Bengal is Paying the Price for Identity-Based Politics, First by Trinamool and Now BJP

However, instead of patronising multiple social clusters, which is the bedrock of TMC’s strategy, the BJP is trying to consolidate support on religious lines – its agenda elsewhere in the country too.

Narendraa Modi, Amit Shah (left), Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: “The Left Front was authoritarian, committed many mistakes in its 34-year rule, but Bengal never witnessed communal riots of this scale,” said a Birbhum-based Muslim ground-level worker of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Asking not to be named, the TMC activist, who had shifted from the Left Front around 10 years ago in the aftermath of the farmers’ agitations led by TMC chief Mamata Banerjee in Singur and Nandigram, was responding to the series of Hindu-Muslim clashes that has gripped the state over the past two years, leaving the government in an abyss.

The TMC activist’s views echo what many others with whom The Wire spoke to in the Mamata Banerjee-led party have been feeling in recent months. The violence earlier this month by Muslim groups over a derogatory Facebook post in Baduria and Basirhat, North 24 Parganas, have left many supporters within the party disillusioned.

“We understand that the communal clashes have become much more frequent because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) forceful campaign in the last two years. But Mamata’s failure to nip such trends in the bud has been disappointing,” said the activist, adding that both the Hindus and Muslims, especially the poor without much political influence, have been feeling the pinch of insecurity quite strongly in the recent times.

TMC activists claimed that the BJP, with its eye on the next assembly elections, has deployed its polarising tactics to consolidate the Hindu population in the state, while simultaneously advancing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its icon of development. However, they said, the Bengal chief minister has been short of ideas to counter the growing surge of the saffron party. With the Left Front and the Congress – the primary opposition – training its guns primarily against Mamata on a variety of issues, the BJP has had almost a free hand to expand, compelling the chief minister to employ quick-fix measures to control the escalating conflicts instead of offering an alternative political paradigm.

Although, according to various reports, the TMC government did well to control the violence in such incidents efficiently, including in the most recent one in North 24 Parganas, the frequency with which riots have broken out as a result of communities claiming that their religious sentiments have been hurt over social media posts lays bare the volatile situation in Bengal.

Political transitions in Bengal

A cursory look at the political transitions that have happened in Bengal over the past decade may sum up the state of affairs in Bengal. During its 34-year rule, the Left Front held a tight grip over the state polity. It had its footprints in each sphere of Bengal’s society and economy. It took under its umbrella different social groups and organised them as party cadres, pushing social and religious identities into the background.

However, as the Left slowly spawned a hydra-headed authoritarian system in the later phases of its rule, the social exclusions that the system perpetuated became more apparent.  The Sachar Committee report showed how marginalised the state’s Muslim population was. “As the agitations against the Left Front regime became more prominent, finally culminating in the Singur and Nandigram agitations, Mamata Banerjee emerged as the leader of all those people who felt excluded,” Atig Ghosh, a historian at the Visva Bharati University in Shanti Niketan told The Wire.

From a party-identity system that cut across various social factions, Mamata re-organised Bengal’s polity on the basis of identity groups that felt alienated. “Political circumstances in the aftermath of widespread agitations during the Left Front regime led to an opposition which relied on populism, patronage and right-based social justice rhetoric,” added Ghosh.

With Mamata leading the opposition from the front, the TMC re-organised the electorate within these new dynamics. From 2011, when Mamata first became the chief minister after overthrowing the Left Front, she made it a point to patronise various social groups – across castes and religions – like Shundis, Matuas, more recently the Lepchas in North Bengal and also the Muslims.

With identity-based politics finding a strong foothold, the political ground in Bengal was open for further exploration.

A resurgent BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is now trying to change the political equation. Instead of patronising multiple social clusters, which is the bedrock of the TMC’s strategy, the BJP has been trying to consolidate support on religious lines – its agenda elsewhere in the country too.  By pitting the state’s 71% Hindus against Muslims, who are 21%, the BJP has its eyes set on the next assembly elections, as is evident from different reports.

