Can Dilip Ghosh's Foul Rhetoric Make Inroads With Bengal's Bhadralok Gentry?

Underneath the veneer of bhadralok politeness, Bengal’s past and contemporary history of communalism, classism and casteism runs deep.

In sanctioning the re-election of Dilip Ghosh as Bengal’s Bharatiya Janata Party president, the party high command has validated his rhetoric of violence and hate. Ghosh’s reappointment for the top job in Bengal comes hot on the heels of his intemperate comments and an open call to violence. Two days ago, at a public meeting in Nadia district, the BJP chief denounced chief minister Mamata Banerjee for not following in the footsteps of the BJP-led governments in UP and Assam and shooting anti-CAA/NRC protesters “like dogs“.

Bablu Supriyo, a junior minister in the Narendra Modi government and a legislator from Bengal, distanced himself from Ghosh’s comments. However, true to form, his party’s top leadership – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah – kept mum. Far from reining Ghosh in, the BJP leadership, in its silence and by reinstating Ghosh as party chief, has signalled its approval of his functioning and behaviour. It may be argued that by deciding to re-elect Ghosh at this crucial time, the BJP’s central leadership wants the toxic campaign to endure if not escalate in the days ahead. And Ghosh has proven his ability to live up to the high command’s expectations.

In the midst of criticism from various quarters, Ghosh has buckled down and stuck to his guns (pun intended). Two FIRs have been filed against him. But the BJP chief is not backing down. “I stick to my comments. I am not bothered about the criticism. Whatever I have said is in favour of the country…” said Ghosh on Wednesday.

Delving into Bengal’s history of violence and the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government’s ruthless elimination of Naxals in the 1970s, Ghosh said, “The Siddhartha Shankar Ray government killed many Naxals in the 1970s. Those who were part of that government and now are MLAs are giving lectures on non-violence.” He reiterated that if the BJP came to power in Bengal next year, the party would take action in the “interest of the country”.

Ghosh will lead his party in the civic polls a couple of months from now, followed by the critical 2021 assembly elections. The strategic decision to re-elect such an aggressive leader for the top job – that he will keep for another three years – is indicative of the shrill campaign the party wants to unveil in the days and months ahead.

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Dilip Ghosh, it may be argued, is a quintessential representative of India’s ‘new elite’. The members of this tribe, usually dismissive of any form of education or knowledge other than a basic, functional kind, are prone to targeting intellectuals, especially if they happen to be English-speaking and exhibit signs of western influence. Above all, India’s new ruling elite, by mainstreaming a rhetoric of violence, have acquired a distinctive voice in politics and society.

One does wonder about Bengal’s culturally sensitive bhadralok and their response to Ghosh’s intemperate language, as well as his repeated calls to violence. Many among the self-proclaimed genteel bhadralok may lean towards the BJP. Do Ghosh’s calls to “shoot protesters like dogs” offend their cultural sensibilities? Or has Amit Shah’s anti-Bangladeshi-termite rhetoric worked its way into their hearts and minds?

Bengalis are known to be somewhat arrogant about their ‘cultural superiority’. They are known to consider themselves a cut above the rest of the country, particularly above the Hindi-speaking cow belt. But there are deep lines of continuity between them and the cultures they claim to distance themselves from.

Ghosh, linguistically, appears to be more at ease in Hindi rather than Bangla. By projecting him as a prominent leader, does the BJP run the risk of political attrition? Or is the party confident that Ghosh, with his strident talk of violence, will deepen the Hindu-Muslim wedge in a way that yields electoral rewards? In a sane world, Bengali bhadralok and bhadramahila projecting themselves as purveyors of higher wisdom and intellect, may have flinched at the BJP’s diatribe. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that underneath the veneer of bhadralok politeness, Bengal’s past and contemporary history of communalism, classism, and casteism, runs deep.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is ridiculed ever so often for her lack of ‘class,’ her crumpled saree, rubber chappals and her manner of speaking. Not to mention her uneasiness with the English language. Where does that place Dilip Ghosh?

Also Read: In Bengal, Will the CAB-NRC Project Boost the BJP’s Ambitions?

Ghosh’s rise in Bengal’s politics goes hand-in-hand with the abrupt suddenness of the BJP’s emergence as the main opposition party in the state. Bengal saw high levels of violence in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, which spilled over after the verdict, and continued for months. One wonders about the decision to select Ghosh for the top job in a state that is known for indulging in political violence. In the short time since the BJP has come to prominence in Bengal, the party, particularly its state chief, have shown they are ready to do what it takes. Ghosh’s call to shoot protesters in a state that the BJP itself has repeatedly described as violent does point to an underlying motive.

Like most Bengal watchers, the BJP anticipates violence in the 2021 assembly polls. The stakes in these polls are going to be higher than they have been in recent times. As an electoral player, the BJP may well be described as an “outsider” in Bengal’s conventional electoral equation. Groups like Bangla Pokkho (On Bengal’s Side) have stepped up their campaign around linguistic nationalism. The BJP seems ill-equipped to run a counter-campaign around Bangla nationalism.

Therefore, the party picks at the wounds of Partition, whips up fears around Bangladeshis, painting each and every one of them with broad brushes as ‘infiltrators’. Ghosh has spoken his mind on the use of violence. He has justified killing of protesters in the name of ‘national interest.’ His reelection as BJP President signals the party’s top leadership’s tacit endorsement of Ghosh’s violent messages, further pushing Bengal to the edge of an abyss that the state is teetering on the edges of.