There is no crystal ball to predict the outcome of Bengal’s upcoming assembly elections. That’s why Deep Halder’s Bengal 2021: An Election Diary has come out at the most opportune moment. Though he is not trying to make a prediction and instead aims at scrutinising the swelling of the Right in Bengal by speaking to a diverse set of people across the state, he offers to the Bengal voters and those interested in Bengal politics a socio-political toolkit to analyse their garbled political opinions and structure their thoughts before and after the elections.
Unlike the author’s first book, Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre in which he delivers a lyrical and emotional account gently hinting at why the Left might have carried out horrific wrongdoing in 1979, his second publication brings forth a bolder stance of a hardened journalist. He is still the ardent listener, but this time his niche writing and interest in issues of development at the intersection of religion, caste, and politics shine through.
Halder accurately calls the people of Bengal as being “bipolar” when it comes to their political views and digs into the history and nuances of the three distinct identities co-existing in Bengal – the regional Bengali identity, caste, and religious identity – to make sense of the shift happening in Bengal politics.
The 10 chapters of the book bring out some interesting twists and revelations that demolish stereotypes, but it’s not until chapter five that he actually starts talking about how BJP has become an important political player in Bengal and how caste has played a significant role in making it so despite the state’s so-called “caste-less” reputation.
Chapter eight is noteworthy and enunciates how caste and class are enmeshed with one other. It highlights how highbrowed Bengali intellectuals have not only looked away from atrocities meted out by the state government to people not belonging to their caste and class in the hinterlands, they have continued to live in denial as well.
Chapter six is an important one as it addresses the role played by religious identity in a state that has a 31% percent Muslim vote share. Nargis Sattar speaks of the “othering” of the Muslims and blames both TMC and BJP for that but also speaks out about how the Muslims have too been rigid and together with the secular political leadership in Bengal have failed to protect writers like Tasleema Nasreen.
Chapter seven delves into not often discussed history of the Right and the quiet rise of the Sangh Parivar in Bengal, unnoticed by the chattering classes of Kolkata. It also revisits the Bengal partition and the Dalit-Muslim unity dream that Jogendranath Mandal had once believed in.
Parts of the book touches on relevant topics like the economic development of Bengal. An industrialist who claims to be “Economically Right” but “Left of Centre Socially” talks about how Communism is not necessarily anti-industry as is evident from the Chinese and Russian examples. Yet, the variety floated by Jyoti Basu riding on pro-labour sentiments was anti-industry and self-serving, to help the Left hold on to power for three decades.
The chapter on Corona brings forth shocking details of how TMC and its chief chose to fudge numbers and guard their image instead of helping the doctors fight the pandemic. It reveals the overall appalling condition of Bengal’s healthcare system, a glimpse of which was caught back in 2019 when doctors went on strike against the state government.
The chapter on Amphan is equally heartbreaking and despite the confusing Centre-State blame game and a bit of misplaced rage, discusses the important role played by NGOs and private individuals and the disturbing corruption charges against TMC for siphoning off relief funds.
There is an amusing chapter on Tollywood that gets pulled into callow conversations demonstrating how the art and culture folks have always been on the side of the ruling party, if not out of devotion, then out of sheer survival needs. The only difference is that the actors are more heavily dependent on state approval now as the present chief minister has an extra fancy for the Bengali film industry and needs the artists to play the role of her party cadre from time to time.
A mixed review
In the mosaic of voices presented, while most conversations are eye-opening, some are shrill and rather generic, not truly adding to the topic discussed. Good, the author did not completely rely on them and weaved his own narrative based on news reports and research. It’s the curse of being neutral that burdens his work in some places.
Christiane Amanpour, a strong voice for freedom of the press emphasised the importance of fact-based journalism in 2016 and appealed to journalists to be “Truthful, not neutral,” as being neutral can be creating a false equivalence. The decision to be balanced yet truthful comes through in the “Law and Disorder” chapter where the author cautions any party coming to power in 2021 to handle law and order with care given the state’s propensity towards political violence.
In this social media age complex social challenges tend to get reduced to hashtags and slogans that bounce around in echo chambers of the like-minded rather than engage in persuasion and dialogue. So, journalists-turned-writers bear the added responsibility of not banalizing the truth and being unafraid of labels. The author shoulders that well.
The staggering task of understanding the many-layered identity question of Bengal has kept academics and literati away except a few fearless ones like Dwaipayan Bhattacharya. This book is a bold addition in that respect, a much-needed conversation starter on Bengal’s identity perceptions.
In its easy, yet elegant style, it might even inspire its readers to grow a fresh perspective of what Bengal might look like beyond the elections and what it will choose eventually – a theoretical past the Bengalis have an affection for but that did not work in practice or a future that can be pro-development and truly inclusive of the different shades of Bengali identity.
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.