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Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Sandip Roy Show

What makes people tick? What are the stories they carry with them? In a world of shouting heads, veteran journalist, radio commentator and novelist Sandip Roy sits down to have real conversations about the fascinating world around us and the people who shape it. Catch these engaging interviews every other Sunday

Episode 73 April 4, 2021

The conundrum of BJP’s meteoric rise in Bengal, with Neelanjan Sircar and Sajjan Kumar

West Bengal is perhaps the most highly contested state this poll season. The results of this election could change the fate of the two main parties involved – TMC and BJP. But what’s really at stake in these polls? Why is the BJP rolling out the big guns for one state election? And will Mamata Banerjee’s slew of welfare schemes help her beat back anti-incumbency? While most polls say that Banerjee will pull it off, Sajjan Kumar who surveyed all the constituencies in Bengal for People’s Pulse, thinks very differently. In this episode, Sandip is joined by Kumar and Neelajan Sircar, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, to talk about the West Bengal state polls 2021.
Transcript:
Sandip Roy

Hello and welcome to the Sandip Roy Show on Express Audio.

The year is 2021 AD. North and East India is almost entirely occupied by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Well, not entirely. One small state of indomitable Bengal still holds out against them.

The elections in West Bengal have a bit of the flavour of the old Asterix comics. Asterix of course is Mamata Banerjee, a shrewd cunning little warrior. Old perilous missions are immediately entrusted to her. And yes, there is a druid – Getafix, in charge of brewing the magic potion. Prashant Kishore roped in to help Mamata Banerjee beat back anti-incumbency. But has the magic potion run out? 

And who is her Obelix? Asterix’s inseparable friend, always ready to drop everything and go off on a new adventure. Well this time around her old Obelixs seem to be abandoning her to join the BJP. 

The BJP has no chief minister face in the elections, but there’s always Julias Caesar, aka, the Prime Minister himself who is turning this into a Dada vs Didi contest and promising pax romana or sonar Bangla, a golden Bengal. And the BJP is singing, ‘Pishi Jao’ (Aunty Go) to the tune of Bella Ciao. 

Mamata Banerjee campaigning from her wheelchair with her bandaged leg says bring it on. Trinamool’s campaign song is Khela Hobe (Let the games begin) and it has gone viral with all the parties taking it on.  

But it’s hardly all fun and games. Beyond the sound and colour, what’s really at stake in this bitterly fought month-long election season? Why is the BJP rolling out the big guns for one state election? Why are so many of its own politicians deserting Trinamool? Will Mamata Banerjee’s slew of welfare schemes help her beat back anti-incumbency? Will the BJP manage to pull off a victory with the help of a slew of Trinamool turncoats? And will the local BJP chief’s sneering comment asking Mamata Banerjee to wear bermudas, if she wants to show off her injured leg, turn off voters, especially women? 

While most polls say that didi will pull it off, though the BJP will do very well, Sajjan Kumar who surveyed all the constituencies in Bengal for People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad based political research organization, thinks very differently. And joining him on the show is Neelajan Sircar, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Sajjan Kumar, Neelanjan Sircar, welcome to the show.

Neelanjan Sircar
Thank you for having us.

Sajjan Kumar
Thank you.

Sandip Roy
Sajjan, while most polls out there say the BJP, which currently has three seats in the Bengal assembly, will do very well. But the Trinamool Congress is coming back to power but with a much slimmer majority. Your projections from the People Pulse poll are dramatically different. Could you give us a quick snapshot of what you are projecting?

Sajjan Kumar
Yeah, I mean, there are a couple of core projections. First, this election is primarily about a negative vote against TMC because there is an extreme and intense anti- incumbency against the TMC rather than a positive vote to BJP. One. 

Two, the reason for this intense sense of anti-incumbency, which is different from other states, is because the level of corruption on the ground has been quite dramatically risen. Coupled with that is the cause of repression, political repression, physically kind of battering the political rivals. So there is another tectonic shift in terms of how you target the political opponents. So compared to the left, not only the leaders, but common men are also there. 

