Interview: Partha Chatterjee on the Upcoming Battle for Bengal and Where the BJP Stands

Ajay Gudavarthy speaks to the leading post-colonial historian about Bengal's past, present and future, and how the BJP managed to make inroads in a state that has been a Left bastion for decades.

The ongoing lockdown is being closely observed with special interest in terms of its impact on Bengal and Bihar due to the upcoming assembly elections in the two states.

Developments in Bengal become more significant when looking at the unprecedented growth in the prospects of the BJP. A state once known as a Left bastion is today staring at the BJP emerging as a strong contender.

How can one make sense of this change? And what are its implications for Indian democracy?

In order to make sense of this unexpected turnabout, political theorist Ajay Gudavarthy speaks to Partha Chatterjee, a leading post-colonial historian and a keen observer and commentator of contemporary developments.

During a personal conversation, you had once remarked that caste hegemony is so complete in Bengal that it is invisible. Has this changed in any significant way that may impact electoral politics in Bengal in light of the upcoming assembly polls?

People in West Bengal no longer remember that the challenge to Hindu upper-caste power – which came from dominant peasant castes in other parts of India in the 1930s and 1940s – also occurred in Bengal, except it took the form of the demands of Muslim peasants of eastern Bengal against Hindu landlords.

After Partition, when Muslims no longer mattered as an organised political force in West Bengal, Hindu upper castes reasserted their dominance in every sphere of politics and society. Even under Left Front rule, this dominance was maintained over the districts by control exercised by the state party leadership in Kolkata, where the influence of educated upper-caste professionals and white-collar employees was strongest.

Superficial evidence suggests that with the rise of the Trinamool Congress, there is greater visibility now of leaders with local influence who do not belong to the upper castes. But there is no indication at all that voting takes place in West Bengal on the basis of caste loyalty. Every caste is internally split by party divisions. Even Muslims do not vote as a bloc for a particular party.

Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: PTI

In spite of the land reforms, Bengal remained essentially a rent-seeking economy though with fairly decentralised modes of governance and local government. In what ways is the emergence of the BJP in state politics in Bengal possibly linked to this reality?

West Bengal was a major industrial region until the 1960s after which industry declined. What Bengal did not have was a Bengali industrialist class. Those who owned industries in Bengal, including leading families such as the Birlas, shifted their operations to other parts of India in the 1970s. The land reforms carried out under the Left Front managed to prop up the small-peasant economy for a couple of decades, but prevented the consolidation of a class of big farmers who could invest their wealth in industry, as happened in the southern states.

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Over the last two decades, West Bengal has looked to the rest of India to secure its economic future. Educated youth go to other cities for higher degrees and jobs while those from rural families become migrant labourers in construction or domestic service. Everyone seems to have accepted that Bengal’s future depends on the rest of India. Part of the new appeal of the BJP is that it appears to represent a successful India which exists somewhere else. By comparison, the other parties in West Bengal seem insular and provincial.

It’s clear to see that the Bengali middle class has undergone a sea change. They seem to be shedding the burden of being the erstwhile bhadralok, marked by civility. In the rest of India it was understood there was the formation of the ‘new middle classes; with entry from other castes and movement from rural to urban. Is the story of the Bengali middle class different from this?

No, it is not. In West Bengal too, the middle class has expanded. Education is the principal means of social mobility through which the children of better off farmers, small traders and urban workers enter white collar occupations and adopt middle-class lifestyles. But the expansion of higher education has been accompanied by its bifurcation into an English-medium stream which begins from nursery school and flows towards elite colleges in Delhi or overseas and a vernacular stream which ends up in public universities and technology institutes.

In 50 years of familiarity with the public university system in West Bengal, I have seen how the social composition of postgraduate students has been completely transformed. Even 30 years ago, at least three-fourths of the class would have come from the three upper castes – Brahmin, Kayastha and Baidya – and the quota for scheduled caste students would have remained unfilled. A Muslim postgraduate student was a rarity.

Now, the overwhelming majority of students in most public universities in West Bengal are not upper caste. Most remarkable is the presence of significant numbers of Muslim students, both men and women. Not only is there a new middle class among the peasant castes but also among Muslims and the larger Dalit castes such as Namasudra, Rajbangshi and Paundra Kshatriya. Their presence is increasingly visible in institutions that used to be the bastion of the old upper-caste bhadralok who are now abandoning their hegemony over Bengali culture and, with fluency in English as their capital, migrating to other parts of India or abroad.

To share a personal anecdote, during of a train journey from almost two decades ago, my co-passengers were a middle-aged Bengali couple. Over the course of a discussion, I persuaded them to answer if they were to vote for any party other than the CPI(M) who would they prefer. To my utter bewilderment, they said it would be the BJP. I do not think BJP was a significant player in the 90s in Bengal’s state politics.

There was a period during and after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1990-91 when the BJP did become a significant opposition to the Left Front in West Bengal. In fact, it even won a few seats in parliament. The Congress was in deep decline at this time following the unpopularity of the Rajiv Gandhi government and the factional rivalries among the West Bengal Congress leaders. After Mamata Banerjee broke away from the Congress, the Trinamool Congress emerged in the late 1990s as the chief opposition to the Left Front.

