The Battle for Bengal

[Image courtesy: Rediff and Reuters]

Hobe Baam, Hobe Baam, Baam Baam Hobe Hobe.

It will be left, will be left, and left and left again. For a generation that grew up hearing this chant, the replacement of Ram with Baam is shocking to say the least, and something we never saw coming, like the ending of Usual Suspects. The decision to vote, and I come back to this again and again, is an emotional one, and there was no way, or that was how it was perceived, that the proud fish-eating Bengali could feel any kind of connection with the aggressive vegetarian-Hindi-mandir-wahin-banayenge culture of the traditional BJP, a connection strong enough to move the finger to its button. For ages, the Left’s khichudi of Marxist tenets and Bengali parochialism was the comfort food of choice, a recipe appropriated by Mamata Banerjee after bowdlerizing the Marxist ingredients but keeping its essence and adding to it her own spices of vote-bank appeasement, and the BJP too had been cognizant of the futility of trying to wean the Gangopadhyays and Mukherjees of the world away from this diet, fielding as it did candidates like PC Sorcar, the magician, and Bappi Lahiri, the Golden Fish Fry, as a testament to its seriousness in being a player in Bengal.

Till now.

I will accept. I got this wrong. One reason is perhaps my being so away from Bengal, my analysis colored by what it had once been, when Debashree Roy presented us the vision of the Kolkattar Rosogolla as the alternative to the joyless naadu, as opposed to what it has become now, the Challenge Nibi Na Sala of TMC returning MP and new-age Uttam Kumar, the magnificent Deb.

My faith in the eternal ascendancy of Bengali socialism is based my knowledge of Bengali Hindu bhodoloks, by virtue of being one. This phylum of humanity, by and large, do not go to temples much, not as much definitely as their brethren in other parts of the country, and so issues of mandir construction ( Jyoti Basu once called the Ayodhya shilanyas as “eenth-pujo” or worship of bricks) aren’t as close to their heart as might be expected. Add to this, their traditional jealousy of the affluent Marwadis (they celebrate Kali Pujo on the wrong day !) and their elitist mistrust of the chatt-pujo-performing “Hindustanis” (derisively referred to as rikshahwala kaalchar) of Bihar and UP, the considered “base” of the BJP, and any political configuration in Bengal under the banner of the lotus was always doomed.

I am not wrong in my assessment I will claim, Kolkata even in this election, with its preponderance of the bhodrolok culture, still has stayed with Trinamool.

It’s the districts, particularly to the west of the state that the BJP, has made gains. One reason, and this one I did anticipate in my podcast, has been because of the changing population demographics, the influx of Hindi-speaking migrants from the west, and the consequent influence of that on the local Bengali population. This is reflected in no place as dramatic as popular Bengali cinema, specifically in the kind of Bengali that you find there. What was once pure unaccented Bangla has been replaced by a bizarre ear-ringing concoction of hybrid Bangla-Hindi, fultoo and timepass and masti and maahi, and that I believe is not a matter of accident, but of design, reflecting the gradual Hindi-ization of the Bengali tongue. And once the language changes, can BJP be far behind?

The other thing that I had anticipated would work in favor of the BJP was the perception that Mamata Banerjee was pro-Muslim at the cost of Hindus. The origin of this perception was that when Mamata Banerjee came to power, the first big voting block she won over, were the Maulvis and the Madrassas, whose number had grown phenomenally in rural Bengal, due to unchecked migration from Bangladesh, and who, because of the CPIM’s ideological opposition to organized religion, were not reached out to, at least not in the way Mamata Banerjee did with her namaaz and head scarf and all the religious paraphernalia and then with her stipends to Muslim clerics in gratitude for their support.

Despite being a Mamata critic, I will say, that this perception of pro-minorities is wrong and has always been. Mamata Banerjee’s politics is transactional, if you as a group bring votes, she shall roll out sops for you. It doesn’t matter who you are, Hindu, Muslim, the White Walkers, all she wants is zombie-like obedience on election day and your sincere buying in to her megalomania. It is not true, as Amit Shah kept on repeating, that Hindus are afraid to do Durga Pujo under Mamata. The number of Durga Pujos and their scale keeps on increasing, and the TMC government supports these Pujos logistically and financially, since many of their star bahubalis are in the organizational committees.

However as the BJP started gaining ground, the Mamata government and the administration it has co-oped, came down hard on their cadres, denying them rights to events, and detaining their leaders, targeting individuals and families in the worst form of violence. It was not that they hated Hindus, it was they hated opposition, of any sort, be it a professor forwarding a cartoon or a student asking her a question in a townhall. Except the optics of this was now really bad, setting goons on processions in saffron, dead bodies of BJP cadres, there was only one message that could be taken from this.

To counter the narrative, the TMC tried to reach out to Hindus using the language of the BJP, even doing cow distribution ceremonies, and Mamata Banerjee, in a bid to assert her Hindu chops, called out to “Vishnu Mata” (Mother Vishnu and no I do not know what she meant), but it was too little and too late.