And third is the kind of arrogance which is exhibited by the local leadership. So therefore, still Mamata Banerjee is relatively less unpopular. She still is unpopular, but relatively less unpopular compared to the rank and file on the ground. So therefore people have made up their mind, as per my finding to vote TMC out and BJP is the credible alternative.

Sandip Roy
So basically and basically you are projecting that in at least about 160 seats, BJP would be the winner.

Sajjan Kumar
Yes, certainly. That is the bottom line.

Sandip Roy
What do you think about those predictions, Neelanjan? They are going against a lot of other polls that are out there.

Neelanjan Sircar
Let me give some sense of how I think about projections and then sort of respond to that question. So the first thing that I would say is that several of the things that Sajjan has talked about in his findings, I think I would accept as empirical fact. I think there is strong anti-incumbency on the ground against the TMC due to the way that the local cadre has functioned. And I think he hasn’t mentioned here, but the BJP has taken a strategy of what Sajjan calls ‘Subaltern Hindutva’. And he is the person who has coined this phrase. Sort of think about theoretically, the BJP coming through the support of lower caste groups and scheduled tribe communities in West Bengal.

So one way to think about this purely from a stats perspective, is that if you wanted to predict any party’s vote share within a margin of error, the calculation would typically use is plus or minus one over square root of the sample size. Now, what that means is that you would need to take about 400 people randomly selected in a constituency, all telling you exactly the truth, right? For you to be able to do that. Now, that would project to 1.2 lakh people across West Bengal. 

Now, that’s obviously very very difficult to do. So what all of us do, including Sajjan, is we have existing theories that make sense to us. We find overwhelming waves like anti- incumbency, so and so forth, and we make inferences based on our theory. So what I would say, just looking at those numbers, is that in some sense, the canvas upon which all of this is being calculated, obviously, is Hindu Muslim polarization. A simple rule of thumb is that 30 percent of the voters are from the Muslim community, 70 percent of them Hindu the community. 

According to the CSDS data in 2019, 57 per cent of Hindus voted for the BJP, and the TMC got about 30 per cent of Hindus and 70 per cent of the Muslim community.  And by that metric, the question is very simple. If the BJP can get up to around 65 per cent of the Hindu community to vote for it, then it’s going to sweep the election. If that drops to 55 per cent or below, then the BJP will get swept, right? Now I’m not sure that I have the data to know whether we’re in a world of 55 percent or 65 percent.

Sandip Roy
We’ll know the final results in May, but I thought for the purposes of our discussion, maybe I would have you guys weigh in on some things that appear to be paradoxes or conundrums in the Bengal elections. So the first one, Sajjan you mentioned that Mamata Banerjee remains personally less unpopular, sort of a double negative, but it goes without saying that she is still the only leader here with enormous mass appeal. Which is apparent from the fact that the BJP does not even have a CM face in the elections. Why is she still struggling even while fighting someone who doesn’t have a face?

Sajjan Kumar
One thing was clear, when we were asking the people and fascination for the BJP was there because there was a fear and hatred against the TMC local leadership. One question that personally I asked in most of the constituency to people is that can they come up with the name of a BJP aspirant.

And if aspirant would be the criteria, I don’t think BJP would be in a position to win more than 20, 25 seats. But the people themselves came up with a very persuasive, and I think the logic holds the ground, they said, ‘Look, in Bengal, whenever change happens, it is the same symbol that is voted, not the face’. This is one. Second, already it is the BJP symbol that has kind of captured the imagination. The symbol is automatically linked to Modi and Amit Shah, not to the BJP state leadership. This is second. So therefore, from the perspective of the people, as far as my inference is concerned, it is already a Mamata versus Modi election or, as I say, Didi vs Dada election .

Sandip Roy
But Mamata Banerjee in 2016 faced party leaders accused of being involved in Saradha chit fund scam and Narada bribe taking sting operations. She still won and won big against the Left Congress combine.

Sajjan Kumar
People qualified also that look because in 2016 when Left and Congress had combined together and then the corruption issues like Sarada, Narada scams were there, Mamata I had made one appeal that I am the candidate in all the 294 constituencies. And then people say that that really had a popular resonance with the electorate. This time when we posed this question, the emphatic answer was no. 

