Two villages in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, Madanpur and Chishti, situated on either side of the two-lane Panagarh-Morgram highway, have often reflected the prevailing political atmosphere in the state. Since 1998, I have visited and lived in these villages to carry out research for my upcoming book, Cultivating Democracy. I have found that they serve as a lens to understand the shifts in the state’s politics. Despite the district being a communist bastion, both villages voted for the Trinamool Congress in the 2011 assembly election, which ended the 34-year reign of the CPM and the Left Front. I visited these villages in April, seeking an explanation for the BJP’s rise in West Bengal.
In Kolkata, several people had told me that the BJP’s West Bengal unit comprised mostly of former Left Front cadres. While the CPM had indeed become a moribund party in the state, I could not imagine that the left front sympathisers I knew would align with the Hindu majoritarian ideology of the BJP. “You will never find a leftist saying Muslims should go to Pakistan,” Magaram Bagdi, a 44-year-old sharecropper and others from Madanpur and Chishti, had repeatedly told me. So who were these new BJP supporters?
Madanpur and Chishti villages are predominantly Muslim, with a substantial presence of two Dalit communities, the Bagdis and Doms. For me, the first sign of a Hindu identity emerging was an innocent and pious celebration of Ram Navami. The worship of Ram seemed out of place, given that Hindu scriptures and mythologies do not record the deity ever visiting West Bengal: Goddesses dominate the Hindu religious landscape here. Yet, the Dalits celebrated it with much pomp, complete with a public-address system that blared out music and a modest feast organised with contributions from everyone, including the Muslims, in the village. This was not entirely unprecedented because the Bagdis and Doms have previously held similar celebrations for Saraswati, partly inspired by the joyous celebrations of Eid, which both the communities participate in.
What was startling, however, was the celebration a day later for Hanuman in a neighbouring village, Sitapur, which has a sizeable Hindu population. The celebrations fell on the first day of the Bengali new year, and were conducted on a much bigger scale. The village was holding a veritable fair around a Hanuman shrine. The residents of Madanpur and Chishti returned from the fair agog with excitement, describing to me the forked red flags they had seen atop the Hindu homes.
The Hanuman puja was particularly startling because the deity previously had no presence in these villages. Moreover, the celebrations did not mark any festival associated with Hanuman, but were simply a routine prayer ritual. “The flag brings good fortune and protects the household,” Sandhya Dom, a Chishti resident, told me. Curiously, Sandhya’s husband, Okho, an influential sharecropper, had told me on earlier occasions that Leftists would never “do politics with religion”.
During the festival at Sitapur, I found a Hanuman idol under a tree. I asked two young men how old the shrine was. One of them said it had “fallen from a passing truck” nearly a year ago. Reading this as an omen, the residents instituted the worship of Hanuman in the village. The men, dressed in jeans and fitted t-shirts, were on a motorcycle that had two forked red flags attached to its handlebars. They had purchased the flags for Rs 50. The flags had the visual of Hanuman carrying a mountain, with “Jai Shri Ram” written in Devanagari script.
I asked another set of bikers if the flags were related to the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the prime minister is known to use the phrase “Jai Shri Ram” in his speeches and the phrase has become an important component of the BJP campaign in West Bengal. “Yes, of course,” one of them grinned. “We love him (Modi)!” I asked if they would vote for him. “Yes,” they responded with enthusiasm before zooming off. I encountered several such young men on motorcycles with forked red flags across the state — in Bardhaman, Malda, North Dinajpur and Siliguri districts — who spoke in support of Modi. They were dismissive of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who they claimed to be working only for Muslims.
Something has changed in Madanpur and Chishti, as across West Bengal. Simply put, more people seem to be supporting the BJP, a party that has been peripheral to their political vision until now. While support for Trinamool remains strong, the BJP seem to be drawing in support from the traditional Left Front households. This support, however, appears to be largely from its younger male members, who have no memories of the Communist Party-led struggles for land reform and for raising daily wages.
Party loyalties run deep in West Bengal. For the 20 years I had known them, nearly everyone from the older generation in Madanpur and Chishti spoke about land reforms and wage struggles. But the younger members of the same households are captivated by Modi and Hanuman. A combination of brawn and devotion seem to have given them a platform to express a new political identity, and one which is removed from the older politics of struggle, demonstrations and meetings that dominated the Left Front and Trinamool years. Their parents find it hard to persuade or censure the new found piety and energy of their sons who, while unwilling to slog in the fields, pass time arranging fairs and community feasts.
Young men such as Okho’s son Deb and his friends said they do not discuss politics at home to avoid confrontation with their parents. But they were all well-versed with the BJP campaign, and the messages the party has been disseminating. “Modi is the first and the only strong and capable leader of India,” Deb told me. His friend Bishwa Bagdi added, “In Balakot, India proved it was unafraid to go inside Pakistan and attack it on its own territory,” referring to the February air strike. Several young men repeated a message that the BJP had circulated over moblies: “India’s glory in the world began in 2014.”
The young men seem to have a limited understanding of the deity. It is evident that their enthusiasm is not about the Hindu religion or faith; it is for the flags that flutter on motorcycles, on rooftops, for the muscular Hanuman, for the slogan, “Jai Shri Ram”. These aspects of a new political identity have brought novelty and frisson to a new generation of young men, a generation tired of the old Bengali tensions between the Left Front and the Trinamool, and eager for something new they can claim to be their own.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 17, 2019 under the title ‘A new poriborton’. Banerjee, author of Why India Votes?, is inaugural director of the London School of Economics, South Asia Centre. Names of villages mentioned here are anonymised to follow standard academic guidelines