Why Bengal's Elections Are Far More Complex than TMC's Corruption and BJP's Communal Drive

There is, in reality, a triangular contest, in which a host of social and political factors are competing for influence.

The Bengal elections have brought the social and political churning under way in that state to the head. In these circumstances, there is always a temptation to offer explanations that flatten out complexities, that entice by their simplicity.

One of these pops up from Hindutva commentators every decade or so. This says that a cultural elite has been ruling the country and Hindutva is the spontaneous movement of the masses to liberate itself. The usual rhetorical device involves personifying the narrowness of the elite by its association with a specific location.

In the 1990s, it was the India International Centre that was made to exemplify the elite; later, Khan Market and its ‘gang’ was used for the same purpose. And now in the Bengal elections, the bogey of the elite has been raised again. It is repeatedly said that the elite are blinded by Bengali exceptionalism. They cannot see the tsunami of mass unrest against the corruption of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). This spontaneous mass uprising is, of course, manifesting itself in a coming Bhartiya Janata Party victory.

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The first thing that must be remembered is that this is not just a duel between the TMC and BJP. It is a triangular contest between the TMC, BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Commentators betray the parochialism of the vernacular North Indian elite when they see the contest as two cornered.

Is the TMC on the verge of collapse? The key to the TMC is its leader, Mamata Banerjee. The personality-centredness of the TMC accounts for its weakness. At the same time, the concentrated attack on Mamata by all opposition parties in Bengal indicates that her influence is far from fading.

TMC and Mamata

While the popular feeling about TMC’s corruption is fairly widespread, it is equally noteworthy that Mamata herself has not been personally compromised. Her ascetic lifestyle, her plainness of self-presentation that contrasts with the ostentatious and ever-changing colours and fabrics of Prime Minister Modi, her personal integrity, none of this has been severely impacted despite the Sarada scam.

On the other hand, popular resentment is really directed against the local TMC cadres. What is interesting here is that large numbers of them have been roped into the BJP through the patronage carrot and CBI stick.

The BJP leadership may have attempted to trigger a process of falling dominoes in the TMC by rounding up defectors. Instead, what has happened is that the moral swachta of the BJP has been besmirched by indicting the TMC elements associated with corruption. At the same time, the old guard of the BJP which fought against the TMC cadres has been alienated by having to kowtow to those who they have seen as enemies.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a rally ahead of West Bengal Assembly polls 2021, at Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Photo: PTI.

It may also be remembered that there is no woman leader in either the BJP or the CPI(M) that can rival Mamata’s appeal amongst women. This is especially true of a large constituency that has benefited from the many schemes for girls and women. There is no doubt that the populist welfare measures have decreased after her first stint at governance. But these have not ceased.  And it is worth reminding oneself that the delivery systems have been exemplary because it was the bureaucracy that took charge of the operations.

TMC local cadres probably took their cut and this may have increased in recent times, raising the level of resentment. There have also been allegations of large scale mishandling of the Amphan relief. The problem with regional parties is that they do not have access to the heavy amounts of corporate finance that parties like the BJP command.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee Gets EC Notice Again, This Time for Remarks Against Central Forces

Nevertheless, it remains a moot point whether the goodwill for Mamata in ensuring delivery will outweigh resentment at the corruption. There is a more than a reasonable chance that it will do so, especially if we take into account, the women voters.

The importance of Bengal for BJP

For the BJP of course, it is imperative to win Bengal. It has poured in its considerable wealth and its North Indian stars. The BJP’s desperation is not for sentimental reasons, although many Hindu nationalist ideas have germinated in Bengal and fertilised the thought of Hindutva leaders. For the BJP to win Bengal means passing a critical milestone in the march towards a Hindu Rashtra. Once Bengal is in its grasp, Hindutva can claim to have a unified, pan-Indian ideological domination.

In this, they have worked an imaginative strategy by attracting a number of subaltern groups among adivasis and ‘lower’ castes whose condition has not been improved sufficiently by successive regimes in Kolkata. As in other areas in the country, there has been a steady stoking of anti-Muslim sentiment among these groups. It is relatively easy to stoke suspicion that Muslims have been “appeased” since neighbouring communities do not know who got what as its share of welfare measures.

Nevertheless, the hold of the BJP on these groups may be exaggerated. The usual Hindutva method of consolidating adivasi areas is to engage in local welfare work (eg: in education and health) while pursuing campaigns of resentment against religious others.

The first part, that is, the local work is less in evidence than the propaganda work in Bengal. The 2019 election results do not reveal a decimation of the TMC vote share.

File photo of senior leaders of the BJP in West Bengal protesting against the state government. Photo: PTI.

On the other hand, influential groups such as the Matuas have been divided by rivalry between pro-TMC and pro-BJP groups. This division has taken place in the Matua family that has provided leadership for over a hundred years.

Equally important is the action of the government in disqualifying over four lakh Matuas from citizenship in Assam. The BJP is now going overboard to reassure the Matuas that only the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and not the National Register of Citizens (NRC) (the cut-off date for which is 1971) will be implemented.

But this may be too little too late to remove the hanging sword of statelessness. At any rate, to snatch away citizenship entitlements and then present it as a gift, is a move that smacks of bad faith. It may not be possible for BJP make a clean sweep of the Matua vote.

Bengali exceptionalism?