Certainly she doesn’t carry that charisma, so that she can supersede the weight of intense anti-incumbency at the local level. So to me, the election is already Modi vs Mamta Didi, Didi vs Dada and BJP’s lack of organizational strength, lack of local leadership and candidate problem, as far as my experience from the field is concerned, would not be a significant problem.

Sandip Roy
Neelanjan, in that sense, do you not think that it would be an issue where if this is  indeed an election that is posited around the issue of anti-incumbency, the fact that I read somewhere, 150 out of the 283candidates BJP fielded are from TMC or Congress who have recently switched sides, would that not be a factor? Because in fact, the CPM and Congress have issued ads there saying that a thief will always steal whether they were in TMC or now have gone from TMC to BJP.

Neelanjan Sircar
So yeah, I think this is something we’re going to have to see how the voters respond to it. And I think one way of thinking about the problem is to look at what has been viewed as the highest stakes battle, which is Nandigram. Nandigram, as we know, Mamata Banerjee is contesting from that seat. And she’s contesting against a formidable strongman who used to be within the TMC, and to put things even more in perspective, a lot of the vote rigging that is associated with the Panchayat elections in 2018 in that region is attributed to him and his family.

The question ultimately is when the charismatic face who may or may not be dimming, as Sajjan suggests, contests against her strongman, what is the electoral outcome in that case? If the claim is that the appeal of the TMC and the electoral viability of the TMC has been built upon the excesses of its local cadre, then you may actually see Mamata in a lot of trouble in Nandigram.

If, on the other hand, people have actually been voting for Mamata and the cadre is essentially moving in and out but everything is essentially centered on Mamata, this is a claim that Prashant Kishore for instance has made, then you might still see a reasonable margin of victory. So while people are of course playing up the clash for a number of reasons, I find it very interesting from exactly the perspective of the question that you’ve asked, which is that ultimately the question is, are these turncoats into the BJP, are they doers? Are they able to bring out the vote for the BJP? Or has it always really been about Mamata and what she represents? And therefore the fact that these people have switched is actually just a net negative.

Sandip Roy
Yeah, because not many of these leaders who have shifted can be quite held up, as they have shifted for reasons of reaching for a higher moral ground. Because, as you said, many of them are themselves tainted with some of the same excesses that people have been upset with, with the Trinamool on the ground. 

Which leads me sort of to what I think of is the second conundrum. Sajjan, you mentioned that people have been fed up with corruption. From what people talked to you about, is the corruption under Trinamool level very different qualitatively and quantitatively from corruption and the say The Left Front? 

Sajjan Kumar
Yeah, I mean, it certainly is. And this is something that on the ground, people articulate it very creatively. First, compared to the Left regime wherein the corruption had multiple stakeholders, including a thick section of the common man also at gram panchayat level. Certainly the party or the ruling party is also associated with that as a means of employment.

What happened with Trinamool, there was a significant and qualitative shift into the nature of corruption. First, there was an intensification, and second, and that really I mean put people against Trinamool leadership, was that there was a monopolization of corruption. For instance, take for example, that in a constituency called Haroa in North 24 Parganas, there in you have around, if I remember correctly, more than 30,000 bighas of wasteland wherein tiger prawn is cultivated. Now traditionally since CPM’s time, it has been kind of the practice that whosoever applies for tender, a businessman, usually doesn’t approach the government but rather the local party leader or party office. So during CPM’s time, CPM, and now with TMC, TMC office. So usually for an acre, 10 to 15 thousand was given (and that was annually charged) and every family annually would receive one thousand annually.

That was the kind of mode of distribution. What happened with TMC, initially the price was reduced to five hundred and then the TMC leadership stopped giving tender to the businessmen. They themselves became the businessmen. Similarly on the Bangla side border, if suppose there is a cross-border illegal trade off. Medicines, essential medicines, from India side to the other side, people said that during CPM time anyone could, with the understanding with officials, concerned persons, could go there, make profits, come back, share it. Now they said only the TMC representative of the leadership could do it.  

