The political commentariat in the national media seems to have long given its verdict on West Bengal’s fate in the ongoing state elections. Bengal, we are told, is in the cusp of a significant transformation, not just politically but also socially and culturally, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set to make huge inroads in what was hitherto a secular bastion under the Left till 2011 and then the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
More than the Hindutva ideology, what is reportedly turning the tide in favour of the BJP, is the TMC’s discreditable record on violence, corruption, misgovernance and slow economic growth. This palpable shift in voters’ allegiance is then presented as finally busting the myth of Bengali exceptionalism against the saffron wave, and preparing the ground for mainstreaming the state with the rest of the Union.
Other than violence, the list of charges levelled against the TMC is eerily resonant with the discourse which brought the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government to power at the Centre in 2014. Just as the political hubris of the Congress party and the intellectual arrogance of its expert advisors succumbed in the wake of the widespread discontentment of the masses, it is suggested that the high-handed management of the TMC by a small coterie of close family and poll strategists will, albeit belatedly, push Bengal to a similar subaltern takeover. As a result, the hegemony of the bhadralok elite based on a narrow-minded urban cosmopolitanism would finally be brought to an end.
These overlapping frames of reference in a way indicate that the present election is like no other at least in the recent memory of Bengal. The implicit reprisal of the 2014 narrative recognises that Bengal is facing an election which is well and truly national in character. Not only are the stakes understandably high for opposition politics nationwide, the state is crucial for the BJP as the spiritual home of Hindutva and the final frontier is yet to be broken to make its domination over India complete.
The elite bhadralok versus subaltern Hindutva
For sure a clever spin on the popular adage first used by the nationalist leader G.K. Gokhale on “what Bengal thinks today is what India will think tomorrow”, the analytical paradigm pitting the elite bhadralok against subaltern Hindutva seems to extend to Bengal an interpretive rubric that is supposed to have already run its course in India. But this reading fails to appreciate that the TMC and its supremo Mamata Banerjee came to power with a groundswell of populist support, precisely by dismantling the bhadralok consensus which had for more than three decades consolidated around the Left.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that an entirely new style of doing politics was inaugurated by Banerjee, who displaced the sanitised civility of bhadralok society with her feisty street-fighter personality, and an unapologetic invocation of Bengal’s rich religious and cultural idioms and imageries on the political stage.
What is more, since the tension between the Left and the Right does not reflect the fundamental political fault lines in India, there is also a strong sense that a large constituency among the bhadralok is in fact moving towards the BJP. This is hardly surprising, as the nominal separation of religion from politics under the Left was not converted into a positive secularist ethos in the social sphere. Additionally, the bhadralok appears no longer to be fixated with the exceptionality of Bengal’s cultural heritage, and instead aspires for a deeper integration with the nation at large under the contemporary conditions of global capitalism.
As far as the subaltern question is concerned, the BJP is broadly following the TMC’s template on identitarian recognition and welfare distribution, although with one major difference. The bhadralok’s hegemony had historically prevented the emergence of an agonistic caste politics in Bengal based on issues of self-respect and dignity as elsewhere in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Even as the BJP is reconfiguring its traditional upper-caste orientation and trying desperately to benefit from the collapse of this hegemony, its mobilisation of lower castes is not against the bhadralok elite but rather the figure of the illegal Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh. In other words, the BJP’s subaltern politics is based not so much against the superior castes as it is on the active subalternization and disenfranchisement of another population group.
Thus, the elite versus subaltern framework is not only useless for making sense of Bengal politics today, but its obstinate deployment rather hides what is really at stake in these elections.
The “woman question” in Indian politics
The ready resort to such derivative discourses also misses out on the promising potency of the underestimated gender dimension to Banerjee’s popularity. Although the “woman question” has been a central rallying point for movements of social reform and justice, it has largely remained outside the purview of electoral politics in postcolonial India. This is because, till now, women have not been considered as a genuine vote bank by any political party. But marking a perceptible change, the TMC is making a conscious effort to target women as a constituency by increasing their representation at all levels, and administering various successful schemes catering to their health, education and social security.
To cap it all, women across the class and caste divide can be seen as strongly identifying with Banerjee, who has been able to firmly stand her ground even despite the violence and misogyny of Bengal’s political culture for years on end.
Whilst having disbanded the bhadralok consensus and shoring up the woman question in politics, what still remains perilous about the TMC is its ideologically free-floating attitude towards secularism. Although the TMC has itself never been a communal party, it has not shied away from entering into alliances with the BJP and Congress alike at the Centre. In Bengal too, after beginning on a staunch secularist plank of greater political recognition of minority religious communities, especially the Muslims, the TMC appears to have mellowed down on its commitment in more recent times, with the undeniable ascendency of Hindutva.
This ideological lightness is perhaps symptomatic of a more general trend in populism as an empty form of politics denuded of all content. But political choices have to be made even during a populist moment.
Equating the two parties owing to their dismal record on violence is somewhat reminiscent of the liberal centrist conflation of reactionary fascism and revolutionary communism in Europe merely on account of their commonly shared histories of violence. Our intention is not to flatly analogize the BJP with fascism or the TMC with communism, but rather to insist on the absolute necessity of distinguishing the two without using the plank of violence for its neutralisation.
However unfortunate it may be, violence has always been endemic to Bengal’s political reality, and whichever party comes to power uses it as an instrument of rule, as does the TMC and so will the BJP if it gets there. But what makes the BJP stand out is that apart from the routine and opportunistic deployment of force to silence political opponents, the physical, symbolic and systemic violence that it thrives on is premised on the fantasy of the complete annihilation of the ‘other’.
Thus, the electorate in Bengal is faced with a stark choice; adopting a position of equivalence between the TMC and the BJP is a luxury that only the last remnants of a self-righteous bhadralok can afford.
Moiz Tundawala is assistant professor of Constitutional Law, Jindal Global Law School. Salmoli Choudhuri is currently pursuing doctoral studies in Indian Political Thought from the University of Cambridge.