Whatever happens, one thing is for certain, the political culture of Bengal is on the verge of an unprecedented transformation.
In the political biography of the state of West Bengal in India, there have been moments that have had the potential to transcend the limits of immediacy and constituted upheavals of the local political ecology – political culture, elites, allegiances, ideology. Since independence in 1947, the Legislative Assembly elections have been of such importance only three times: the 1951-52 election, in which the Indian National Congress (INC) scored a victory (150 of 238 seats) clear enough to shape West Bengal politics for the next sixteen years. The second was the coming to power of the Left alliance, first in the late 1960s as part of a coalition and then as rulers from 1977 onwards. The Left Front coalition determined the course of the state for the next 34 years and is very much part of its legacy today. The third shift came with the rise of the centrist and populist Mamata Banerjee and her All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) in 2011. Mamata’s rise to power had much to do with the increasing popular disenchantment and frustration in the state that had seen an economic decline, loss of job opportunities, and increasing corruption.
The election of 2021 is a fourth such moment to potentially reconfigure the state’s politics for years to come. This piece is written before the results are out, but our prediction of a substantive change is made on how fundamental alterations in the political culture of the state have made themselves visible during the months of the campaign.
Perhaps the most eye-catching re-alignment is the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalist or Hindutva politics in West Bengal. Even if, at first glance, this may seem surprising, considering that right-wing nationalist or even regionalist parties were unable to make much of a dent over the last seven decades, yet at second glance, it is not. As the political analyst Ashish Nandy has pointed out, a strand of Hindu nationalism has been evident in Bengal since the 19th century. Hindu nationalist organisations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and Hindu Mahasabha (HMS), including founding members such as Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee – all had roots in Bengal. Despite the fact that voters in the state have rejected the idea of nationalism and Hindu nationalism, in particular, one cannot ignore the fact that the ideology has been rooted in this region for the last 200 years. A win in West Bengal would mean returning to its roots, Bengal being the Hindu nationalist movement’s own Jerusalem.
It is in this context that one needs to read the determined effort of BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the organisational wizard Home Minister Amit Shah have been making to capture the state in this election. Between them, Modi and Amit Shah were expected to address 70 rallies in March and April. BJP clearly sees West Bengal as a valuable prize. The size of the state in itself makes it attractive to a movement with an urge for dominance. It might also be a necessary backup for national survival as its grip on the Hindi heartland states is weakening after years of controversial and often incompetent rule.
More significantly, the current election in West Bengal is important because West Bengal so far has represented a different kind of politics. It has embodied a political culture in which class rather than caste should rule, one in which rulers actively have taken a stance against the kind of political choices that have come to dominate large parts of India and its central government. Not that society as such has been without its bigots and zealots. But generally, Bengalis and their leaders have understood themselves as different. West Bengal is also a large state, the fourth largest in the Union of India, and the size has made it self-conscious of being an exception, an alternative.
This spring (2021), the state has lived through an extensive election campaign and even before the results are out, it is clear that this exceptionalism is coming to an end. More than anything, more than the horror of the ongoing pandemic, more than the economic woes, communalism (group hate and conflict based on mostly religious identities), and identity politics have ruled the day. Whether BJP wins or not, the campaign itself has heralded the end of what has been called Bengal’s exceptionalism.
First, over the last decade, there has been a slow but unstoppable increase in the BJP’s support base and vote share and an almost equal drop in the Left’s share of the vote. Tathagata Roy, senior BJP leader and former Governor of Tripura, held that the best possible way to breach the Left fortress of West Bengal and open the road to power for the BJP was by facilitating first the victory of Mamata. This has proven prophetic. In 2011, the BJP received four per cent of the West Bengal vote. In 2014, this went up to 17 per cent on the back of a Hindutva wave led by Narendra Modi. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it jumped to 40 per cent. According to the post-2019 poll survey conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)’s Lokniti Programme, the Left lost 23 per cent of Hindu votes between 2014 and 2019.
In this election, the BJP and its government are actively pushing the agenda of communalism, concretely of Islamophobia. Their invocation of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) is the primary expression of this agenda. The CAA allows for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship but not Muslim refugees. On the contrary, efforts are on to expel Muslims suspected of being Bangladeshi. At the same time, BJP’s highly efficient army of online trolls and activists pushed the ideas of the so-called Love Jihad (that Muslim boys married Hindu girls in order to convert them to Islam) and of ‘infiltration’ from across the border from Bangladesh of ever-larger numbers of Muslim. Those who objected to these allegations were labelled ‘anti-national’ by the troll army. These were efficient weapons against the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal because of a latent suspicion among the middle classes, in particular, that the city of Calcutta was swamped with illegal immigrants. The same strategy had been employed in Mumbai in western India in which Bengali labour migrants – many of whom are Muslim – were branded as illegals while they, in fact, were Indian citizens. Despite protests, the CAA was passed into law in 2019, and the protests were effectively stopped by the Covid-19 lockdown.