One of the first terms that I learned in Bengal, the Bengali term, was the durniti and cut money.  Particularly if you see the southern Bengal, which in 2019 remained loyal to Mamata Banerjee. You see, if you track the course of Amphan tragedy and this is something I want to emphasise, exactly it is the core bastion of Trinamool that was affected by the super cyclone Amphan. And in more than a century it was one of the worst natural calamities. People literally were on the road. And rather than trying to utilize this time as a golden opportunity by winning back the people through welfare touch, as we have seen in the initial case of Naveen Pattanaik in Odisha, what happened that the money sent to the people, as per the popular articulation on the ground, was plundered by the local Trinamool leadership. 

Sandip Roy
But Neelanjan, Mamata Banerjee has indicated that she’s aware of this anger. In 2019 they obviously heard the message loud and clear during the Lok Sabha elections, she pulled up party leaders or party activists for taking cuts, asked people, in fact, to return cut money. Cut money being the illegal commissions people have to pay to avail of government benefits. But it looks like from what Sajjan is saying she was not able to enforce that. Does that suggest that for all her, even though she’s the supreme leader of the party, she does not have enough control over the party itself?

Neelanjan Sircar
We know that on the ground, unlike the organized party that the CPM and the left were, the TMC is far less disorganized in party structure terms. And therefore does require a certain complicity of local bureaucrats, police and a revolving door of various cadres and so on and so forth. Now, what I would say about the cut money thing is that it’s actually not a criticism that has started recently and when I worked heavily in the 2011 elections, you would hear very similar language against the CPM…So I think that if you talk to even a lot of people who study the Left, they will tell you that the role of business and contractors became endemic within the party by the time that the Left fell. 

So in that sense, you know, I think that this is pernicious criticism, right? I mean, I think it really may make the TMC lose but I don’t know if it’s a new criticism. I heard even in 2016 when the TMC swept, swept completely. I think what has changed and this is something that we sort of hadn’t paid attention to, or I should say the Delhi media wasn’t paying attention to, is that when we look at 2018 panchayat elections, the story was let’s look at the rigging. Nobody ever asked why is the TMC resorting to such large scale rigging in 2018? And the part of the story that is missing is that in 2016, when the CPM and the Congress lost, at that point, it became clear that it wasn’t going to put up a fight against the TMC. So a lot of the anti-TMC political forces coalesced around the BJP. 

So that’s the only sort of correction that I would give to this, right? Which is to say that, yes there’s something about the structure of corruption. But I don’t think that this is unusual..this criticism is unusual to Bengal or certainly the TMC. It’s a criticism that has been around there since 2011. What has changed is the capacity of an opposition force and opposition cadre to really potentially project an alternative. Even if right now, as we said, they look like it might be many of the same people.

Sandip Roy
Sajjan, isn’t that a concern that people voiced when the shift happened from the 34 years of The Left Front to Trinamool? Many people said, ‘Oh the same goons and muscle power that CPM had used just now have switched over to Trinamool’. So did people, were people not worried that if they went for the BJP, the same thing would happen? 

Sajjan Kumar
See many times we assume as if the first people look around the issues and then they determine their preference or then they choose the alternative. Many times what happens is that people already have an intuitive liking or dislike for the available alternative, and based upon their choice they come up with the issues to justify the choice. And therefore, when I was asking the same question, what about Mukul Roy and even Suvendu Adhikari, who were also accused of the corruption, etc.? I mean, how do you justify that? (Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari being two of the prominent defectors from Mamata Banerjee’s party)

So the response usually was of dismissal or sometimes of not considering it a significant factor because the perception that TMC is a party that needs to be defeated outweighs all other rational kinds of argument that you can come up with. This is one. Second thing, and here I completely agree with Neelanjan, that the 2018 panchayat election was the watershed moment and a game changer.

Because in their perception, what happens that they felt that their basic right was denied and to some extent in Bengali popular psyche rigging and everything, and again here I will say that while rigging is not a new charge against the incumbent regimes in Bengal, the scale is something or the degree is something that matters, while the direction remains the same. So 2018, majority of the Dalits, tribals and many of the kind of peasant castes, they really took it quite seriously that how systematically they were not even allowed to go and cast their vote. 

In the majority of the places that are shared by Hindus and Muslims, which is the mixed demographic. It is the Dalits who happen to be the constituents of Hindu community. So certainly at ground, this perception that not only their fundamental rights have been denied by the incumbent party, not only the corruption is making them left out, and also the perception that perhaps Mamata Banerjee and the TMC is soft on Muslims, all these dots were there. What the BJP did, it came there and encashed all these dots together which got connected. So that is why in Bengal you see that pro-BJP sentiment, primarily on account of anti incumbency factor is the strongest among the Dalit, tribals and the peasant caste. And as you move up into the social scale of caste and community, you  find that when you reach Kolkata  among the Bhadralok still you find that there is some kind of attempt to privilege ideology over the everyday experience of the people (Bhadralok being the upper caste well educated elites who have dominated Bengal).

Sandip Roy
Okay, now that’s very interesting Sajjan, because in a way, it is reversed in other parts of India. We often think that the BJP support is strongest in the upper castes, and then going down here. Here you’re saying it’s going the other way around. But Neelanjan isn’t that strange? Because the Dalits, SC and ST and other backward caste communities are actually the primary beneficiaries of the one hundred and one, sort of, schemes that Mamata has from birth to death. Welfare schemes that she has put forward.

Neelanjan Sircar
So I think you’re getting to what is going to end up being the core distinction that drives the way the election swings in West Bengal. So I want to start with some of what Sajjan said. And I absolutely agree that part of what is interesting is just the spatial demography of West Bengal means that the Muslim community, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribe are often living side by side. And where there is a significant proportion of those from the Muslim community, that’s where you are most likely to see Hindu- Muslim polarization.

But this is actually true in UP as well. So BJP’s highest strike rates are consistently in those constituencies with a moderate proportion of Muslims, not too many and not too few, right? So that’s a classic empirical fact about polarisation strategies. Now, the question ultimately is that the TMC represents a certain kind of welfarism. We know that there are certain schemes, scholarships, and so forth, that have actually been hugely successful, and the TMC is given credit.  

Now, is it enough to outweigh some of the polarisation that we’re seeing? That we’ll have to see. I think the version of the BJP that you’re seeing today, if you just look at what is actually being said at rallies, if look on television, is squarely based on these questions of arithmetic between Hindus and Muslims, and certain questions about benefits to Rajbanshi, Matua, Kurmo. (These are big SC ST Dalit groups, some of them migrants from Bangladesh, the BJP is heavily targeting with promises.)

In some sense, the West Bengal version of the BJP is not dramatically differentiated than the UP version BSP, right? Which is sort of a very funny way in which it has evolved, right? And I think it is due to the fact that they have understood that what Sajjan calls ‘Subaltern Hindutva’ is their dominant strategy, right? It is the canvas upon which the electoral strategy or electoral victory of the BJP can be painted. The TMC, of course, is looking to undercut that with the notion of gender, which I think is very much playing in Mamata’s favour. The fact that certain kinds of targeted benefits do get to the poorest is enough to swing. You don’t need to win these communities, you just need to make sure that you don’t get swept in these communities.

Sandip Roy
And one of the things we should mention is that while people in Delhi are suddenly amazed at this meteoric rise of BJP so fast in Bengal, it’s also a fact, isn’t it, that for years the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and have been quietly working in Bengal buildings, temples, in areas like Jangalmahal, which was once the stronghold of Maoists?

Neelanjan Sircar
I mean, that’s absolutely correct, right? And we know that there’s a lot of academic literature as well about the connection that the BJP has with Schedule Tribe communities in particular, and the RSS. And this is really an outgrowth of that strategy.

Sandip Roy
So, Sajjan, in the areas that you went to, how bad was this polarisation that we were talking about?

Sajjan Kumar
If I use the simile or analogy of a cake, then the base of the cake would be anti-incumbency. And layering on that will be Subaltern Hindutva. But in the case of West Bengal, I think that this classical assumption that first RSS goes there, works for years silently, creates the base and thereafter BJP comes there and you suddenly see the phenomenon BJP. I still think that in the case of Bengal, as far as this election is concerned, into the interior while true, as far as the tribals are concerned, RSS has a long association even in Bengal Jangalmahal. But when it comes to the majority of the Dalits and the majority of the peasant caste, I do not think that RSS has much of a contribution.

