Whatever the outcome less than two months from now, Bengal’s keenly contested assembly elections – one of a kind in recent political history – forces a rethink on issues once believed to have been done and dusted in the state. Many perhaps came to believe that the endemic conflicts roiling politics in other parts of the country (particularly, in the Hindi heartland) would be dealt with in a fitting manner in Bengal. Many, quite likely, took comfort in the attractive notion of Bengali exceptionalism.
Of course, one can argue that that belief did indeed hold out on some levels till 2014. Further, one can also argue that even when the equilibrium snapped a decade ago, with Mamata Banerjee ending the Left Front government’s 34-years long tenure, the basic political and social contract, warts and all, held together.
The change of guard at the top did not jeopardise the safety and security of Bengal’s over 27% of Muslim population, which shifted its loyalty from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Even if the CPI-M’s political existence was in crisis, the Left vocabulary did not altogether disappear. Coming to power on the back of peasants’ movements triggered by the CPI-M’s forcible land acquisition drive in Singur and Nandigram, Mamata started to project herself as the ‘real’ Left.
However, since then, the sharp rightward turn and the rapid revival of the Hindu Right has exposed the fragility of what once was considered Bengal’s well-entrenched political equilibrium. True to form, the CPI-M blithely put all of the blame for religious polarisation at the door of Mamata Banerjee’s dispensation. It refused to consider its own failure in fighting Hindu Right tendencies that have long existed in Bengal; tendencies that have given a subtext of communalism (not to mention casteism) even to so much Leftist and progressive politics in the state.
My conversations with a range of people in Bengal from 2018 to 2020 showed that sliding from Left to Right with an eye on the seat of power, is not as absurd as one might think. A section of CPI-M supporters, even while singing praises of Promode Dasgupta and Jyoti Basu, told me they would support the idea of a ‘Hindu rashtra’. They saw no contradiction in lending support to the CPI-M while expressing an attraction toward the idea of a Hindu nation, or supporting the BJP because it espoused the “interest” of Hindus. Nor was this sentiment confined to the Bengali bhadralok, percolating down the class and caste hierarchy.
This is where Bengal’s past and present narratives impinge on each other. The Hindu Right’s recent assertion has, in many ways, bound different threads of history. In projecting it as a Left-leaning state, it is forgotten that Bengali consciousness has also been shaped by Hindu majoritarianism. Its imprint can be seen in the works of thinkers and writers going back to the 19th century, who advocated the supremacy of Hinduism, sometimes in opposition to the West, and at others against Muslims.
Scholarly work on this period has shown the deep penetration of Hindu organisations among lower caste populations in the state. Apprehensive of the lower castes breaking away and asserting their own politics, ideologues of Hindutva have worked hard to keep some idea of ‘the Hindu community’ intact. Sections of Dalits, for example, perceive themselves as members of this larger community, despite being victims – and being aware – of the state’s structured casteism.
Recently, Dipankar Bhattacharya, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI-ML), made a significant observation in an interview. His words reflected the microcosm of present-day Bengal politics. The Bengal assembly elections, Bhattacharya said, should not be solely seen through the prism of anti-incumbency. “The growth of the BJP also should not be attributed to this factor alone,” he emphasised. In doing so, we conveniently forget or erase the Left’s role in fostering the politics playing out today. The soft Hinduisation of the cadres of ‘secular’ parties across the political spectrum cannot be sidestepped in assessing the ascendancy of the Hindu Right in the state, and the Left’s tacit support of it.
The BJP ran a highly charged communal campaign in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The dividends came in the form of 18 out of 42 seats the party won in the state. The shrill offensive against Bangladeshi infiltrators and Mamata’s “appeasement politics” seemed to strike a chord with the people. The BJP’s key agenda remains ideological. Bengal is a hunting ground, critical to expanding the party’s ambitious project. The 2021 polls are perhaps the most crucial election the BJP has fought since the Narendra Modi government came to power.
As Bhattacharya observed, these elections cannot be seen as a contest around issues of governance. The real stakes are ideological, as the BJP has already made amply clear. Why is accepting this fact so difficult for many on the Left? The chatter around Abhishek Banerjee, the steady stream of defections from the TMC to the BJP, is a fig leaf for the party’s ideological push. Equally, there has been a popular consolidation of Hindu consciousness coming out in the open against Muslims and Bangladeshis. Contrary to popular perception, over the last decade, Mamata has delivered on the ground – even if shakily. She has launched a slew of welfare schemes, benefitting the day-to-day life of the people. Will that be enough to see her through to a third consecutive term?
Ironically, the CPI-M, which rails against Mamata Banerjee’s “appeasement politics,” has allied with Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front. The name is a misnomer in itself. Siddiqui is known for espousing hardened and regressive religious views which he has publicly aired in the past. That the CPI-M has joined hands with his party, throws up questions about the real reasons behind their alliance. Does this bizarre alliance, in any way, represent the CPI-M’s concern for Bengal’s Muslims?
The damning observations of the 2006 report by the Sachar Committee report are well-known. Placing Bengal among the states in the “worst-performer category,” the report drew attention to the abysmal share Muslims have in government jobs and the judiciary. At the time, Anwar Ubaidulla Chowdhury of the Jamiat Ulema, a Muslim organisation responded by saying, “The Sachar committee report has been an eye-opener for the Muslims who had steadfastly stood with the Left Front government (in Bengal).”
We must also remembered that the Jyoti Basu government banned Taslima Nasreen’s novel Dwikhondito, while his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s administration, bundled the Bangladeshi author out of the state in the dead of night following protests by some Muslim organisations. Could these actions attract the label of “appeasement” politics? Does the alliance with Siddiqui suddenly become “secular” simply because of the CPI-M’s presence?
At least some of the central leaders of the party have claimed that their alliance with the Congress and Siddiqui will help Mamata Banerjee by drawing chunks of anti-incumbency votes towards the alliance and away from the BJP. In other words, unlike in 2019, CPI-M party workers will not vote for the BJP in this election. But if the party is indeed that keen to defeat the BJP, why not back Mamata in the first place?