Dr Mukulika Banerjee who has been visiting West Bengal for nearly two decades to research her upcoming book, Cultivating Democracy, noticed the cracks in the fortress long before the election results were announced on May 23. The noted academic is Director, South Asia Centre of London School of Economics and Political Science. As Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, she has rigorously studied democracy at the grassroots for her upcoming book as well as her published work, Why India Votes?
Excerpts from her conversation with S. N. M. Abdi about what happened in West Bengal electorally and what lies ahead:
What was your first reaction to the BJP winning 18 seats out of 42 in West Bengal?
Having spent some time in WB in April 2019, both in the villages where I have been conducting research for over 20 years and in some others, and having travelled across the length of the state on this trip, from Kolkata to Siliguri – I have to say I wasn’t at all surprised. I was expecting the BJP to do very well indeed.
How would you account for the BJP’s creditable electoral performance?
WB’s politics has been dominated by violence for over four decades now. First by the Congress, then the Communists – both literal and symbolic, and latterly by Trinamool Congress. All over the state people reported not being able to vote in the last Panchayat elections and that many seats were filled uncontested. In this scenario, the BJP’s entry has provided a welcome distraction, if only because it is new.
The clever strategy was to use Hanuman Puja on Noboborsho (which this year was directly after Ramnavami) as a way of roping in young men to work together for a common cause in each neighbourhood and village across the state.
With the puja came the flags, with the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ which was a direct connection to Modi. These were widely available and people stuck them on their houses and on their motorcycles. Thus, Hanuman Puja has been an effective cover to attract and consolidate the support of new members. Even Trinamool workers could not protest about a puja being conducted.
The groundwork for this had clearly begun a while ago and in many places, people reported that idols of Hanuman had suddenly started appearing everywhere – ‘they fell off a truck’, ‘it was found under a tree one morning’ were some explanations. Hanuman as a god was little understood or worshipped with any devotion; no one seemed to know or recite the Hanuman Chalisa or the many stories about him from the Ramayana, except for his muscularity and devotion to Ram. Perhaps that was enough for the BJP’s purposes!
Thus, the groundwork for the 2019 elections had begun long in advance, as more and more young people, fed up of old Left Front and Trinamool tensions, eagerly adopted the BJP as something new and something they could call their own. Their enthusiasm was further fed and nurtured by daily messages through Whatsapp on their phones, and young men across the state tapped their phones as they told me ‘For the first time India has attacked Pakistan inside their territory’ or ‘India is taken seriously by other countries only after 2014’ or ‘Mamata works only for Muslims’.
What can Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress do to halt the BJP’s march in Bengal?
Despite considerable welfare work in the state and infrastructure development, that people readily acknowledged had happened, the message that Mamata only works for Muslims persisted. Clearly, development work is not the only way to win an election – a fresh message, something to capture the imagination of young voters is necessary.
One single big message from Trinamool was missing and certainly not apparent on the ground anywhere. Technology is key as is a disciplined and dedicated work force. Mamata will need to seriously attract investment to the state, create jobs and focus attention on young men if she wants to win their loyalty. She needs to conduct her politics in a more democratic way in which dissent and expression of disagreement, both within her cabinet and in the public sphere, has to be allowed to exist. Finally, she needs to form a cabinet that is allowed to make policy, think of the state’s future in a long-term way. At the moment, too much attention is continually focused on Mamata herself and this in itself cannot act as a foil against the well-oiled machinery of the BJP.
Icons play a big role in shaping public opinion in Bengal. But the BJP has so far not managed to win over a single big intellectual like poet Shankho Ghosh, actor Soumitro Chatterjee, dramatist Rudraprasad Sengupta or even cricketer Saurav Ganguly. No Bengali A-lister ever turned up for the intellectuals’ gatherings convened by Amit Shah. Do you think that they will now succumb to the not-so-discreet charms of the BJP? Or will they stand up and take on the Hindu Right?
Stranger things have happened! The Hindu Mahasabha was born in Bengal after all. It was not devoid of prominent people, and WB has seen some of India’s worst Hindu-Muslim riots. A deep Islamophobia exists even in bhadralok society, so it could be a matter of time before this is given free expression again. Having said that, Kolkata is home to a rich tradition of academic research, music and the arts – which have been liberal in spirit and explicitly against the spirit of majoritarian politics.
But we must remember that the Left Front years also saw a complete take-over of academic institutions by CPI(M) and its card carrying members, which contributed in large part to the erosion of the credibility of some of the greatest universities in India located in Kolkata. Thousands of the brightest students fled the state to study in Delhi and overseas.
During the 2019 campaign, the disconnect between conversations in Kolkata and rest of West Bengal were striking. While educated Bengalis pronounced that no Bengali would ever tolerate BJP’s politics of vegetarianism or chant the alien slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ – in rural Bengal the story was altogether different. Vegetarianism is not an issue at all (especially if you can’t afford fish or meat!), where educated young men with no jobs have plenty of time to gather around a new flag and a new slogan.
Thus, while cultural icons may play a big role in shaping public opinion in Kolkata, for the rest of the state, a much greater effort needs to be made to share their progressive and liberal ideas. Even in Shantiniketan, where many of the cultural and literary icons visit and maintain second homes, the town (apart from the university itself) was completely gripped by fascination for Hanuman Puja and the BJP, largely spearheaded by the association of rickshaw (toto) drivers who are ubiquitous and essential for the town’s functioning.
Do you think that the consolidation of Hindu votes for the BJP in Bengal might drive Bengal’s Muslims comprising 27 per cent of the population to float their own political party like AIDUF in Assam?
It is hard to say. Trinamool is favourably seen by all the Muslims I met, so they may not feel the need to float their own political party. Besides, where would the leadership come from? There have been very few Muslims in the forefront of any political party in West Bengal for decades. But it is far from unimaginable. We need to remember history. Bengal has witnessed religious consolidation in opposing political parties which led to far-reaching consequences.
Can the BJP’s rise in Bengal after Assam and resultant Muslim bashing strain India-Bangladesh relations?
The rise of the BJP along border districts in WB is notable. If NRC is made an issue in WB, as it has been in Assam, this is a possibility. The Left Front years made sure that the Hindu-Muslim issue was never communalised and this is one hugely positive legacy of those 34 years. But as we have seen, this ethos is fragile and needs to be continuously cultivated and guarded against stoking of religious tensions. West Bengal, like other states in India, has a serious problem with the issue of unemployment.
In such a scenario, an anti-immigration message, blaming ‘outsiders’ is easy to take root. Further, the BJP has made it clear that they have their eye on the 2021 Assembly elections. ‘Uneeshey half, Ekushey Saaf’ as the slogan going around says.
Given the India-Bangladesh issue is an international one and maintained by the central government, it should not surprise us if WB is made vulnerable on the border cynically ahead of the 2021