Because BJP is still organizationally so weak, that people have difficulty in coming up with a name of a potential party aspirant. And that is why you see this crisis of candidates, wherein it is forced to import the majority of its candidates from TMC or other parties. 

I still think that predominantly the starting point was a societal change in Bengal, wherein people perceived TMC as a party, which is not catering to the popular aspiration of the majority of the Hindu community. And mind it, this identitarian  turn in Bengal is something that Bengal owes to Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress. So true, there was massive welfare outreach to the various subaltern communities across Bengal, but the paradigm in which they were sold to the constituencies were identitarian. So a soft playing, on the soft sentiment for Kamatapur and Gorkha community. Here, if you see once you give vent to the identitarian aspiration, ultimately this aspiration will go to its logical conclusion and the logical conclusion of caste based mobilisation is always something that has an easy fit with the paradigm of Hindutva.

Sandip Roy
Let me stop you there once Sajjan, and I want to get Neelanjan’s take on this. Do you agree? Mamata Banerjee has often been called more left than The Left in terms of her welfare schemes and all of that. But do you agree with Sajjan that she in a way has actually opened the Pandora’s box of identity politics in Bengal and has in a way paved the way for the BJP to run with it?

Neelanjan Sircar
You know, the way that I would put this is that any time you have this kind of polarisation, it is not the doing of a single political actor, right? The CPM, as we know, we look across India in the 1990s was extraordinary at dampening that rhetoric. I don’t know that Mamata had the capacity, given the way the party is structured, to actually resist this level of polarisation.

So yes, we can point to certain messages that were made, certain actions that were taken that are seen as pro-Muslim as opposed to pro-Hindu and so on and so forth. But given what we have seen in this country post 2014, I’m not sure that I can see a version of Mamata that could have prevented West Bengal from at least having some level of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. It turns out that this is the most convenient way for an opposition force to rise in modern India. 

The fact that a certain kind of polarised rhetoric is being used is both perhaps something that Mamata opened the door to, but also a characteristic of how the BJP has been winning elections across the country, right? With extraordinary support from the media and from the state resources, right? I’m not convinced that any political party in India actually has the capacity to resist that, let alone TMC.

Sandip Roy
So Sajjan, you said, you used this analogy of a cake, that the base is anti incumbency and the top of it is support for Hindutva, but given that this issue of chanting Jai Shri Ram became such an issue in the state and almost like now a code word to identify people who are supporting the BJP. Do you see the cake flipping?

Sajjan Kumar
Yeah, I mean that is that that’s the shift that is taking place because this cake analogy is that what was the starting point. So initially, you see whether chanting of Jai Shri Ram or there were many kinds of provocative religious kind of markers,  people said that they started using it primarily to tease the TMC. So one of the core characteristics or differentiation or delineation of Subaltern Hindutva, as opposed to the Savarkarite Brahminical Hindutva, is that Subaltern Hindutva is more tactical. It’s instrumental. It’s not primarily about ideological conviction. As far as a starting point is concerned.

So therefore it emerged tactically as a political tool, but in due course of time, this tactical shift is getting internalized very fast. So beyond a point, you don’t remember the starting point. Whether you started chanting Jai Shri Ram to tease the TMC out or to create a political delineation, or is it something that you think always kind of belongs to you in terms of ideological conviction? So for example, many of the respondents said that it started as a TMC thing, an anti TMC rhetoric, but it has become I think, and Neelanjan would be able to explain it, but the term was mudradosh. Ki now it has become our mudradosh

So which roughly, when I asked what it meant, they said ki like a child who learns first how to say good morning and good evening, and in due course of time, it becomes a matter of habit. 

Sandip Roy
Like a cake, which can also become an upside down cake. It’s still a cake. But Neelanjan, the TMC was notoriously known as a party with no real ideology other than they wanted to get the communists defeated in Bengal. And that is how they came up, and Mamata Banerjee was the great fighter who defeated the mighty Left Front. Has the rise of BJP and the opposition vacuum that was created in the state meant that. At least in this election, the TMC also has a certain ideology, which it perhaps didn’t have before?