All of this I had counted for, but felt would not radically change the fate of the BJP. Sure it would make some gains, greater vote shares even in the cities,  quote Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “you can always have more than nothing” for BJP had pretty much always been nothing in Bengal, but I never thought we would have a 22-18 scoreline, not even after the exit polls came out with that number.

What I missed was the Left vote, that it was still considerable and ripe for the taking. Now I still believe it is naive to just take the numbers and posit that all Left votes went to the BJP. The TMC had consumed sections of the Left years ago in a hostile takeover, and what had been left of the left were a very small core that were either clinging on due to hard-core ideology or because the doors of the TMC were closed to them. The TMC’s bigger opposition was inside the party, those that bowed their heads but did not really want to. Unlike the CPM which had discipline through ideology, which meant that everyone got a share of the pie of power, TMC has concentrated the fruits of power too much to the top, leaving disgruntled elements all over the hinterland. Intimidated  by the power of Mamata Banerjee’s state machinery, they had cowered and hid, because one of the things the TMC had inherited from the CPIM had been their fascist intolerance of opposition and the use of the state to crush all forms of dissent. This explains why so many seats in Panchayat went uncontested, it was not that the opposition did not exist, but people were too afraid of identifying themselves as anything but Trinamool, being strung up on trees or having their huts burned being a rather strong argument against that. Of course, if we had a functioning media, these things would have been highlighted at the national level, the fascism unleashed by Trinamool, but since Bengal falls within Sardesai’s moral compass demagnetization zone, the systemic violence was ignored, because unless there is cow and a New York Times writing assignment on the line, no one cares about fascism and the suppression of democracy.

What Amit Shah-Kailash Vijayvargia did was that they gave the opposition courage to identify as the opposition.  They gave them a cause, the Hindu identity, because there is only so much anti-US imperalism and Marxian doctrine can get you in this day and age, as a mobilizing force. They gave them the assurance that unlike the CPIM, they had a pan-Indian organization working for them, right up to the Prime Minister. And it wasn’t just words, the BJP armed their cadres with symbols and weapons too—tridents and swords. Not that it would help them against the state, after all what’s that against the guns and the law and the strength of the TMC cadre operating with legal immunity, but at least it bound them together, a color, a cause and a slogan, and gave them some semblance of security in the face of total electoral lawlessness that has always been Bengal politics.

Add to it the engineered defection of Mukul Roy, Mamata Banerjee’s once backroom boy and the man in charge of purse-strings and the knowledge of where to get fuel, the front-line work of Roopa Ganguly and Locket Chatterjee and Dilip Ghosh, the Modi factor in a one-on-one takkar with Didi, and the overall coordination with high command through Kailash Vijayvargia, and the BJP had a fully functional organizational machinery, something it had never had before.

The numbers now begin to make sense. Not just in the seats won, but in the increasing trend of vote-share even in urban areas.

The ground realities have now changed. The opposition is now emboldened enough to stand up as opposition and be counted.

And this is something Mamata Banerjee has never had to deal with. She has always been the opposition, and once she became the ruler, there was none.

Till now.

So what next?

All of this portends polarization. And that’s the BJP’s favorite ground.

The TMC is now going to un-apologetically for the Muslim vote bank. As Mamata Banerjee said post-elections “Je goru dudh dey tar lathio khete howe” (The cow that gives milk, you need to take its kicks also), in the context of appeasing the Muslim vote-bank, clearly showing her hand, that she will reward those who stood by her, and the Muslim votebank did, in the face of the BJP onslaught. Intemperate to the extreme this statement, it strengthens the BJP immediately, reinforcing their narrative of Mamata Banerjee of pandering to only one vote-bank. Without a binding ideology other than soft Bengali parochialism, and a leader with strong Khaleesi syndrome, clear fascist tendencies and the specter of post-poll retributory violence unleashed on those who betrayed Didi at the ballot box , the polarization and deepening of fault lines shall continue.

Hobe Ram, hobe Ram, Ram Ram hobe hobe?

Let’s see.






5 thoughts on “The Battle for Bengal

  1. The new iMac, pretty please.

  2. Pankaj Sharma May 27, 2019 — 2:46 pm

    Really brilliantly put analysis Arnab.

  3. You said CPM and TMC “use [of] the state to crush all forms of dissent”.
    They are not as innovative and unique in this matter.
    BJP is well on it way to the same golden rendezvous.

    Your demographic (and cultural) transition theory is spot on.
    Basically West Bengal of 2015+ is far more “north Indian” than TMC ever suspected.
    Even to a Bengali cab driver from the airport, if you have flawless 70s accent-free Bengali speech, you have to keep repeating yourself. You can easily speak regular 70s Bengali and leave in 30% Bengali words that no one in Kolkata streets would understand.

    About illegal immigration from Bangladesh — this has deserved a national and international discussion for at least a decade. Given how deeply climate change is going to fuck with Bangladesh, leaving provincial despots to deal with the migrating hundreds of millions will just end in complete bedlam.

    In the current context, the bottom line is, if the parties are functionally interchangeable, election is a major waste of resources.

  4. One of your rare kharap lekha. Ranting on incoherently for a while, rescued only towards the end.

    1. And you are a JNU/JU product 🙂

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