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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 33, New Delhi, July 31, 2021

Bengal politics: Is the cause of subalterns lost in a battle of perception? | Madhusudan Bandi

Friday 30 July 2021

by Madhusudan Bandi *

Context

The recently concluded Bengal elections were hyped to a level that it received an extraordinary attention across the country. The narratives weaved by the principle political parties and their sympathisers in media, academia and intellectual class in the run up to the elections also contributed in generating such a euphoria for a routine state assembly election. The contest was significant for the reason that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was prominently representing the subaltern communities viz., Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes against the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) popularly known as TMC. According to a perception in media, the latter was tactically supported by the bhadralok [1] and religious minorities. The bhadralok are mainly concentrated in and around Kolkata whose hegemony dominates in every sphere of life in Bengal (Ghosh 2020; Raychaudhuri 2020; Kumar 2021), including the political leadership (Roy and Bala 2020; Dev 2021). The BJP was pitted against not only the well rooted regional party in TMC, but it was up against its own image of an anti-Muslim party. In this backdrop, this paper examines how the politics was played out during the elections that influenced the outcome in the end.

High-pitched campaigning and allegations

Expressing the fears that the Bengal could end up contributing to the ‘national degeneration’ if it votes for the BJP in the state was one such plot (The Telegraph 2021). It is natural for any central government to dominate if its party is also in power in the states. This has been the feature of the federal journey of the country barring the time when the coalition governments were in power at the centre. Every party that was at the helm of the power at the centre was responsible for setting such a precedent which cannot be termed healthy in a ‘federal democracy’. However, the way the powers are defined in the constitution, it gives the Union government an upper hand, which is why, the Indian constitution is described as ‘quasi-federal’ (Venkataramanan 2019). Hitherto, speculating it would cause degeneration of the nation was harsh on the present party at centre. It must be remembered that the citizens in the country have democracy imbibed in them. The glaring example was when the excesses like imposing emergency in 1970s was committed, the people voted out the party responsible for it in the first chance they got to exercise their will in the elections. And, there appears no signs of such spirit diminishing by any measure in the present times too.

In the context of the above argument, the political commentators failed to explain, how the state was going to ‘flourish’ in upholding the democratic tenets if the ‘regional party’ were to win and retain power? What difference would it make to the lives of the common voter? After all, the regional parties across the country are no less autocratic. All the powers are concentrated in one leader or their families including the TMC. In nutshell, the proposition seemed to casting doubt on the capability of the voter’s choice.

Presuming everyone voting for BJP to be a communal and downplaying the statement given by the Bengal CM appealing the Muslims to vote unitedly for her party (The Hindu 2021), suggested a selective agenda in some section of the media to paint only one party of polarising the elections on religious lines. Given the empirical evidence available in the country, the possibility of ‘political polarisation’ happening in favour of the majority with heterogeneous characteristics in a present democratic set-up appears far from the truth. The best example to vindicate this argument is a case of Gujarat 2002 assembly elections. When the mainstream media in the country and abroad was painting Gujarat into an extremely polarised state, the BJP was able to garner only 49.8 % of total vote share (Mishra 2003), even if presumed they were entirely Hindu voters, it falls much below their population of 88.6 % in the state [2].

Local versus outsiders

An issue of local versus outsider was raised by the TMC leaders in their speeches while campaigning. Announcing the state would never be ruled by Gujarat from the centre (Das 2021a), was provocative by all means. It amounted to creating disharmony and spreading discord between the citizens on regional basis. The regional sentiment appeared to be deliberately raked to an extent of targeting the two top BJP leaders as outsiders’ to encash in the election. Nevertheless, by toeing such a narrow regional line, no leader can build a Pan-India image. The TMC leaders must have realised that, this act of their chief may have harmed her chances of playing a role in the national politics in future.

If the repercussions of thumping up ‘regional sentiments’ were to be considered, it was nothing less than jeopardizing the livelihoods of the large number of Bengali migrants. A huge chunk of them belong to subaltern communities. They migrate in large numbers as menial labour force only to eke out living for their bare sustenance. If the Census of India (2011) data is analysed, Bengal ranks fourth in the list of states that has outbound migration for employment in the country. Interestingly, a good number of elites belonging to bhadralok also migrate to other parts of the World and country including the BJP ruled states like Gujarat and Karnataka. They work in the private companies covering the fields of information technology, media, academics and other commercial sectors even while taking high moral ground on socialist ideologies. It only exposes their hypocrisy when Bengal is compared with ‘selective indicators’ to show other states in poor light (The Telegraph 2021).

Cultural pride or elitism?

The elite icons presented by the bhadralok to the world as if only they mattered to entire Bengal society never connected a chord with the subalterns. Instead, they are gradually asserting their identities with their own folklores (Kumar 2021). Further, they are in the process of averring their indigenous culture/ folk music viz.,Bhatiali, Bhaoaia and Baul which they feel was consciously subdued for long by the elite class with their own culture (Ghosh 2020). In fact, the ‘Partition’ created on communal lines has resulted in an unprecedented suffering for the less privileged section of people (Sen 2017; Kumar 2021).

