power in 1977 turned the state away from the political centre. The TMC while violently opposed to the Communists after they came to power in 2011 retained a strident anti-Delhi stance especially after the 2014 general elections when the BJP came to power under Narendra Modi. The TMC was a coalition member in a BJP government in 1999 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee but its leaders have always maintained Vajpayee’s BJP was not the same as Modi’s.

Events though are coming full circle helped in no small measure by the polarisation that has come to characterise Indian politics of late. Unlike the Communists whose redistributive politics was broad based and not identity-specific TMC’s politics has tended to target disadvantaged communities, especially the state’s sizable Muslim minority. While this has largely been in the nature of sops and not translated into real empowerment (Muslims in the state and even more so in India remain hugely underrepresented in economics and politics) the BJP is using even this to mobilise sections of the Bengali population effectively channelling its nationally divisive brand of politics that has now gained social and political acceptance.

A telling report on trends in West Bengal by NDTV a current affairs broadcaster suggests young Bengalis, perhaps more conscious of their current political milieu, are more likely to vote for the BJP while the middle aged who perhaps are more aware of the history of reform in Bengal will vote for non-BJP parties. This is in keeping with the broad cultural dimensions of the CPM and TMC who reached out to the more syncretic strands of intellectual elite and peasant folk Bengali culture that have typified the modern state. The politics of muscular religious identity is a recent import in contemporary Bengal but one the younger demographic is more familiar with given its national spread.

Yet Bengal is a largely agrarian state and the BJP has still to sharpen a discourse that reflects this reality. This is what makes the Congress at the national level and the TMC in Bengal, even more strongly, a potent force that at least for the medium term could frustrate the BJP in its efforts at consolidating its power.

Pallavi Roy is a lecturer in International Economics at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. 

Share this Post:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *