Updated: March 20, 2021 8:43:10 am
The spectre of identity politics is haunting West Bengal. Unlike in the past, the ongoing identitarian electoral pitch by the two main contenders for power, Trinamool Congress and BJP, has started resembling the political rhetoric of other states, undermining the claim of Bengali exceptionalism. The latest example is the competing promises to include the Mahishyas, along with three more castes, in the OBC list. In fact, Mamata Banerjee accused the BJP of copying from the TMC manifesto the idea of extending reservation to these backward Hindu castes.
This warrants the question: How did identity politics acquire such prominence in Bengal? Two states, Bengal and Odisha, had the distinction of not letting social identities around caste and community translate into the political realm, unlike in the majority of Indian states. While Odisha is still holding onto the broader distinction between identities in the social and political realm, the same cannot be said about Bengal anymore. An attempt to map this identitarian trajectory in the last decade since the electoral demise of the Left in 2011 reveals broad shifts that have reconstituted political faultlines in the state.
TMC’s 2011 victory was a combination of Banerjee’s charisma, intense anti-Left incumbency and coincidence, wherein forces opposed to each other like the Naxalites and the mainstream, Dalits, Muslims and others supported it significantly. However, having captured power, TMC made a significant departure from the Left in mobilisational strategy. The party abandoned any pretence of class politics and embraced the language of caste and community. Peoples’ material, cultural or linguistic aspirations were accommodated into the sectarian communitarian frameworks.
Slogans were crafted to appeal to the Rajbanshis, various castes of the Gorkha community were approached by constituting separate boards with flow of funds from the state government. The Matuas, a sect of Namasudra Dalits in Nadia and North 24 Parganas district, were reached out to by utilising the agency of Boro Maa, the late matriarch of the Matua Mahasangha. The Muslim community was wooed with measures like allowance for imams and muezzins as early as April 2012. Religious leaders like Siddiqullah Chowdhury, president of Bengal Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and Toha Siddiqui, the Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, were roped in for luring minority votes away from the Congress and Left. These communitarian outreach measures by the TMC preceded the emergence of BJP as a potent political force in Bengal.
They also reveal the political mind of Banerjee before 2018, wherein, oblivious to any possibility of the BJP’s emergence as her nemesis, she went on to vanquish the Left support base under the assumption that with nearly 30 per cent Muslims in her kitty, while she would have the decisive edge, the CPM and other constituents would be rendered electorally insignificant. She succeeded in her mission, but in the process created ground for the emergence of a new alternative, BJP.
With the emergence of BJP, the community-centric narrative became intense and competitive. By then, facing the image of being soft on Muslims, Banerjee went for the balancing act of making overtures to Hindus by announcing measures like the pujari allowance and granting Rs 50,000 to Durga Pujo pandals. These measures were running parallel to the massive welfare outreach, albeit with an unprecedented level of corruption and partisanship. The identity politics intensified while the welfare schemes lost their primacy.
The interplay between BJP and identity politics in Bengal took place in the conducive ambience created by TMC. With class identification taking a backseat and caste and community-centric identity being privileged in policy and political discourse, BJP ratcheted identity politics to a higher level. Lacking an entrenched organisational base, the saffron party employed the approach of appealing to the sectarian interests of the individual Hindu castes while reconciling them with the framework of Hindutva. This was done, primarily, by an aggressive investment of political rhetoric which aimed to bridge the intra-Hindu contradictions and forge a single Hindu identity. In Banerjee and TMC, they had got a popular “other” who could be targeted both materially and culturally.
In popular perception on the ground, particularly after the 2018 panchayat election, the incumbent was already synonymised with corruption, oppression and being pro-Muslim. BJP, by the familiar approach of glorifying individual Hindu caste identities, particularly subaltern communities, succeeded in creating a sense of Hindu-ness in the political realm, thereby putting TMC on the backfoot. This explains how the majority of the Namasudras in northern Bengal who happen to be refugees from East Pakistan and a majority of Rajbanshi Dalits claiming to be the Bhumiputras, don’t differentiate between the NRC and CAA. To them, these policies are coupled with the desirable aim of putting an end to illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.
Interestingly, Hindu refugees don’t qualify as illegal infiltrators despite the community constituting the bulk of the people who have been crossing the border from Bangladesh. Similarly, the flirtation of the saffron party and the Matuas is an open story. In Purulia, through the plank of “Jai Shri Ram”, the BJP has succeeded in fetching electoral support of three significant castes/communities, the Mahto-Kurmis, the Kumbhakars (the potter caste) and the tribals, who otherwise compete for political dominance. This strategy has also reconciled the majority of non-Kolkatan bhadralok, peasant castes like the Mahishyas, Aguris and Gwala Ghosh, among others, with Hindutva.
In areas like Asansol and Durgapur, a majority of Hindi-speakers and Bengali Hindus share the same sentiment. The only bastion in which BJP’s Hindutva-centric identity doesn’t find popular resonance is the spatial and cultural mosaic of Kolkata bhadralok who are still holding on to the logic of Bengali exceptionalism.
That is why Bengal is the perfect case of Subaltern Hindutva — Hindu subaltern castes embracing the saffron discourse with active agency rather than through the logic of cooption. What could explain the phenomenon more aptly than the fascination of the Poundra Khatri Dalits for Modi and Hindutva in S-24 Parganas where BJP is extremely weak in terms of their organisational presence and where the writ of TMC and Abhishek Banerjee still runs deep.
In this polarised ambience, having lost its place in the imagination as a credible alternative, the Left’s alliance with a rabble-rouser Muslim cleric has pushed them further into the whirlpool of identity politics wherein they compromised on their hard-earned moral high ground on secularism. Irrespective of the outcome on May 2, identity politics has acquired centrestage in Bengal. This grand transition would not have been possible without the political choices of Mamata Banerjee.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 20, 2021 under the title ‘Courtesy TMC’. The writer is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse.
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