Neelanjan Sircar
Yeah I mean, so I’ve written a little bit about this and a lot of people were incensed when I wrote it. But what has become interesting about where politics has gone in West Bengal, even nationally, is that from this party, as you mentioned, it had no clear ideology, was known for political entrepreneurship and opportunism, it has now started to craft an image of itself of large scale welfarism, progressive on gender, a party that at the center is perhaps the only party that has its representatives sort of critiquing and calling out the central government and the BJP and Modi. So it has fashioned itself as a “progressive” alternative to the BJP.

Now, whether it works or not is sort of a separate question, but I think that a lot of people sort of misunderstand this part of politics, right? Which is that, yes, politics is built on mobilisation, it’s built on arithmetic, but campaigns that purely work on arithmetic often don’t do well, right? You need stories or reasons for voters to vote for you. Anti-incumbency may be one of those, but people, you know, comments like the kind of comments that Babul Supriyo and Dilio Ghosh have made about women, I mean, those do hurt the BJP, right? And that can swing female voters towards TMC.

So when we think about the kind of political alternatives that the TMC represents, is it one that is built out of political opportunism and the need for survival? Certainly. But is it also offering a genuine alternative to the BJP’s vision? I think that is also true. When we look at, for instance, how the Aam Aadmi party had behaved in Delhi when dealing with this kind of polarisation. In many ways, their inability to speak up earlier means that today, when powers are being taken away from the state government of Delhi, the citizens of Delhi and the backers of the Aam Aadmi party are not willing to hit the streets for them.

Sandip Roy
In that sense, also, Sajjan, when we when you talked about the fact that perhaps it is the Bhadralok, the so-called Bhadralok in Kolkata, the upper class elite, who still remain suspicious of the BJP as a party of outsiders and not Bengali, something that Mamata Banerjee has been pushing very hard, do you think in a way, this election with the rise of subalterns groups? Has spelled the sort of growing insignificance of the Kolkata Bhadralok, people like me?

Sajjan Kumar
Sandip certainly, I mean this election in Bengal is as much a kind of the window into the Bhadralok’s inner world which was hitherto completely very jealously protected. The Bhadralok’s image of Bengal certainly doesn’t resonate with the kind of picture that we are witnessing today. However, I would like to make a slightly more provocative statement, and that is about how it may unfold if BJP, and I’m still putting ‘if’, even though I am confident based on the field work but they are not astrologers, so if BJP manages to win Bengal on May 2, then my hunch is that within a couple of years, it is just a matter of time, that we would see, now also there are, but we would see an immense rise of the Bhadralok’s ideologue who would be giving Hindutva a very different intensity. Because this capability to articulate is something that certainly switches to the ruling discourse. So if BJP manages to win Bengal, that I do not think that the Bhadralok would be left out, as is the case today, I think this is going to be a core part of the ideologue constituency of Hindutva with which the very articulation of Hindutva will see a significant change.

Sandip Roy
Well, I mean, we always have to remember Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the sort of fountainhead of the ideology was a dyed in the wool Bhadralok. But does this election, and I’m putting this out to both of you, in a way…have you seen the impact of what has been much talked about bringing Prashant Kishore in to fix the problems? Because as you rightly pointed out Sajjan, perceptions are hard to change. It’s very easy for you to go from good to bad, but to go from bad to good is very hard.

Neelanjan Sircar
I think on certain fronts, you have seen some impact. So one strength of I-PAC is purported to be that they have an independent team that is working on the ground, separate from the party cadre. And so certainly there were people facing a large amount of anti-incumbency that were either shunted out or not given party tickets. And that has created, as we’ve seen since, quite a bit of chaos in the electoral system. 

I think the branding of delivery Duare Sarkar, and all this stuff that came in later obviously, has a very Prashant Kishore hallmark on it. And I think third, and this is something that’s noticeable because we’ve been following Bengal elections for a while, the media game post 2019 is clearly gotten quite a bit stronger for the TMC. So these are the sort of changes. Now, is it enough to win the election or sweep the tide? I mean, these are very very difficult things to know .

