Comprehending West Bengal politics in its entirety is like trying to fathom a knotty web of crosscutting history and narratives. To navigate this labyrinth, one needs to be equipped with a sound sense of history, not only the kind that boasts of Bengali exceptionalism but also the strand that has got deliberately left out.
In the recent past, there has been a spate of articles in newspapers and magazines digging up Bengal’s soft corner for identity politics, especially Hindu nationalism. It is playing a significant part in unraveling the Left Front’s carefully curated narration of Bengal’s austere political orientation and has in a way explained the growing popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal. But replacing the history one is used to with a patchwork of articles that throws new light on Bengali political psyche can be full of ambiguities and gaps.
That is precisely the reason why the arrival of Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment is a blessing for those who are having a tough time wrapping their febrile minds around Bengal politics. The book aims at chronicling the rise of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aided by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) exponential growth in Bengal during Trinamool Congress’ rule, explaining how it came to occupy the role of the chief opposition party against TMC from being an inconsequential fringe party. It also goes well beyond BJP’s growth during TMC’s rule, covering historical background, and situating it in the contemporary context.
Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on politics, history, and socioeconomic affairs. Like his first non-fiction, Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji, this one too is full of intricate details with a fly on the wall proximity revealing his astounding access to insiders in political parties in Bengal. He covers in 10 chapters the material meant for two books. He occasionally includes impactful visual descriptions and backs them with detailed facts and figures in an astute set-up, through which he compares West Bengal to a political laboratory.
The book is an effective guide not only for those political enthusiasts outside Bengal who are interested in understanding the state’s layered political complexities but also for state insiders who are trying to fathom what TMC and its chief Mamata Banerjee are up against.
The author explains in great detail the inner workings of RSS and the other organisations created by it all over Bengal, and observes that TMC’s fight is not just against BJP but the entire Sangh Parivar with more than thirty organisations in its fold. The chapters are peppered with sharp observations that would make readers ponder and discover analogies they have not thought of previously. That could be the reason why despite the author not mentioning it anywhere in his narration I could sense a pattern.
Sangh Parivar has extended its multiple tentacles into every facet of socioeconomic activities in the districts just the way the Left Front had party members in all kinds of local groupings—from panchayats to local youth clubs to committees for public religious festivities, subordinating the social to the political. It also makes me wonder if the rigid hierarchy and the strict discipline typical in a cadre-based political party is what secretly Bengal has always been drawn to.
Clear fault lines
The author documents subtle but decisive changes coming in Kolkata and other parts of Bengal that have made communal and regional differences politically relevant. Like how the police have started being perceived as showing bias when it comes to enforcing the law on certain community members. In case of clash of dates of religious festivities and processions, how the state gives one religious community preference over another. Communal tension has been on the rise as riots started breaking out in different parts of Bengal between 2015 and 2019, ushering in an opportunity for BJP to intensify its campaign against TMC. With the emergence of a clear fault line between communities – Hindu and Muslim; Bengali and non-Bengali – no one got spared, not even the Gods and Goddesses.
He also covers the recent developments in Bengal. The effect of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and its impact on a state that shares a border with Bangladesh, the state administration’s response to the pandemic, the disruption of a super-cyclone and mishandling of its relief work, and the entrance of a political strategist to help TMC prepare a game plan to defeat BJP. When Banerjee let out the identity genie riding the support wave of the Muslim and Matua communities to defeat the Left Front in 2011, little did she know that it would be used as an instrument against her later by the BJP. Now she is course-correcting and changing her tactics to become more inclusive to win the assembly for the third time in 2021.
The author’s style is straightforward and uncomplicated, aiding the rollout of the complex subject, but some parts have so many details and numbers packed in that it thwarts the flow of the narration. Dissecting election results via a simple visual table or graph instead of including the numbers in the text could have made the reading easier at places.
The narration of parallel and overlapping events in Bengal makes the book seem like a collection of essays not necessarily connected at times and one has to go back and forth a bit to understand the continuity. Because of the exhaustive scope of the subject, the author seems to have focused on the optics more and rushed over the policy part.
A more in-depth discussion of policies, perhaps devoting a chapter solely to what TMC and its main opposition party have to offer to the people of Bengal both in urban and rural areas could have made the account well-rounded. Also, a clearer discussion of the grassroots social work carried out by the RSS organisations benefitting the SC and ST dominant districts, and the comparison of the same with what TMC has proposed and done for those constituencies might have made the narrative more relevant from the point of view of the identity vote bank.
One of this book’s biggest contribution is the way it takes the reader on a whirlwind tour as the narration darts from one part of Bengal to another, seamlessly shifting from urban to rural, showcasing the emerging Bengali political leaders and providing a 360-degree view of the changing political equations and alliances in the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections. Overall, the book seems to be a precursor to many more books to be written on Bengal politics and is a must-read for all political animals interested in Bengal as well as other Indian states sharing borders with neighbouring countries
Sreya Sarkar is a public policy professional based out of Boston, who has previously worked as a poverty alleviation specialist in US think tanks. At present, she writes non-fiction articles and op-eds for Indian policy blogs and magazines.