“Populist Governments With Strong Leaders Like Mamata Are Here to Stay”

As much as the urban middle class hates to admit it, says political scientist Ranabir Samaddar, the Trinamool Congress’s range of welfare measures earned the party its second consecutive win, reflecting a larger socio-political churning in West Bengal.

Ranabir Samaddar. Photo: Jan Boeve / ECF

Ranabir Samaddar. Credit: Jan Boeve/ECF

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) stormed its way back to power with an absolute majority, bucking all the predictions of a close contest. The TMC not only registered an increase of around 7% in terms of vote share, it also performed very well in north and central Bengal where it was considered organisationally weak. At the time of writing, the TMC was expected to win 215 seats, doing uniformly well across the state. According to many poll observers, the TMC victory is definitely special because it came against an almost united opposition. How did Mamata manage such a stupendous win, despite the fact that her government was charged with corruption and high-handedness? What were the larger factors at play? What does one draw out of the Bengal result? The Wire spoke to political scientist Ranabir Samaddar on these issues and more. Samaddar is the director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group and has been closely following the development of Bengal politics.

What, according to you, is the message of the election?

I will say there are three messages but I don’t know how to prioritise them. Firstly, the victory of the TMC is linked to the fact that it had gone into the polls with its own idea of development that has a great appeal among the poor. The TMC can be categorised as a populist party from lower class origins. It was criticised by the middle classes for ‘doling out sops and money’. Even after the results, television channels are reinforcing the idea that the poor respond only to doles and money. The doles are being equated with Mamata Banerjee’s welfare schemes like Konya Shree, Sabuj Sathi, Khandya Sathi, etc. and her rural road and electrification schemes. However, the result is a victory of the idea that the poor need development of social infrastructure without involving big capital even when the state has very little public money. TMC followed this political line and showed that it is possible to survive in politics and project itself as an alternative. This trend should not be taken lightly. The subalternisation of politics in Bengal is there for everyone to see.

My second point is the extremely hollow role of intellectuals. The Left Front-Congress combine, what I call the Left-Liberal Joat is a very natural development of Leftist politics in our country. Such alliances have never taken a strong anti-liberal bourgeois stand. They have always compromised and this was one more case. Knowing everything that the Congress stands for, the Left Front went ahead with the alliance. This Left-Liberal combine, backed by the intellectuals, thought that giving the slogan of ‘save democracy’ would be good but it did it without imparting any social content to democracy. It did it to counter TMC but did not know that it was actually playing into the TMC’s hands. The question was ‘development for whom?’  and Trinamool answered it in a much better way, obviously without articulating it in that sense given the fact that it is a subaltern party. The Joat did not answer that question at all while raising the slogan to save democracy.

The slogan reminded me of the Velvet Revolution of eastern Europe in 1989, where the idea was to save democracy. They thought that by strengthening the state machinery of supervision, they could garner people’s support. The intellectual response to the TMC, exactly in the same way, was counter-productive. The intellectualism in Bengal, the reputation of which has gained mythic proportions, has become absolutely hollow. They cannot stand the political language, the social mobilisation, the churning that is going on in Bengal. They are not ready to even acknowledge all these trends. The intellectuals tend to convey the message that they are right and people are wrong.

It was only the 1977 elections in which Indira Gandhi was opposed politically, socially and economically. The opposition drew up a strategy to oppose Mamata Banerjee exactly in the same way. However, social and political contexts are very different in 2016. The ‘save democracy’ campaign of the opposition lacked the social content it desperately needed.

Thirdly, elections have become a great logistical exercise in today’s times. The result is determined by the number of central forces, poll observers, booth management, technology, etc. The Election Commission picked out Jangalmahal in the first phase. Now, Jangalmahal is not a disturbed area anymore. Precisely, because of isolating it, you are creating a world of speculation. Nobody could tell who would win. All the parties are involved in this entire logistical process. The more you supply, you think you can get more votes. As if it is a voters’ market. Neoliberal logic forces you to emphasise on the supply side of economics. How do you phase it, that is the crucial question. How do you manage it? TMC definitely played this game really well and shrewdly even though it was extremely nervous.

These three factors, according to me, are trend-setting in Indian elections.

Why didn’t charges of corruption work against the TMC? At the time of such social churning, like you say, do these issues cease to be of any significance?

 Yes and no. I would never say that an election like 1989 where Bofors was the issue will not happen anymore. There are two things I would like to say. Corruption will become a definite issue when it will become emblematic of the regime, and therefore, the society. Aam Aadmi Party’s victory in Delhi came in such a context. But let us say if you feel corruption, which is always played up by the media, will be a huge issue in a place like China, you may be wrong. With infrastructure building, including social infrastructure, as your main agenda (as was the case with TMC), the auxiliary incomes like the rental income catalyses the growth of an informal economy.

Locality after locality survives in this informal economy. Syndicates in Bengal, for instance, created that kind of economy. Corruption is an issue for people who are affected by it. In other words, people who benefit from the neoliberal economy. But if you’re looking at it from a lower class point of view, such an informal economy is one of the ways they are surviving.

Additionally, such corruption is small and medium. This is not like the Commonwealth Games or 2G scam that ran into thousands of crores. It is nothing like auctioning of public property like coal.