In other words, what the BJP is doing now is only an extension of the political paradigm that the TMC initiated a decade ago, although both the parties differ significantly in their intent and political devices.

Recent events in Bengal – be it the Gorkhaland agitations or frequently erupting communal riots – are direct corollaries of what is essentially a clash of two different types of identity-based politics – one based on ethnic identities and the other on religious identities.

The TMC responds to BJP challenge

Exactly for these reasons, the TMC, going by the versions of their own activists, is much more perturbed by the BJP’s surge than opposition by its traditional rivals – the Left Front and the Congress.

To beat the BJP, the TMC has relied on two tactical measures.

One, it has frequently invoked a sense of Bengali pride. Be it the TMC’s opposition to the centre’s imposition of Hindi, or its unilateral decision resolution to make the study of Bengali mandatory in schools (which led to widespread violence among non-Bengali populations in the Dooars recently) or its resolution to change the name of the state to Bengal, and its constant stress on the idea of the Centre victimising Bengalis, all aim to somehow create a larger sub-nationalist cult – the undercurrent of which has always been present in the state – as opposed to BJP’s Hindu nationalism.

Two, Mamata has also attempted to deflect attention from the controversies from which the BJP wants to benefit. Both with the intention of expanding and neutralising the BJP’s ally, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in north Bengal, she has tried to pit the Lepchas of Tibetan descent against the powerful Gorkhas of Nepali origin.

Or say, immediately after the Baduria and Basirhat riots, which she managed to stem well before it escalated beyond control, she successfully diverted the debate towards a pitched battle against the governor and RSS activist Keshari Nath Tripathi.

Mamata’s most recent responses betray a sense of nervousness. They quite clearly indicate that the BJP surge in Bengal has left her unnerved.

However, in this political manoeuvring, Mamata has shown that she is prone to fatal mistakes, as academic Ranabir Samaddar points out in one of his recent articles.  The agitations and stray incidents of violence in Darjeeling have continued for more than 20 days now.

Similarly, although Mamata made an emotional speech against the governor, the BJP has shown added aggression on social media – widely circulating fake and some real videos of Basirhat violence, terming the riots as a result of the “Muslim appeasement” policy of the TMC government.

The saffron party has made it a point to employ all its weapons to attack Mamata where it hurt the most – to an extent that the governor went beyond his role to apparently threaten Mamata with imposing president’s rule in the state if  the 17-year-old boy who posted a derogatory post against Muslims was not immediately released from custody.

Mamata, for a short while, had successfully deflected attention from the BJP’s fierce campaign against her towards ethnic issues of non-Bengali population. “She portrayed the Gorkhaland agitation as a secessionist movement which may lead to yet another partition of Bengal, touching the Bengali nerve. The BJP’s silence on the GJM’s demand alienated them for some time,” said Ghosh.

Electorally too, the Bengali-speaking regions are numerically much stronger than the hills, explaining the BJP’s silence and also Mamata’s aggression on the issue. However, the communal riots that broke in the border districts of Bengal have helped the BJP come back on its polarising track again.

At the moment, Mamata has too many challenges to handle. The BJP has successfully kept her busy with issues that have nothing to do with governance and welfare.

In this volatile political ground, the TMC’s traditional secular rivals have stuck to their traditional criticisms, which have proven to be insufficient to map the complicated churning. Both the Congress and the Left Front have blamed the TMC for following a communal policy and patronising organised criminal cartels. While this may be true to an extent and appeals to a section of city-based educated people, the two opposition parties have failed to capture the imagination of the public. Their constantly declining support in rural Bengal and, therefore, unconvincing interventions in the matters, have only added to their woes.

The shift from ethnic identity-based politics, with the TMC championing it, towards a religious one, aggressively being pursued by the BJP, is at the core of the disturbances in Bengal. Blaming “Muslim appeasement” – a binary set by the saffron forces – as the singular reason for Banerjee’s failure is to completely miss the point. To understand the turmoil in Bengal, the nature of political transitions over the last decade, first initiated by the TMC and now being capitalised on by the BJP, has to first be recognised.