Updated: April 19, 2021 8:59:43 am
A high voting percentage so far in West Bengal has been seen by many as a sign of change. This assembly election is of special significance for a number of reasons. Winning Bengal will hand a big reason to the BJP for overlooking multiple policy challenges: Social divisions, political unrest and economic hardships in the country. They will be vindicated in their strategic superiority and channel their cultural nationalism into new directions. A defeat for the TMC will mean a setback to chances of a federal opposition to the centralisation of powers taking place. A BJP takeover will also mean a symbolic reversal of historic proportions for Bengal as a traditional base of the Indian Left.
These are high stakes; hence the battle of narratives on media that are curiously bent on stating the outcome midway into the elections. Wittingly or not, some of these narratives are practically part of campaigns, nudging to take sides seemingly backed with analyses. Multiple narratives frame this election in fact. Only some are trumpeted, others stay hidden. The most powerful is that of a bipolar election: A few favour the TMC while most see the BJP as sweeping, backed by subalterns tilting to Hindutva to end the bhadralok hegemony. The less-known narratives, circulated in vernacular media, see the Left alliance as a factor that may punch above its weight if the result leads to a hung assembly. Conflicting views abound if all this signals a lasting change for the political culture of Bengal. The narratives are in a flux as things unfold and this piece tries to unpack some of them.
The BJP must be credited for sensing early that politics in Bengal is deeply linked to its culture. The Left managed to present itself as an heir to the 19th century tradition of progressive thought and social reforms in the region. This paved the way for a section of bhadralok to fashion themselves as an exception to popular culture prevalent in parts of north India. Along with workers’ and peasant militancy, it was the bulwark of Left hegemony, which the right failed to overcome for long. However, this is not true for all bhadralok: Quite a few of them are rightfully claimed by the right as their own. As a cultural configuration, the bhadralok are not an identical people. Apart from a patently upper caste bias, they show wide disparities in terms of income, social background and physical location. Indeed, the Left relied more on the support of rural masses than urban classes for winning successive elections. Two things worked in her favour when Mamata Banerjee successfully challenged the Left in Bengal. First, the Nandigram episode robbed its credibility among rural poor who switched to supporting the TMC. Second, Mamata repurposed the progressive culture, giving it a populist twist and strident inflection of identities. Her regime coincided with the bhadralok making way for an aspirational middle class that was more diverse in caste and community, some of who cherished progressive values. Missing these sedimented connections can lead to overstating both the scope of bhadralok hegemony and identity politics in Bengal.
These connections explain the revival of the Left, especially among the women and youth, missing from the ranks for a decade. They come as a surprise to both TMC and BJP, who assumed a bipolar contest and drew up strategies accordingly. The trickle of support for the coalition of Left, Congress and ISF in urban and rural areas signals three things. The clout of ISF will attract some minority votes that is worrying for TMC. The revival of Left means some of those who voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections may return to the fold. The winners of this alliance are unlikely to switch parties post elections, adding to problems for both big players.
But, most importantly, it is a strategic shift for the Left. They are in a dialogue with minority and identity politics, suggesting community, caste, and class can find common cause in elections. This is palpable in Left campaigns. They are using a language of masses that could upset older generations for drifting from class pedagogy. Some of it is indeed responding to a tone set by Mamata and the BJP.
A lot has been said already about the coarse language and gross slogans with several analysts distressed about where things are headed. They might be missing the larger point. Elections are no longer sober deliberations on meaningful change, like it or not. The political culture of elections is rapidly changing. It is micro-managed by professionals, technocrats and data analysts planning campaigns and designing details from temple visits to impromptu mass entertainment. Running these smoothly is the key task for a party, which teaches its workers how to weaponise language and manipulate emotions to push the decisive “narrative”. That is precisely where BJP is miles ahead of other parties.
That is the reason why many are convinced that Bengal is turning saffron come May. Such is the power of the narrative. The TMC has a matching counter-narrative. It is the only party taking on BJP’s might, led by a street-fighting single woman committed to protecting Bengal’s heterodox progressive culture.
Some may be worried that the future of electoral democracy lies exhausted by this unflattering choice. It seems, however, there is little space in the narratives for a lasting future. It is in a flux and far from decided.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 19, 2021 under the title ‘Bengal’s clashing narratives’. The writer is assistant professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
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