Bengal’s Election as the Nation’s Frontline Critic by Sanjukta Ghosh

By Sunil Pun|May 21, 2019|General|0 comments

SOAS South Asia Institute Scholars on the Indian Elections 2019

The 17th Lok Sabha elections have aroused ‘the never before’ spate of analyses among academics and the media, by taking stock of limitless flow of data, fake news and visuals as distorting factors in free and fair elections. But most importantly, these also serve as triggers of a sweeping anti-incumbency vote. Bengal is the hotbed of such analyses given the recent turn of a bitter struggle between two presidential style leaders (Bengal’s CM and India’s PM) who epitomise the ‘argumentative Indian’. Mamata and Modi represented two sides of a betting coin in Indian politics since 2014, as the former has been the frontline critic of the Prime Minister in every aspect thinkable – be it identity politics or the flip side of development. From personal sound bites exchanged via the social media to physical campaigns and rallies, the contest between the two personae has filtered deep down to party levels and the public psyche.

The Ma, Maati Manush – children of the grassroots, led by Trinamool Congress (TMC) as representatives of late capitalist modern Bengal are different from the headstrong followers of Lenin. TMC party followers and administration are sworn to the glamour of Bishwa Bangla (the aspirational global logo of the party) and are imbued with regional pride. Bengal is seen as a key player in driving the anti-Modi sentiment, with the CM tipped as PM material. This emergence of Bengal’s Trinamool as the harbinger of national ambition is the real threat to the NDA camp; a position clearly different from its Communist predecessor CPI(M), whose 34-years continuous rule was essentially distanced from the capital.

Trinamool remains at a calculated distance from the national opposition –Congress party and its legacy in Bengal. The structural and ideological dismantling of the historic edifice of the CPI(M), by shifting the physical locus of power to new administrative buildings, and flamboyant display of party colours in blue and white stripes compete with the show of saffron strength. This confident and rapid breakdown of cadre-based power built over decades is visible in the city of Kolkata and in rural Bengal, where offices of the Left are deserted, and a crumbling membership is split along BJP and Trinamool party lines. The three-way division of Left supporters between the Muslim-friendly Trinamool, pro-Hindu BJP and liberal-left remnants is the most significant political fracture in Bengal.


Violence and Identity

The political division has unleashed an unprecedented level of violence in the state of West Bengal which has deviated from a standard centrist position of most other border states. Moreover, the Bengali Hindu zeal is recorded in the historic communal riots of the 1940s. In post-Partition days, the Bengalis embraced the Left-leaning non-identity politics of accommodating a huge influx of migrants from modern Bangladesh, wiping off caste questions but without understanding the socio-cultural moorings of a displaced Dalit population. The veneer of residential settlement remains delicate and could be ignited for political gains.

Bengal, therefore, sees the resurgence of caste-based politics, particularly in border areas where the vote is split again between TMC and the BJP among the Matua sect of Namasudra settlers, who are a powerful lobby negotiating their status of citizenship since early 2014, ignited further by Modi’s recent visit and subsequent promise of Hindu security. Here, regional Dalit identity questions merge with issues of development making the room for State-level contests to gain a footing, and the TMC leader to emerge as an inclusive national player.

On the other hand, Surjya Kanta Mishra, CPIM’s Secretary has recently confided that he rather wins fewer seats, keeping to the party’s principle of mass action, than invest money and loyalty to campaigns that flash leaders on larger than life cardboard hoardings. This confession also validates a significant vacuum in the Left campaign with strong leadership, failing to match the expectations of glitzy young voters across the nation or for that matter, the turn to questions of social mobility and honour in lieu of poverty. The TMC antidote comes in a new cocktail of difference — Mamata Banerjee’s cultivated charisma, stunt and theatrics of oppositional politics has been matched by populism and real work, drawing women to her girl welfare policy as a successful local example, and Kanyashri projects meriting international recognition.


Muscular Narrative

There is, however, with every unconditional leadership the chance and fear of the Other’s backlash. If Mamata Banerjee’s rise and Bengal’s pride are conflated features of populism, it is underpinned by a historical sense of greatness, typical of regional and ethnic nationalism. Bengal and Bengalis rising to the status of a critic to the Hindi heartland of power could become the new frontier of ethno-linguistic conflict. The recent vandalism of the iconic pioneer of Bengali language and educational reformer Vidyasagar’s statue, prompting counter claims and propaganda shows how various existing and historic divisions within the State could reach a tipping point. Vidyasagar is intrinsic to Bengali childhood and to a close-knit domestic culture. His alphabetic introduction or Varna Parichay is not at par with Savarna politics of the upper caste Hindus. The destruction of his statue is an attempted reconstruction of a buffer between parties serving electoral interest. This kind of cultural shock is not new either, but it comes at a time of Amit Shah’s (BJP President) spectacularly funded rally, aggressive in its groomed muscular tone and message.

Urban Kolkata’s upper caste and socially mobile Hindus removed from street level politics are seeing the tide turning to a well-manicured alternative that in traditional politics feeds into the anti-incumbency factor. The mechanisms here are money, mobility, new media and a sense of pride that recasts the famine generation’s Kangal Bengali image of desperation. These capture the imagination of those who devalue the territorial history of Bengal, not just as agents of a generation gap, but as witnesses to a long-term shift in demography and cultures.

Prasenjit Bhattacharya who was brought up in a liberal Left household of a railway Trade Unionist, notices how demographics and political party dynamics are used as fodders to ignite communal tensions in parts of the city that had historical instances of mob violence dating back to the infamous Calcutta riots of 1946:

In the southwestern part of the city near the Hooghly river, the congested stretch of the old working-class dockland area of Kidderpore, and to its west, the larger Garden Reach area comprised also of the BNR colony (south-eastern railway quarters) and Muslim dominated Metiabruz — historically equivalent to a miniature Nawabi Lucknow, Trinamool support has been divided with Congress. Here, the incursion of BJP is aggressively visible with saffron flags and the artefact of Hanuman (devotee of Rama and a North Indian import) laid a few metres away from the local masjid and opposite a Christian missionary school.’

BJP is catching onto the States’ new muscular narrative but without the organisational strength. Trinamool has both these winning factors under its belt, and an inclusive subaltern discourse to offer but compromised from within – being rooted in oppositional regional politics, fragile borders and contingent political rhetoric. Booth-level organisation and visible development in Bengal led to TMC gains, but the North Indian deities and their worshippers has brought the curse faster than imagined.

On 23 May, Modi and Shah celebrated their victory at the national level. It is clear from the BJP President’s triumphalism that he has his eyes fixed on ‘Bangal ke andaar’ (inside Bengal), repeated more than three times in his victory speech, without a pause, to follow up by a chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jay’, implying Bengal’s integration to its future agenda. Trinamool under Mamata Banerjee will represent at an unexpectedly low 22 seats in the Lok Sabha. BJP with 18 seats from Bengal under Dilip Ghosh’s leadership and new responsibilities has a definite goal in sight for the upcoming assembly elections in 2021. The Left wash out in Bengal is evident (0 seats), but it remains to be seen how they are integrated with Bharat Mata.


The author, Sanjukta Ghosh is Honorary Artistic Director at SOAS South Asia Insitute. Her research interests in modern South Asia from the nineteenth century to the present day focus on the Bengal Presidency, modern West Bengal and Bangladesh. These include studies on agrarian and food policies; rural-urban linkages, commodities and consumption; histories of scientific knowledge and practices, press and public sphere; socio-economic and cultural histories of migration, urbanisation and heritage practices that require cross-disciplinary engagement with Bengali literature, oral tradition, illustrations and art.


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