The West Bengal assembly election of 2016, won comprehensively by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), involved the deepest dynamics of social divisions and stratification.
A noticeable trait was the absence of any positive programme of the CPI(M)-Congress Left-liberal combine, which attempted almost a velvet revolution of the kind seen in Eastern Europe in the late eighties and early nineties: a restorative exercise. In this case, the supposedly great call was for Restoration of Democracy — but none of the parties wanted to talk of social classes. The ruling party claimed it was developing West Bengal, but looked as though it was embarrassed to follow a pro-lower class development policy; the Left-liberal combine avoided references to classes, divisions and programmes — as though it is only through killing politics that the liberal exhortation to democracy wins.
No election in West Bengal has been as immersed in logistics as this one. The farther the logistical exercise went, the louder became the liberal call to freedom through law and order and strengthening the state machinery of policing so that citizens could have democracy — as though West Bengal was facing an Emergency, and only massive central paramilitary forces could ensure enjoyment of the fruits of liberty. In this cry for democracy it had to be ensured that nobody raised disturbing questions of land, wage, access to market, food, education, etc. and, in particular, Singur and Nandigram. By suppressing all issues that created faultlines in democracy, democracy had to be brought back to West Bengal, which, we were told, was in a void, or if you like, on the brink of an abyss. To do so, elections had to be regimented, garrisoned, policed, patrolled, monitored, relayed, measured, evaluated, and judged as the war progressed, to finally earn the seal of a “democratic exercise”.
How did this idea of being on the brink take hold? To understand that, we have to see how the high intellectuals in Bengal articulated the call for democracy and suppressed the issues of lower classes. They were not happy with their lost authority and injured legitimacy to speak for society, which is undergoing social churning, and which added to the election’s unpredictability. The “subalternisation” of politics has made it less Kolkata- and media-centric, and to that extent, the TMC’s strength was almost proportional to the destitution of power in society. The TMC had never been as organised as the Left Front, and had emerged primarily as a movement — unruly, uncontrolled — and as a subaltern response to the six-decade rule of the political classes. Invariably in this response there was, and is, a degree of lumpenisation and crime, but also an enormous involvement of poor people who saw the TMC as their new protector. The Left had thought of development not only in a highly statist manner, but progressively in a neo-liberal manner too. Upper middle class Kolkata, satiated with the principles of enlightenment, liked it — enjoying both the prestige of the Left and the power of the Right all these years. No wonder they largely supported the Left Front’s industrialisation drive and articulated the cultural contours of a peculiarly left-liberal ideology.
The intellectuals could never reconcile to Bengal taking the path of Bihar’s politics. With a new style of functioning, political patronage and way of welfare, questions of caste and social exclusion were being addressed in a manner reminiscent of Bihar from Karpoori Thakur to Nitish Kumar. If the TMC has won despite middle-class disenchantment and upper-class opposition, we can say that a model based on a strong government, marginalised opposition, and a stable, populist, benevolent, autocratic leadership, is generally succeeding. Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish and Mamata will all be seen as makers of that model. In the milieu of emphatic “subalternisation”, lumpenisation and empowerment have struck together, almost like poison and nectar that came out of the churning.
Stung by reality, the educated in Bengal asked: What is this poriborton that had been promised in 2011? Once again, the similarity between the velvet revolution and the cry for democracy is striking. It began with a delegation of intellectuals — composed of a famous poet, a famous scholar, an actor, and other good Samaritans — presenting a demand for free and fair elections through greater supervision. Their banner was “Save Democracy”. They sought the removal of Chief Electoral Officer Sunil Gupta and Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena, and the arrest of several grassroots TMC leaders. Indeed, they set the agenda for the Left and BJP who claimed a lack of democratic ambience — and essentially demanded more guns to save democracy.
Around the same time, respected social scientists started appearing on TV and op-ed pages, comparing the chief minister’s style to that of an absolute monarch that had ruined or irreparably damaged democracy. The universal lament was that Bengal was in decline, institutions were in crisis, and only strong-willed, conscientious intellectuals could protect whatever remained of the institutional integrity of Bengal’s education and culture. An ex-finance minister declared that though he was old and infirm, he would crawl on his chest (or belly) to cast his vote against “that lady”. Throughout his op-ed invective he did not mention the name of the person; clearly she did not deserve to be called by her name. Another left intellectual known for his radical past rued that miscreants and hoodlums were now ruling Bengal. The spoken and unspoken appeal in these op-eds was for greater EC presence — more armed forces, more supervision, more patrolling, and more police measures.
We should fear an intellectual power that puts society to sleep, does not consult the poorer strata of society, and pleads for development and economic growth without any reference to the lower order. We should fear a society that allows itself to be modelled by those who claim that as producers of ideas, intellectuals are beyond rebuke or critique. The change of 2011 was often presented by the learned classes as a moment of uncertain madness when the people “erred”. Chaos scares the upper classes: hence the discourse of being at the brink, void, decline, ruin, and the consequent cry for democracy. The way this election was conducted showed above all the spectral presence of the poorer classes in the democratic game.
It is evident in this discourse why and how the liberals lost the working people. We are witnessing a return to the age of social contradictions and political conflicts, which will increasingly become acute. We are also witnessing a gradual passing over from the politics of intense campaign as the heart of election to a kind of electoral subjectivity that is half-political and half-machinic, born out of entanglements of people, the media as a propaganda machine, supervision machinery, software, and logistics.
The strategy of the TMC is to accept this reality and bypass it. It represents the lower classes, yet does not want to emphasise class divisions. Its slogan of development aims at achieving the hegemonic position once attained by the Left. Yet, this rhetoric will be incapable of glossing over social contradictions — first because of its lower-order origin; second, because it thinks the possibilities of development policy are limitless.
But there is one more reason why the possibility of a TMC strategy to build hegemony may be limited. It is that while it has dismantled the structure of party-controlled mobilisation that combined centralised and capillary forms of power, the void has created an uncertain brew of social activism, welfarism, encouragement to traditional grassroots institutions like clubs, and the power of local toughs to build votebanks and mobilise the poor when needed — with all of these reinforced by the legitimacy provided by an exceptionally strong leader and development-focused governance. This has resulted, and will continue to result, in the simultaneity of episodic violence and development.