Updated: March 23, 2021 8:53:12 am
As West Bengal is witnessing the pathology of the prevalent electoral politics, the illusory character of the “cultural capital” the Bengali bhadralok community boasts of is becoming increasingly clear. Yes, this bhadralok class — quite often fixated at the glory of the late 19th and early 20th century Bengal — loves to live with a belief that they are “different” as they inherit the legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Rabindranath Tagore, quote from Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s Kathamrita, celebrate Subhas Chandra Bose’s heroism, and with some sort of “radicalism”, watch Mrinal Sen’s films, or read a bit of Marx and Lenin. In a way, this class would like us to believe that Bengal is “unique” as it is free from what prevails in Bihar, UP, Gujarat or any other part of India — primarily, the politics based on limiting identity markers like caste and religion, or the violent/stimulant culture with gross emotions.
Even though Bengal witnessed massive communal tension and bloodshed in 1946-47, and cross-religious dialogue is hardly seen, or forward caste domination in almost every sphere of life is difficult to hide, the bhadralok class — with a mix of Rabindra Sangeet, sanitised Hinduism of the Ramakrishna Mission variety and some sort of “leftist” leanings (and even romanticisation of the Naxalite adventurism) — would like to pretend that things are different here. However, the fact is that the politico-cultural landscape of Bengal is no less toxic, gross and violent. And in recent times, particularly, after the fall of the arrogant Left establishment, the rising Hindutva discourse with its mix of militant nationalism and promise of neoliberal developmentalism, and the resultant survival anxiety of the vulnerable Trinamool Congress, the signs of collective decadence are quite visible.
To begin with, let us reflect on the death of ideology or moral/intellectual conviction in the prevalent political culture. Well, even though every political party, irrespective of its colour, is eager to show its close “attachment” to the ideals of Vivekananda, Tagore and Bose, there is hardly any trace of idealism or profound civilisational vision in Bengal’s everyday politics. Instead, it is naked instrumentality — or, the desperate urge to remain close to the centre of power and grab its privileges at any cost — that is manifesting itself in the way yesterday’s Trinamool leader becomes today’s BJP saviour, or yesterday’s “red” is today’s “saffron”. As the BJP seems determined to “conquer” Bengal, it doesn’t mind to forget even its RSS kind of “discipline” or “ideological purity”. As it invites and tempts anybody — a film star devoid of any political experience or a former and controversial TMC heavyweight to contest the elections — its old and discontented cadres express openly their anguish. Despite the “aura” surrounding Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, we see the internal cleavages with all its ugliness and temptations. And even the leftists seem to have forgotten their “secular” lessons as they discover a new friend in Abbas Siddiqui, a Muslim cleric who, it is feared, might fall into the trap of reactive minority communalism, which is by no means an answer to terribly destructive majority communalism. Above all, the narratives of scams, corruption and nepotism surrounding the TMC have further polluted the political culture.
No wonder, unlike what the bhadralok class thinks, there is nothing “unique” about Bengal. It is the same violent/instrumental politics which is manifesting itself in the nature of campaigning. Believe it, there is no legacy of Tagore or Kazi Nazrul Islam. And even if the students of Presidency College and Jadavpur University remain nostalgic about Che Guevera and Charu Majumdar, or Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, the fact is Bengalis too are thinking in terms of “Hindu” vs. “Muslim” binaries. In a way, irrespective of the election results, the BJP has already succeeded in communalising the politico-cultural landscape. Mamata Banerjee — often castigated by the Hindutva forces as someone who “appeases” the Muslims — has begun to visit temples, and already announced a stipend of Rs 1,000 per month for Hindu priests. Furthermore, seldom does one hear anything deep, substantial and profound in political speeches. The same rhetoric, the exchange of toxic words, and absurd claims and promises are echoed in every rally or meeting. While Modi and Shah lose no opportunity to refer to Didi’s weakness for her controversial nephew, Mamata is no less aggressive in her words as she describes this BJP duo. Everything looks like a vulgar talk show.
Furthermore, amid this depthlessness, we are witnessing what can be regarded as dramaturgical politics. While Shah and J P Nadda have mastered the art of “impression management” as they enjoy their lunch with the subaltern, Modi does not forget to convey the message that his heart aches for the Matua Dalits who, it is calculated, can influence the outcome in nearly 40 assembly seats. Mamata Banerjee in a wheelchair with her injured leg is yet another symbolic gesture that demonstrates Didi’s “charisma” — a local woman’s tool to fight the entire gang of “outsiders”. And while Yogi Adityanath and Smriti Irani seek to charm the Bengali voters, film stars and television personalities — almost like IPL cricketers — know their bargaining power, and change the sides accordingly. Yes, there is melodrama, violence, and superficiality.
The moot question is whether it is a vulgar “reality show” we have been seduced to consume. No qualitative transformation is possible without people’s movement — political, cultural and spiritual. Unless with our awakened intelligence, we transform ourselves from passive spectators or consumers of this sort of toxic politics to active agents of social transformation, the prevalent form of electoral politics will continue to give us “democratically elected” masters with varying degrees of authoritarianism.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 23, 2021 under the title ‘Mainstreaming of Bengal’. The writer is professor of sociology at JNU
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