Updated: May 13, 2021 5:35:38 pm
Written By Indrajit Roy
The Trinamool Congress’s emphatic win in the West Bengal elections will no doubt be analysed for days to come. But the most important takeaway from the results is that political commentators ought to take seriously a key component of oppressed people’s politics: The role of political ideas.
Poor people, like everyone else, harbour political ideas about what kind of society they want to live in and how to get there. In West Bengal, conversations with the poor in both rural and urban areas inevitably turn to themes such as shoshan (exploitation), anyay (injustice) and atyachar (oppression). Such themes cut across caste, gender and religious divisions. They identify themselves as gorib manush (poor people) who are poor not because of past karma or kismet but because the boro lok (big people) have cornered resources and refuse to share it with others. As an Adivasi Santhal woman in Malda’s Tudtudiya village told me when I interviewed her, “Jaar mathaye joto tel, sheye aaru beshi paye (Those who have more, get more).”
In postcolonial democracies such as India, political parties have mobilised votes in the name of the poor. As a consequence, the poor themselves have appropriated ideas of justice, equality and dignity. In states where political parties have styled themselves as challengers not only to the political status quo but also the social order, such as West Bengal under the Left (but also Bihar under the RJD, Uttar Pradesh under the BSP, Maharashtra under the Shiv Sena, and Tamil Nadu under the DMK), such appropriations by the poor, a majority of whom suffer discrimination due to their caste, tribal and religious identity, is to be expected.
The poor support political parties that take seriously the idea of dignity. The quest for dignity often brings the poor in conflict with the rich. Because poor people depend on elites for employment, goodwill and sheer survival, they cannot afford whole-scale class conflict. Rather, the ensuing conflict is “agonistic” in which different sides seek to reconfigure power relations. West Bengal today is seeing an intensification of this “agonistic” politics.
The land reforms initiated by the Left Front triggered a redistribution of material resources, allowing the poor to renegotiate dignity vis-à-vis the better-off. Consequently, it was able to rule the state for an uninterrupted 34 years. Banerjee’s welfare programmes appear to have performed a similar role among the poor in the just-concluded elections. Welfare transfers aren’t merely goods, they enable recipients to renegotiate relations of power and domination. Such programmes seem to have won her the thumping support of women from poor and “lower class” backgrounds: 52 per cent of poor women and 55 per cent of lower class women appear to have voted for the TMC, outstripping support for the BJP by almost 20 percentage points. Rich women, by contrast, favoured the BJP.
Support for the TMC among Adivasi women, arguably among the poorest women in the state, exceeded support for the BJP by almost 10 percentage points. By contrast, support for the BJP among elite women was slightly higher than their support for the TMC. Viewed through the prism of the intersection of class and gender, the support for the TMC among the poorest sections (poor women) is overwhelming.
Support for TMC among Muslims, among whom poverty levels are higher compared to other communities, is even stronger. Almost 75 per cent Muslims interviewed by the CSDS post-poll survey reported voting for the TMC. Such support could be attributed to Banerjee’s consistent opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which threatens to strip Bangla-speaking Muslims of the dignity of citizenship and render them stateless. Muslims and Adivasi women constitute among the poorest people in West Bengal. Against predictions of a “subaltern Hindutva” sweeping the state in favour of the BJP, subaltern citizens such as Muslims and Adivasi women have stood solidly behind the TMC.
The BJP has tried its best to appropriate the demands for dignity from among India’s oppressed citizens. Its promise of a monolithic Hindu Rashtra offers prospects of equality, respect and dignity to members of communities who continue to be discriminated against as “low caste” and “untouchable”. Arguably, this has been the party’s strategy in Uttar Pradesh, as anthropologist Badri Narayan has shown in his latest book. The research I conducted in Ahmedabad with the sociologist Manali Desai also illustrates the ways in which Dalits and Adivasis in that city find that the BJP, more than any other party, offered them respect and recognition as equal members of society.
In West Bengal, it sought to displace the inchoate but simmering conflict between the oppressed castes and elite castes onto other cleavages, namely, Hindu vs Muslim, citizen vs illegal migrant, and Indians vs Bangladeshis. However, it has more than met its match in the TMC, which parried these binaries with the simple, yet evocative, cleavage of “insiders versus outsiders”. Banerjee was portrayed as Bengal’s daughter, while Modi, Shah and Yogi were considered outsiders. To be sure, both parties have elided over the simmering caste inequalities in the state. But the gains for the TMC in constituencies with large Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim populations suggests that members of these communities stood solidly behind their Didi.
The poor take political ideas seriously. It is time that analysts of their politics did so as well.
The writer is senior lecturer, global development politics, University of York
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