The cotton kurta-clad cultured “bhadralok” squirms at the very thought of his daughter marrying an “Arora”. Bengali culture, literature and music have no match, he proclaims. The family stays in a tastefully done-up house, complete with a rich collection of books and precious works of art adorning the walls. This vignette from the 2012 Bollywood hit Vicky Donor reproduces the popular imagination of the elite, bhadralok household which has come to (mis)represent Bengal’s social-cultural life in popular culture.
With the ongoing assembly elections taking place, this stereotypical image has been rehashed and reinstated in a range of analyses on the ongoing election. Several analysts and political commentators attribute the BJP’s rise in Bengal as a subaltern revolt of the rural-agrarian masses against the urban-centric socio-cultural elites, the bhadraloks. The BJP’s successes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and its emergence as the principal challenger in West Bengal is seen as proof of the success of “subaltern Hindutva”.
However, hastily employing this narrative to read Bengal’s contemporary political situation ends up generating a context-blind and ahistorical picture. In doing so, it crucially ignores the role that elites, albeit of a different kind, have played in the BJP’s power-grabs in the east. A more historically-informed reading of contemporary political developments in West Bengal and Tripura underlines this point.
The twilight years of the Left government in Bengal witnessed the growing hold of a stratum of entrenched local elites. Perceptive studies on West Bengal’s politics, such as Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya’s Government as Practice (2016), have captured how this growing stratum of self-serving political-economic elites gradually took over the Left’s machinery. With the Left Front government committing serious political and ideological mistakes in its final years, the party machinery imploded, jolted by the Singur and Nandigram agitations. In this changing political context, while some were sidelined, many of these self-serving elites joined the TMC.
Mamata Banerjee’s spectacular victory in 2011 brought great expectation of change. Her populist politics and overarching persona paid rich electoral dividends in subsequent elections. However, underneath Banerjee’s popularity remained the TMC’s dogged control over political life through a network of local elites and strongmen. Acting as key nodes, these actors dominated the party-society and marginalised the opposition space, all the while enhancing their own political and economic fortunes. Figures like Arjun Singh, Suvendu Adhikari and Arabul Islam typified this stratum of political elites. The TMC’s decade-long reign meant that these actors consolidated an iron-like grip over political life while simmering anger built up over the years with scams, petty corruption and “syndicates” becoming an everyday part of people’s lives.
Today, the defections of some of these actors from the TMC to the BJP only confirms their continued importance. The BJP’s resource-heavy campaign, its channelising of a strong anti-incumbency feeling amongst the electorate and its attempts at religious polarisation have made it a serious contender for power in West Bengal. However, one cannot ignore the fact that in the run-up to these elections, the BJP has gone out of its way to woo the kind of political-economic elites that festered in the party system over the last decade. This pattern of defections must be seen as central to the BJP’s plan, with as many as 100 of its 283 candidates being turncoats. Facing a serious organisational deficit, the BJP has ended up relying on the very elites against whom popular anger has been palpable. Underplaying this point under the garb of subaltern support for the BJP is where analysts have gone wrong. More importantly, while these defections have grabbed headlines and created the impression that the BJP is on its way to victory, this could well create challenges for the party in Bengal, whether in the ongoing elections or thereafter, as experiences from Tripura would testify.
The fall of the Left in Tripura was also seen by many as a fallout of the bhadralok-dominated CPM local leadership, with prominent leaders from the marginalised communities pushed to the margins. The overwhelming shift of the Congress’s vote share to the BJP is seen just in terms of numbers. A closer look at the electoral data shows that the bare numbers hide more than they reveal. Right through the Left-dominated years, the Congress consistently retained a vote share of nearly 35 per cent in the state, winning nearly all the prominent urban centres, home to the socio-cultural elite, even during the heydays of the CPM. In the run-up to the 2018 state polls, virtually the entire Congress leadership switched to the BJP. In the polls, the Congress’s vote share crashed from 36 per cent to 1.4 per cent. Quite evidently, along with the Congress’s vote share, the BJP also accepted into its fold the kinds of support bases that it represented. Three years down the line, many erstwhile Congress leaders today occupy cabinet positions in the BJP government and other important posts in the administration.
The Left decimation is also attributed to its inability to hold on to its tribal base in the state, which underwent a tectonic demographic shift, reducing the indigenous population to a minority. During the Left’s long stint in office between 1978 and 2018, barring a brief interlude between 1989-1993, Tripura saw only one tribal CM from the CPM. For a party that so assiduously carved out a space among the indigenous population, first as a movement against the monarchy and tactically using education and land reforms in the later years, this is a dismal record indeed. But even in 2018, there was no organic support for the BJP, or for that matter any national party, in the hills. The BJP stitched a coalition with the Indigenous Nationalist Front of Tripura (IPFT), a deeply entrenched political force that had revived the demand for a separate state in 2016. Its state leadership went all out to woo the tribal elite, by offering to make royal scion Pradyot Debbarman the deputy CM, or a Rajya Sabha MP, after the polls. Even though the arrangement with Pradyot did not work out, the BJP settled for another member of the royal family, Pradyot’s uncle Jishnu Dev Varma, the incumbent deputy CM. Even as the IPFT’s campaign hinged on its core demand, the BJP either remained silent or issued insipid statements saying that it won’t give in to any pressure. The strategy worked favourably with the BJP-IPFT combine wresting 18 out of the 20 ST seats, traditionally seen as Left citadels.
Today, what was hailed as yet another feather in BJP’s social engineering cap, seems to be under strain. The two ruling partners have repeatedly sparred, its workers clashed, even as the demand for a Greater Tipraland has gradually clawed back to the centrestage, with Pradyot rallying a number of indigenous platforms under the umbrella of TIPRA Motha. The verdict of the tribal areas autonomous polls, which took place on April 6, is expected to redefine the political dynamics of the state.
To return to the bhadralok versus subaltern narrative, come election time and the “decline” of the bhadralok gets repeated ad nauseam. Stuck on this regurgitated frame of the bhadralok’s decline, such analyses end up omitting the continued presence of elites, not just of the bhadralok variety, in the political life of Bengal or Tripura. While Bengal’s political landscape today is witnessing a democratising turn, whether on the issues of caste or the citizenship question, the rise of the BJP and its embracing of political elites points to an underplayed continuity of a political order dominated by these actors — despite the BJP’s tall claims of real change.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 10, 2021 under the title ‘The Bhadralok misdirection’. Barman is a Senior Correspondent with The Indian Express (sourav.barman@ expressindia.com); and Ghosal is a research scholar at the University of Oxford.
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