The Saradha chit fund was also a scandal of small proportions if compared to these scams. Big corporate capital was not involved in it. There are no clean origins of capital but there is a scale of measurement definitely. After the nationalisation of banks, the government of India became the richest institution of the country. With taxation, it mobilised capital. It is only when the GoI started liberalising and banks started laundering money in the last few decades, there was a crisis. Bengal has no public money. Chit funds are one way to make money for some people. In Kerala, chit funds are extremely popular but the state has adequate regulations on it. In Bengal, there are no regulations and the scam broke out. It is only through half-dubious means like the Saradha or Rose Valley that capital is being mobilised in Bengal. The moment such capital is mobilised at such small levels, the big capital corporates start to attack it. No one will arrest Reliance or Adani officials for flouting norms. Under the name of public-private partnership, you are allowing big capital to win.

Scams like Saradha and Rose Valley have to be seen as a contradiction between big and small capital. This is the only way small capital develops. I am not saying corruption is not an issue. All I am saying is that you have to understand when it will actually become a political issue. Even though the media played it up, corruption had not become emblematic of the TMC regime.

Does the Bengal result cement, in any way, identity politics of some sort? Probably of the social justice kind?

I don’t like to use the word identity politics but I understand what you are trying to say. Identity politics has been used in a very hackneyed manner. There is no doubt that Bengal politics is fast becoming a subject in its own right. One, it picks up the social justice question in its own way. It is not exactly like the way Lalu or Karpoori Thakur had picked it up earlier. Also not like Nitish Kumar or Navin Patnaik. The subalternisation that you have seen in Bihar is happening in Bengal now. The stability of bureaucracy within a welfarist politics, as it happened in Tamil Nadu, is also now showing. Also, you have a flock of legislators who cannot be purchased at any cost. A strong leadership in the name of Mamata Banerjee is also present.

Consider the fault lines of Bengal. North versus south, Hindus and Muslims, agriculture versus industry, Kolkata versus the hinterland, upper class and lower class, old industry versus new industry, dry land versus wetlands, etc. TMC has managed to create an identity that overcame all these fault lines of politics. Only then can you get more around 215 seats. Jyoti Basu had that kind of hegemonic presence but it slowly evaporated. CPI(M) never won that many seats alone.

This is a new kind of identity which is not ethnic or caste-oriented. This identity in the context of Bengal is aimed at neutralising the deep fault lines of the state – an overarching political notion for the poor.

Mamata Banerjee speaking at a rally. Credit: PTI

Mamata Banerjee speaking at a rally. Credit: PTI

Why do you think such politics, or what you casually referred as the Bengal Model, evolved? Does it have something to do with the slow erosion of Leftist politics in Bengal?

One, at one point of time the Left was synonymous with Bengal and Kerala. You could say that being a Leftist meant you were sympathetic to social and political movements of the poor. Over time, Left politics started to practice a kind of liberalism and nothing more. This gave the impression that it was not taking up the causes of lower classes at the governmental and electoral level. You were seen as hoodwinking the people.

If you look at the 2011 result, what was the poriborton about? It was also about breaking up the Hindu upper caste, intellectual hold on politics. This is what our Left middle class does not understand in Kolkata – that Kolkata’s opinion does not matter anymore in electoral politics. When the Left says that Bengal is on the brink of a collapse, they only see half the picture. They are not ready to see that the old framework of ruling Bengal is no more valid. The way in which Mamata functions – in an extremely centralised, decisive way – works for the TMC. It is a kind of inclusive politics that may not work with the intellectuals, but the poor think it is needed, given their social and economic conditions. Unlike the middle classes, the poor does not live in a fragile state.

Do you see a trend where populist governments backed by a strong leader are here to stay? The Tamil Nadu results also indicate the same.

I would only say one has to understand why populist politics throws up strong leadership. Previously, politics in Bengal was played out by a party machinery. In this case, it is being done by an individual with an enormous informal and quasi-formal network spread through society. From top to bottom. It is a very itinerant style. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya never visited Darjeeling in his ten years as chief minister. He hardly cared to visit the rural areas. He was the modern prince. He was operating from Writers’ Building. He had elite people, intellectuals to advise him. He would write commentary pieces in the evenings. He would attend industry conferences. A classic elite culture.

Mamata, on the other hand, does not stay in Kolkata. She is always moving in villages. She brought back the kind of politics where a leader is always present with her electorate. A kind of a travelling organiser, like in the early 20th century. You go to the people. You connect with them and politically strategise accordingly.

This kind of social churning, some say, was also brought in to the polity by the BJP in other parts of India. How do you distinguish between the rise of BJP and TMC?

 I do not see any parallel between the BJP and the TMC. I don’t see BJP bringing out any form of democratic social churning. Like in UP, Mayawati stoked the social churning. BJP relies on consolidation of Hindus by charging them up communally – through engineering riots, communal campaigns etc. BJP consolidates its votes on the basis of the fault lines whereas Mamata consolidates by providing an alternative overarching framework that picks up on some common concerns of the poor – by neutralising the fault lines. In Assam, the BJP won because Congress betrayed the poor classes. The vote for BJP in Assam is negative whereas the TMC victory is because of positive votes.

BJP’s votes have come down in Bengal. You see there is no doubt that this is a critical situation. I see this situation also as a crisis, especially in Bihar and Bengal. However, the liberal response to this crisis is very lukewarm. It is not forward-looking. It does not want to take any risk. The crisis also creates a void which is open for fascist negotiation or a populist style of politics. Populism grows out of a crisis. At least the lower classes feel so. Right now, it is a time of contestation. Enormous contestation.