The present election in West Bengal is perhaps Bengal’s first full confrontation with its personal reality. Bengali politics has operated underneath ideological shadows and myth-making, rigorously nurtured and managed to keep away from confronting its personal social contradictions. First, it was Bengal because the creator of a distinctive, enlightened urbanity and humanism, betrayed by the braying hordes of Indian nationalism. This narrative was sufficient to supply a century’s value of nostalgia and repetition. Then got here the progressive self-image: The revolutionary vanguard of a society devoted to redistribution. This redistribution may very well be allied with anti-communalism and a gesture at excessive humanism. When this progressive self-image ran out of steam, there was poriborton. In all different states, change is routine. In Bengal, it needed to be made a process.
This self-image was fairly charming. It did create and maintain a beguiling tradition that transformed us all to Bengalophilia. Land reform was a actual achievement, however not as spectacular as some have claimed. However this sequence papered over the 4 Cs of politics — caste, communalism, corruption and coercion — hidden in plain sight by some spectacular self-images. On this election, these 4 Cs have come into the open, abruptly. To the extent that this is the terrain on which Bengal politics is being carried out, the BJP has received, even when it loses the election.
The declare that caste was absent in Bengal politics was all the time problematic. The focus of higher castes in city Bengal and their secession from rural energy buildings allowed them to reside the fiction of a casteless politics. As Sekhar Bandyopadhyay lengthy identified, Partition shifted the discourse of caste to a discourse of migration and rehabilitation which may very well be subsumed by a politics of social justice with out eradicating it. However the energy buildings have been all the time suffused with caste, one thing captured a lot earlier in literature than in social science. It is placing how the dialogue of marginalised teams just like the Matuas is a lot extra seen on this election.
Each Dalit and Muslim politics in Bengal had been contained inside an edifice that denied them unbiased political house and financial empowerment. Dalits are in search of extra assertive political house by means of the BJP; and Muslim politics is trying to experiment with completely different prospects. As Rahul Varma identified, the BJP used Dalit politics for Hindutva consolidation in Bengal. This is preferrred terrain for the BJP. It may use Dalits as a wedge to throw open the caste character of the dominant Bengali order. It may play on a terrain the place it is sturdy: The tapping of repressed recollections. It has positioned Hindutva because the car of Dalit empowerment.
The undercurrent of a communalised politics, prices of minority appeasement, have been all the time lurking underneath the floor. The BJP compelled Mamata Banerjee to play on their terrain. Just like the Congress of outdated she has to now attempt to run a Muslim consolidation of votes, together with Hindu nationalism. Her granting of allowances and housing for sanatan Brahmin monks was that type of symbolic act. However the actual fact that she needed to declare her Hindu allegiances as a political efficiency is a sign of the communalisation of politics. It has uncovered her to the cost the BJP has all the time made, that every one secularism is electoral secularism, a façade that may crack fairly simply.
The third confrontation with reality is over corruption. The CPM ran a celebration state, wherein corruption is knit into a hierarchical organisational order, and due to this fact was not referred to as corruption. Mamata’s governance mannequin is completely different. She depends, consistent with the nationwide pattern, on the deepening of personal individualised transfers by means of a number of social schemes, from Kanyashree to Swasthya Sathi. A few of these are carried out fairly properly. However this supply is carried out by means of empowered bureaucrats greater than celebration buildings or neighborhood coalitions. The second shift is displacing older buildings of celebration corruption which have been embedded locally with another community of brokers and hire extractors; this is a system without delay each centralised and extra extractive. There is the potential of each in style fear about corruption, and doubtlessly extra competitors and dissatisfaction if the spoils will not be distributed properly. Taken collectively, centralised corruption and bureaucratic empowerment weaken celebration organisational buildings.
Lastly there is coercion. Bengal is not unusually excessive on crime, nevertheless it has been excessive on political violence and intimidation. Violence was baked into the celebration state of the CPM. It took a type of counter-violence to shake it off. In some methods, elections in Bengal are about recollections of victimisation by political violence. Even components of the left turned to the BJP exactly to counteract victimisation by TMC cadres. The BJP has tapped into this theme of victimisation of violence.
The bhadralok intellectuals will protest that Bengal is present process Nirad Chaudhuri’s nightmare: Bengal being overrun by UP-style politics. However in fact these contradictions are homegrown and lengthy within the making. In spite of everything, it is this similar mental class that stood idly by when the CPM perfected the mannequin the BJP desires to emulate: The creation of a celebration state. As an illustration, Bengal systematically dismantled its benefit in greater training on the altar of ideological conformity, and licensing of state penetration and seize of civil society establishments.
These elementary dynamics are obscured by the persona of Mamata Banerjee, one of many final leaders left with some spunk, and a diploma of in style identification. That the 4 Cs have modified the terrain of politics is past doubt. However will communal polarisation be sufficient for the BJP to surpass its 2019 efficiency? Will some votes gravitate again to the Left sufficient to create a three-cornered contest with its personal peculiar arithmetic? Has the BJP’s “we’ll take anyone” neutralised its anti-incumbency benefit over corruption? How a lot of a distinction will the marketing campaign make?
One factor is clear. Bengal doesn’t present a progressive different, until all one means by progressive is non-BJP. If Mamata, towards odds, wins, it’s going to no less than maintain alive a distribution of energy within the Indian system that may very well be a website of resistance. However we will see what Bengal’s first brush with reality yields.
This article first appeared within the print version on March 12, 2021 underneath the title ‘Bengal confronts Bengal’. The author is Contributing Editor, The Indian Categorical.