Decline of the Bengali bhadralok in the politics of West Bengal: What next ? 

Decline of the mostly upper caste Bhadralok in politics hasn’t been followed by a Dalit resurgence and the suspense over the future course of politics in the state continues

Decline of the Bengali bhadralok in the politics of West Bengal: What next ? 

Debraj Bhattacharya

If we take a long-term view of the history of the state of West Bengal, we shall see that unlike many other states, West Bengal’s society and polity for a long time has been dominated by what is known as the bhadralok.

The bhadralok, in common parlance means a “gentleman” but in history/social science has a somewhat different meaning. It refers to an elite, usually from the upper castes, but is not necessarily defined by birth. It also has a cultural connotation.

The remarkable feature of West Bengal since 1947 has been the fact that the bhadralok has dominated both politics as well as culture even though many of them were refugees from Bangladesh and economically not well-off. Thus, in case of Bengal, upper caste bhadralok may or may not be financially well-off but will enjoy higher status if s/he is an educated person with scholarly or literary outputs to his/her name. Typically, a Satyajit Ray or a Bidhan Chandra Ray exemplified this social group, which was neither a “class” nor an upper caste elite in the sense a Brahmin would be in north India.

Since 1950s, the bhadralok has been divided into different political ideologies/parties – Congress, CPI, CPIM, Naxalites, etc – and there have been fiercely intellectual and political battles, sometimes even turning violent. This was accompanied by impressive achievements in the field of art, literatur, culture and scholarship.

At the risk of some generalisation, one can perhaps argue that the bhadralok since 1950s had a position of eminence less in terms of wealth and more in terms of their intellectual achievements. We must also not forget the achievement of bureaucrats who spearheaded the Operation Barga and made land reforms possible. From abolition of Zamindari to land reform to panchayati raj and the limited attempt at industrialisation under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee one can see progressive politics which continued from the Congress era to the CPIM era even though the Bhadralok remained politically and culturally divided.

The Naxalite bhadralok never lost an opportunity to criticise the CPIM bhadralok, the Congress bhadralok is too eager to point out how Bengal was progressing under Congress rule till labour trouble ruined Bengal. The divided bhadralok society fought a war among each other to bring down Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government by giving intellectual support to Mamata Banerjee, hoping to oust CPIM first and then take over the agenda of the state.

However, the nature of the economy and the nature of democratic politics was transforming Bengal since 1990s and the full result of it became clear after Mamata Banerjee came to power. Bengali bhadraloks transformed themselves into an elite working class, devoid of any historical agenda.

Their standard of living vastly improved but they lost the zeal of their forefathers to produce great works of Bengali culture. Second, the rise of mass politics meant a new category of powerful lords emerged in rural Bengal who were good at controlling people, making sure that their party won in election.

Rural bosses like Laxman Seth or Anubrata Mandal emerged. For the purpose of winning elections, they became indispensable to whichever party wanted to win the election. What is interesting is that the rise of the rural bosses in Bengal was not a dalit revolution based on certain ideas of anti-brahminism.

This transformation of Bengal became quite apparent when the panchayat election of 2018 took place. There was no ideological discourse during the campaign, it became a battle between various local bosses. AITC was in a position to win without any violence, but it ensured that violence was carried out to stamp out whatever little opposition was there. CPIM failed to fight the battle with enough muscle power and therefore it became clear to its own supporters that if a reply has to be given to AITC then it would require some other party which has more muscle power.

This is the point at which something quite remarkable happened. Without the backing of the Bengali bhadralok intelligentsia, BJP, based on the image of Narendra Modi, managed to rise in Bengal. When Mamata was rising, she needed the support of the Bengali bhadralok intelligentsia, but for the BJP it was no more necessary. It is also interesting to note that CPIM this time tried to field bhadralok candidates with “clean image” but all of them lost and lost badly. Seasoned politicians switched sides like football players do during the football season, without bothering about the ideological distinctions between different parties. Footballisation of Bengal politics is now complete.

The end of the bhadralok’s influence over the future of Bengal, to me, is the most important outcome of this election. It is also clear that a dalit ideological resurgence is unlikely to happen, although lower castes like the Matuas will vote for this party or that party depending on who will give them more benefits.

Will the bhadralok survive politically? In electoral politics I am not hopeful. I think the only space left is civil society movements and judicial activism. The recent victory of a small group of activists when the film Bhobishyoter Bhoot was informally banned perhaps points towards this direction.

(The writer is an author of multiple books and is Fellow at Sigma Foundation)

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