There is a sizeable migrant population in Bengal from other North Indian states. Over the course of my conversations with them during my travel to Bengal, they seem to be unhappy with Mamata due to what they see as a pro-Muslim stance in her politics. Do you see this emerging as a dominant sentiment in Bengal’s politics?

As far as I can see, there are at least three sections of support for the BJP in Bengal. Hindi-speaking migrants are most numerous in Kolkata, the industrial suburbs of Howrah, Hugli and North 24-Parganas and the coal belt of Asansol-Raniganj. Except for those who were once organised by Left trade unions, these migrants were not very active in West Bengal’s politics.

Recently, however, especially in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, they have, reflecting the political mood in northern India, shown a clear preference for the BJP. More interesting, I think, is the public visibility in recent years of merchant communities from Rajasthan and Gujarat who, despite their wealth, had traditionally kept away from Bengal’s politics. Now they are active in liberally financing such quasi-political activities such as setting up Ram and Hanuman temples and celebrating Ram Navami
and Ganesh Chaturthi in predominantly Bengali neighbourhoods. This group could play an important role in BJP’s electoral plans in Bengal.

The second source of support for the BJP is within the expanding Hindu middle class where disenchantment with the Trinamool Congress has combined with communalist resentment against the growing Muslim presence in competitive arenas such as higher education and middle-class jobs. Needless to say, this virulent communalism is fanned by the BJP propaganda machine operating in social media.

The third source is, paradoxically, among turncoats from the Trinamool Congress. The BJP had almost no organised party machinery except in some areas of Kolkata and the industrial suburbs. Its rural electoral organisation is now being built by former Trinamool functionaries who have recently joined the BJP.

BJP leaders Kailash Vijaivargiya and Mukul Roy with two Trinamool Congress and one CPM legislator, who joined Bharatiya Janata Party along with 60 councillors from three civic bodies in West Bengal, in New Delhi, May 28, 2019. Credit: PTI

Shifting ground, let’s speak of the ongoing migrant crisis. Economist Jean Drèze, in a recent interview, wondered why the migrants endure so much pain but refuse to protest. You have been writing about ‘contextual negotiations’, but in this case there seems to be neither negotiation nor resentment – especially against the government and party at the Centre.

It is not entirely true that they did not protest. In fact, I think it was because migrant workers started to protest in Delhi, Surat, Mumbai and other cities that the authorities were forced to reconsider their lockdown policy and arrange to send them home. But Drèze is right in pointing that out, given the scale and intensity of the suffering the migrant workers have gone through, the protests were scattered and not sustained.

I am reminded of what many observers said about the Bengal Famine of 1943: why was it that even in districts with a history of major peasant movements there was no protest over the lack of food? Why did millions simply accept death from starvation? My answer is that with the clampdown on normal political activity following the threat of Japanese invasion and the Quit India movement, ordinary people did not have access to their familiar political channels of protest.

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I think the same thing has happened now. Migrant workers might have been able to make their demands and engage in negotiations if the methods of normal politics – demonstration, agitation, dharna, seeking the help of political leaders and parties, using the power of the vote – had been available. But normal electoral politics has been suspended. Now it is only a centralised bureaucracy, unavailable to the usual channels of popular political negotiation, which is taking decisions.

Finally, in your recent writings, you seem to have expressed some optimism that India’s federal structure might throw up possible alternatives to the current rightward shift. But can transactional politics of regional parties effectively counter what looks like a committed political vision of the BJP-RSS combine?

Let me first point out some hidden features of the Indian federal system which have suddenly come out into the open in the recent health crisis. Suddenly, states have become hyper-conscious of their borders. They are sealing “their” borders to traffic from neighbouring states, negotiating with other states about the return of “their” migrant labourers, reserving hospital beds for “their” residents, demanding that they be given the freedom to have “their” own lockdown, quarantine and unlock policies, insisting that rail and air traffic must be regulated according to “their” priorities.

When was the last time you saw such a general assertion of the claim that the primary task of looking after the lives of ordinary people was performed by the states and not the central government? And yet, this is happening at the same time when the BJP leadership at the centre is pushing ahead with an unprecedented centralisation of bureaucratic power, in line with the long held view of Hindutva ideologues such as Golwalkar that India must be a unitary and not a federal nation-state.

I think the assertion of the primacy of the states in this time of crisis is a reflection of the realities of governing practices in India. But there is as yet no available language in which this reality can be expressed.

You are right in suggesting that the transactional politics of the regional parties will not show the way forward. They are caught in a situation where they have the primary responsibility of meeting the demands of the people while the central government has the money. Perhaps a massive financial crisis in government finance, both at the Centre and the states, which is by no means unlikely in the coming months, will bring about a restructuring of federal relations in the country.

The present contradiction between a monolithic and centralised vision of Hindu rashtra and the actual dispersal of governmental activities among the states is unsustainable.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.