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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

West Bengal Assembly Elections: The myth of Bengali Exceptionalism | P S Jayaramu

Friday 23 April 2021

by P.S. Jayaramu

Of all the Assembly elections this time round, the ongoing polls in West Bengal has attracted extraordinary attention by politicians and analysts from the academia and media. The television channels are giving unusual space to the political extravaganza because of the high stakes involved for the principal contenders for power, the BJP which is out to capture Bengal and the TMC wanting to retain its fortress. By all accounts, the contest seems bipolar with the other parties belonging to the category of ‘also participated’!

The West Bengal elections have also captured our imagination because of the oft repeated theme of Bengali exceptionalism, citing factors like the State being the inheritor of the cultural ethos passed on by personalities like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Rajaram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Subash Chandra Bose and the like, all of whom have provided a hory historical tradition of emphasising Power as a MEANs to an END and not an end in itself. While all this is something to be proud of, the pursuit of power in recent decades by Political Parties from the Left for three decades to the TMC in the last two terms and more so, by the actors involved in the ongoing power struggle consisting of the BJP, it becomes clear that the Bengali exceptionalism is fast disappearing resulting in the contest reaching baser levels. The political contest has no longer been imbued by the ideological fervour of the Left or the Bhadralok type that replaced it. Let me try and understand why things have reached the crass level it has.

Firstly, we need to factor in the fact that the BJP which began its preparations for the capture Bengal project right in ernest after its spectacular performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls,if not earlier,is using all its resources, financial, organisational and the Hindutva ideology to its optimum capacity supported by the uncountable campaign speeches/ rallies conducted by its top leadership headed by the Modi-Shah duo. The Bengali exceptionalism came crashing when it started using all means available to win over key political supporters of Mamata Banerjee, starting with Suvendra Adhikari, ending with the redoubtable Dinesh Trivedi to its side. Whether they have joined BJP out of a new found love for BJP and its Hindutva ideology or out of political opportunism is something which can only be debated in academic circles. What is clear is that the Bengali political class have proved that they are no different from their tribe elsewhere in India.

As for the TMC, which emerged on the Political horizon under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee ten yearly ago by breaking the three decade old Communist hold over State Politics, is also losing its earlier sheen. Not only is Ms. Banerjee’s unsurpassed hold over the electorate waning, notwithstanding the role played by her political adviser cum strategist Prashant Kishor, doubts have started appearing as to whether she will retain power for the third time. Though it is acknowledged that her personal popularity is still somewhat intact, the anti incumbency factor may work in the case of many constituencies and candidates because of popular dissatisfaction over their dismal performance in delivering benefits to the voters. What is also weighing against Mamata Banerjee is her inability to reign in the local chieftains who through their rampant corruption, ‘cut money’ as it is called, have denied the legitimate benefits due to the voters.

The inability of the TMC Government to create greater employment opportunities and promote large scale industrialisation may also turn out to be the nagatives in Ms.Banerjee’s efforts to recapture power, though it is being widely recognised that schemes like Kanyashree, to enhance educational opportunities for girls, which has won the acclaim of the UN agencies,may turn out to be the positives for the Mamata Banerjee Government.

There are also reports about the tangible benefits that the Government programmes have conferred on the minorities in terms of education and employment, specially teaching jobs for them in the higher education sector, which are likely to be favourable votes for Ms. Banerjee.

As for the Congress and the Left Parties, the popular perception seems to be that they are out of the reckoning largely because of their inability to offer an alternative agenda to the electorate. It is a pity that both the Congress Party which ruled Bengal in the initial decades after independence and the Left Parties which later held sway for three decades have lost out in the popular imagination of the Bengali voters. In restrospect, it appears that the failure of the Congress Party under Smt. Sonia Gandhi to retain Mamata Banerjee within its fold, resulting in her forming the Trinamool Congress in 2010 and that the Party has done nothing to correct its political blunders later on has turned out be the reason for its nemesis as a political entity in the State. It’s vote bank politics too has gradually withered away thanks to Mamata Banerjee’s assiduous capturing of the minorities and the SC, STs space.

As for the Left Parties, once out of power in 2011, they have never been able to regain their political and electoral space. With the left ideology not holding any attraction to the aspirational young voters who want better education, better employment opportunities via the multinational companies etc, the CPM and the CPI have failed to come up with any credible revival project for the Front.

It is a sad spectacle that the State’s political lanspdscape, is witnessing the invoking of caste and communal passions in the electoral battle, with both the BJP and to some extent the TMC resorting to communal polarisation in order to reach out to the voters. Amit Shah and Narendra Modi invoking religious Hindu sentiments in their campaign speeches, while at the same time talking of ‘poribarthan’ and creating a ‘Sonar Bangla’ and Banerjjee reciting Chandi path, invoking Maa Durga in her campaign speeches are proofs of such communal polarisation. Added to it, the State has witnessed frequent outbreak of violence preceding polling in many rural constituencies, not to speak of the physical assaults on candidates belonging to both BJP and the TMC by rival factions . All this has exposed the myth of Bengali exceptionalism, which the bhadralok class is fond of talking about. Seen against this context, no matter who wins the electoral battle, Bengal politics may see a new low in the foreseeable future, which will indeed be sad.

(Author: Dr. P. S Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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