As elections leaped into phases, the TMC chief vaunted her ‘shandilyagotra’ indicating her linage to the highest clan among the ‘Brahmins’ (Pandey 2021). It was an attempt to resurrect her image among the Hindu voters. It may have helped her to please the affluent upper caste Hindu voters. In Bengal, the upper caste trio belonging to Brahmin,Kayastha and Baidya who together constitute less than a fifth of the population in the state, yet, they have been dominating in every walk of life (Ghosh 2020; Raychaudhuri 2020).

This episode busted the myth that caste was not a factor in Bengal. In reality, it was never bereft of ‘caste’ element in its society, despite, the bhadralok have been projecting to the world that only classes mattered in their state (Ghosh 2020; Kumar 2021), because it suits them electorally given their numerically small population size.

Reacting to the claims of superiority based on one’s birth by TMC supremo. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief asked the CM of Bengal “What should happen to me who aren’t Shandilya or Janeudhari, aren’t bhakts of certain gods, don’t recite Chalisa or any path?...” (Pandey 2021). It is particularly significant to see how the BJP’s support base of subaltern communities in the state (Mazumdar 2020), perceives such statements made in public to build its socio-political narrative in the days to come.

Muslim parties, BJP and communal narrative

The buzz in the media before the elections strongly indicated that AIMIM and Indian Secular Front (ISF) would give Muslims an option of representing them to make a difference to their lives. However, the all-round perception created during this election forced them to support a party that had a potential to defeat BJP (The Economic Times 2021). The end result was defeat of BJP — an objective achieved, but with 15 legislators fewer to save ‘secularism’. Forty-four Muslim legislators were elected to the present house compared to 59 in the outgoing assembly of 292 members (Chowdhury 2021). Why the burden of saving ‘secularism’ is thrust solely upon the Muslims? Thus asks the AIMIM chief every time he is questioned by his detractors about his decision to participate in elections across the country. They hold him responsible for dividing secular votes to indirectly help BJP (India Today 2021). In the hindsight, if the writings of Ansari (2020) are any indication, the AIMIM also represents only the ‘elite Muslims’ and not entire community. In such case, the lives of the Pasmandas cannot be expected to change for better if they have to remain subjugated under their religious elites after escaping from the hegemony of another. It must be noted that the condition of dalits, tribals and backward classes among the Muslims known as ‘Pasmandas’ who constitute 85 % of their community of 14.2 % in a total population of India is not any different from their counterparts belonging to other faiths in the country (Ansari 2019). The Bengal story is not an exception either (Mainuddin 2011). In fact, 97 % of them are included in the OBC quota in Bengal as per TMCs claims (Kumar 2021).

Assuming, BJP had benefited and come to power if any of the Muslim parties been a major player in the elections, the occurrence would not have been an unprecedented. BJP has been in power in several states even where Muslim population is significant. As long as country is ‘democratic’ and the constitution is dedicated to ‘scientific temperament’, the fears and qualms can be considered an exaggeration and deliberate attempt by the ‘influencers’ driven by their self-interests. The reason is, without democracy, even a subaltern Hindu cannot remain safe. The BJP has now become a unit drawn more from the downtrodden folds of Hindus along with the economically weaker section of upper caste members (Ghosh 2020; Mazumdar 2020). Hence, discarding its existence merely on ‘general perception’ would be unfair to the people democratically supporting or voting for the party. From social perspective, if the BJP is binding the splintered and so far ignored and exploited caste groups together by efforts of including them in leadership positions, why the gesture must not be welcomed as long as its political role remains ‘objective’ and within the framework of Indian constitution? If the deprived section of people feel their aspirations would be realised through any political party, it must be respected by all means provided no element of ‘communal jingoism’ of any degree is encouraged by such parties.

By the way of conclusion

The Bengal election results reflected a script perfectly weaved through the fears of the minorities by the TMC. BJPs overenthusiasm in taking huge number of discredited ‘turncoats’ into its fold post 2019 Lok Sabha elections contributed in diluting its own narrative of ‘subaltern versus bhadralok’. The distribution of party tickets to the very elites against whom the anger was simmering among the BJP supporters left them feeling betrayed (Das 2021b). As a result, the cadre got confused and their dissatisfaction brewing against the incumbent party could not be capitalised. At the same time, as also acknowledged by a Bengal BJP leader, the incumbent government’s positive steps in the form of initiating several welfare programmes months before the election viz., health insurance scheme, door-step delivery of several government services and initiatives for girl children (Basu 2021), helped TMC to retain power for now.

* (Author: Madhusudan Bandi (madhusudan_bandi[at]gidr.ac.in) is a faculty member with the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad)

The usual disclaimer applies

References

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[1Bhadralok are identified with the upper caste elites in the state (Ghosh 2020; Mazumdar 2020).

[2The Gujarat population is distributed between: Hindus: 88.57 %; Muslims: 9.67 %; Christian: 0.52 % and Sikh 0.10 % (Census of India 2011)

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