This agenda-pushing strategy is not new. It has been around for a long while, most poignantly expressed in the Ayodhya incident in 1992, in which Hindu zealots mobilised by BJP and its parent organisation RSS tore down a mosque. The then rulers of West Bengal were adamant that they would not go down that path. The sense of a distinct Bengali approach to the divisive agenda of communalism was evident in that even in villages, people organised programmes and activities to express communal harmony.
The agenda of communalism is, of course, shamefaced; it will hide its nature and claim that it is not about one group trying to keep another down. On the contrary, they will claim that they are the ones oppressed, unfairly treated, and their rights trampled on. Hindu nationalists claim that Hindus and their traditions have not been respected in modern India, and this situation needs to be rectified.
Communalism has a close cousin called identity politics, a type of political rallying that focuses on group identity rather than class and has gained tremendous traction in modern India. One source for this change is the ‘reservation’ policy that has been official policy in India since before independence and is a form of positive discrimination aimed at improving the lot of the lower castes and so-called tribal groups. But the policy of bestowing rights and opportunities according to caste identity had unforeseen consequences. It is a juggernaut that keeps on rolling in one direction only, forward. In the 1980s, the policy was expanded to include mid-level castes because of its popularity and as a political tool. In Tamil Nadu in the south of India, it is used to cover more than 80 per cent of the population. It was never specifically extended to Muslim groups because it identified beneficiary groups based on cultural discrimination (hence ‘untouchables’), but its force was unstoppable by then.
After coming to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee implemented reservation for certain groups of Muslims. Muslims were hitherto excluded from reservations because these were initially designed for groups who suffered under cultural discrimination (the ‘untouchables’). Three years later, both she and BJP courted certain Hindu groups, particularly the original low-caste sect of Matuas. In a typical process, the Matuas (most of whom live in Nadia district) have been given reservations, a college and a railway station. Other groups courted and favoured include the Rajbangshis in northern West Bengal and the Gorkhas on the border of Sikkim. Mamata further offered stipends to Imams and was seen with her head covered and hands folded in front of her face in the presence of Muslim clerics. Her symbolic gestures were systematically used to denigrate her on social media by the Hindutva troll army. Not surprisingly, therefore, the BJP’s Hindu vote witnessed an unprecedented rise from 21 per cent in 2014 to 57 per cent in 2019, pointing to a deep polarisation. To change the narrative, Mamata has offered similar stipends to Hindu priests.
A vital expression of how identity politics have become integral to Bengal politics is the emergence of Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui as a political player. He belongs to the hereditary custodians of the famous Furfura Sharif shrine. A cleric in his mid-30s, Siddiqui toyed for a while with the idea of aligning himself with the openly communal Muslim leader Asaduddin Owaisi from Hyderabad but seems to have concluded that Owaisi would not have had much clout in West Bengal. Abbas instead set up Indian Secular Front (ISF), still a very new and small party slowly gaining traction because of its insistence that Muslims have equal rights and these rights should be real rights. His rhetorical vocabulary draws from the same script as Dalit activists and politicians in northern India have done with success.
The surprise alliance is Samjukta Morcha between Abbas’s allegedly secular front, the centrist Congress party, and the Left, including CPM. Entering this alliance, CPM seems to have accepted identity politics as inevitable and unavoidable. It is still likely that the larger sections of Muslims will vote for Trinamool because Abbas’s support is limited to only a quarter of the Furfura Muslims, albeit he may also attract young Muslims from the urban and periurban areas. His political vocabulary links Muslims’ lack of opportunity and employment to imperceptible but real discrimination of them as Muslims in a Hindu majority state.
These young Muslims, as the Matuas and all the other groups, are voters who want their rightful place in society and want to wield political clout consummate with their group size. This is within the ever-spreading logic of identity politics. But Abbas’s association with Owaisi has also made him vulnerable to accusations of communalism, while Mamata’s pleading with the Matuas and the clerics has led her into the territory of politics of religion. The maelstrom of identity politics has forced even the Left to balance precariously on the edge of communalism.
Abbas’s inclusion has raised critical questions about the region’s political dynamics – will his ISF be able to cut into the Trinamool’s Muslim votes in South Bengal, especially in the districts of North and South 24 parganas, the party’s long-term stronghold? If he can, it may be a setback for Trinamool substantial enough for it to lose its hold on power. But the Muslim voters, who constitute nearly one-third of the voting population, may decide to back Trinamool to prevent the emergence of the BJP. A third possibility, however unlikely, is that the Samjukta Morcha pulls sufficient Left, Muslim, Dalit and anti-Mamata votes to carry the day. Whatever happens, one thing is for certain, the political culture of Bengal is on the verge of an unprecedented transformation.
Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, and Niladri Chatterjee is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.