There is a great deal of rhetoric on Bengali exceptionalism. Actually, the real fight is over the seats in south and central Bengal where the TMC has dominated. It is true that the BJP has not taken recourse to explicit communal propaganda, although reports suggest that it has been deployed in selected constituencies. There are good reasons for the relative downplaying of this time-tested device.

For one, it disincentivises strategic voting by Muslims. The fear of an aggressive BJP campaign – given the reputation it has established in the country – would whittle away a big advantage that the BJP has in these elections. This is the possible splitting up of the Muslim votes between the TMC and the CPI(M)-led alliance.

Secondly, to mount a high powered anti-minority campaign runs the risk of alienating Bangladesh, the support of which is valuable to India in its geopolitical calculations against China. Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh was as much to woo Matua votes as to reassure Bangladesh. The protests against Modi’s visit that claimed about 10 lives in Bangladesh could well have snowballed into mass disorder if there had been a high profile anti-Muslim campaign in Bengal.

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Actually, the BJP no longer needs to drive home its hard Hindutva identity. The many campaigns against religious minorities especially Muslims in the country has left no room to doubt the BJP’s intentions.

Indeed, the anti-Muslim campaigns all over the country have been spectacular and sensational and widely broadcast over mass and social media. The BJP is relying on its reputation to cater to a middle class constituency that has been moulded for a long time by low intensity campaigns against madrassas (started during the CPI(M) regime), the charge of “appeasement” against Mamata and above all, the fears of a Muslim population tsunami.

The move towards communal identitarianism is not a given, however. A surprising phenomenon has been the emergence of a popular, autonomous movement that campaigns actively against voting for the BJP. The consolidation of this feeling can be seen in the anti-communal declarations of Manoranjan Byapari, a leading Bengal and Dalit intellectual.

At the same time, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Bengali middle class has not been a stranger to communal mobilisation. The most extensive riots in India in the 1920s, the period of formation of pan Indian communal mobilisation, took place in Bengal. There have been riots in Bengal since the middle of the 19th century and it continued through the first half of the 20th century and has intermittently affected Bengal since independence.

It was the work of the Left organisations during the Bengal famine and the refugee crisis in the post Partition period that ensured the domination of a non-communal consciousness. But the communal consciousness did not disappear altogether: it lay latent as an ingrained bias, coming out, for instance, in parental alerts against marrying Muslims.

Hence one cannot rule out the role of identitarian politics in the final making up of minds before casting of ballots. While wide sections of the metropolitan middle class and lower middle class have bought into the myth of “Muslim appeasement”, this has not been accompanied by the aggressive declarations of Hindu pride that are evident in large parts of north India. In other words, communal consolidation has yet to be fully accomplished.

Also read: What’s West Bengal Missing in the ‘Bhadralok’ Versus Hindutva Narrative?

So all is not lost for the BJP in the talk of Bengali exceptionalism. Indeed, the BJP may harvest a larger source of benefits from a less predictable quarter. The CPI(M) has taken up a position that has targeted the TMC even as its central leadership presents this as a part of its anti-BJP strategy. At local levels, the CPI(M) cadres identify the TMC as its main threat. This is because of the violent and repressive campaigns by the local TMC cadres against the CPI(M) – preceded by a history of violence during the days of CPI(M) domination.

Bengal has had a tradition of local political violence for a long time, but this reached a new level of intensity in the 2018 panchayat elections where TMC cadres went on the rampage according to all reports. The  Left’s alliance with the conservative Furfura head indicates a commitment to divide the rural Muslim vote, a move that will no doubt cut into TMC vote share and help the BJP.

CPI(M) prospects 

It is true, of course, that the CPI(M) has been forced in terms of local politics to oppose the TMC. Actually, the CPI(M) has been showing signs of energy recently, doing relief work in the Amphan-affected areas. It has also attracted some support among the young, who have been disillusioned by the high handed ways of the TMC in suppressing the dissent of students.

Left Front, Congress and ISF leaders join hands during a joint rally ahead of West Bengal assembly polls in Kolkata, February 28, 2021. Photo: PTI.

For the CPI(M), it is locally important to consolidate this new constituency even as its local cadres have already been stubbornly predisposed to identifying the TMC as its main enemy. In this context, the exhibition of BJP muscle power against the TMC has identified it as a party that can assure protection. The many provocative statements by Dilip Ghosh and his acolytes, and the deployment of the CRPF, are designed to achieve this effect.

What we have, then, is a scenario caught between different possibilities. The political tradition of welfare populism – of which both the CPI(M) and the TMC are a part – is poised against the aggressiveness of identitarian politics.

The TMC still enjoys an edge and that is due to the political personhood of Mamata. This does not rule out a BJP victory. And if that happens, then the road to bypass the existing constitution and establish a Hindu Rashtra is almost a given.

But the real challenge will be if TMC wins but needs support from outside. A small margin of victory may not be sufficient for Mamata to keep her flock together in the face of unremitting BJP onslaught and patronage.

It will then be up to the CPI(M) – if it performs reasonably well – to subordinate its local agenda to the national programme of saving the constitution and staving off Hindutva hegemony. Equally important will be the guarantees and concessions that the TMC extends to it.

The condition for a meeting of unlikely minds may be aided by the likely probability that both parties could be wiped out by a BJP victory in Bengal. All the Hindutva organisations need to do is to shift the bogey of urban Naxals to the Left in general. The prospect of an opposition-mukt Bharat can be a terrifying one for all non-BJP parties and of course, for democracy itself.

Pradip Kumar Datta is a retired Professor of Political Thought at JNU.