Sajjan Kumar
I agree with Neelanjan about the kind of PK’s hallmark and especially the media game that the TMC got. But my additional factors that I found on the ground, and this is something that I wanted to write my first piece with, the question everywhere I started grappling initially was are you from PK’s team? And when I go to the field. Okay, so PK was also a part of everyday gossip, everyday chit chat. And I do not think the majority of the places this was a positive comment. So being a political adviser, political consultant, you have a mandate to do the best homework for your client. But at the same time, one should be careful not to be completely identified with the client itself.

Now on the ground, he has a mandate, as Neelanjan pointed out, to restructure the party and try to do away with an intense level of anti incumbency, especially at the local leadership. Now what happened, ironically, that PK did it systematically. In doing so what he did, he changed the old faces, and also very senior faces in the majority of the constituency and district level and replaced them with the new faces. Many of them were taken from left also, ex CPM, etc. Rather than rectifying the structural mosaic of the Trinamool, it ended up adding one more layer of factionalism. This is one. The second, what I mean deduced from many of, the not common respondent, but many of the respondent at the local level party, etc, if I collate the responses…the people say that more than the Mamata that it was Abhishek Banerjee, nephew of Mamata Banerjee.

So many people pointed out that perhaps PK’s mandate was also to restructure the party under the singular command of first Mamata, and then Abhishek Banerjee. So one thing that I find is that while Prashant Kishore had a mandate, which he did meticulously, but in the end it ended up isolating many stalwarts who had remained with TMC, and who perhaps would have contributed to some extent.

Sandip Roy
So that leads me to the final thoughts, is that even if Mamata Banerjee is able to win this time around, it still leaves her with the problem of ‘what next’? Because as Sajjan is pointing out, there’s a lot of grumbling about the rise of her nephew. But given that, looking ahead Neelanjan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a piece that Bengal does not provide a progressive alternative unless all one means by progressive is non-BJP. So given that, should this election matter to the rest of India? What is at stake do you think?

Neelanjan Sircar
So I mean Pratap and I obviously disagree on this and we have disagreed even in private on this. So my fundamental, which I sort of mentioned earlier, my fundamental way of thinking about politics is that political alternatives are not always driven by conviction. Sometimes they’re driven by opportunists. The BJP has rolled out a huge amount of resources, its senior leaders, a rath yatra, there are concerns that the Central police, the Election Commission are sort of bowing down to the pressures of the BJP. The Prime Minister can go to the other side of the border in Bangladesh and do something that is effectively campaigning, right?

We’re in a world where one party is genuinely dominant. And we have now Mamata Banerjee, and this is why many of these slogans have been crafted the way they have, who is saying, ‘Look, I’m standing up to all of these forces and I’m trying to provide an alternative perspective as to what India should be’. So by all standard metrics, the BJP should win this election going away. If the TMC does win, and let’s say the TMC wins somewhat significantly, there is no more important opposition leader in India than Mamata Banerjee.

Now in the future, what happens to the TMC, I agree, I mean they’re in a position where even if they pull it through this time…five years from now? We don’t know. 

But let me also put the shoe on the other foot and I’ll just end with this, when we think about the larger importance in the system, why is the BJP making this such a central issue? When you have a dominant hegemonic party at the Centre, its goal is to dominate all facets of social life. Why do you care what Rihanna is tweeting? Because it makes you look bad, right? Now, the farmers’ protest has done a lot of damage to the BJP because even through non electoral means, it has shown that people can stand up to the party. If the BJP is not able to pull off Bengal or Assam swimmingly, it’s going to be a huge dent in its image as a dominant hegemonic party in the country. And I think that that’s why this has the kind of national relevance that it does. There really is a sense in which the TMC is trying to change the narrative within Bengal, but the BJP is trying to change the narrative nationally.

Sandip Roy
Thank you so much, guys, for joining us today and on May 2nd, we’ll revisit this conversation and see how it all turned out. Thanks so much for joining us.

Neelanjan Sircar
Thank you so much.

Sajjan Kumar
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Sandip Roy
Neelanjan Sircar is assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Political analyst Sajjan Kumar conducted a survey of Bengal for People’s Pulse, a political research organisation based in Hyderabad

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The conundrum of BJP’s meteoric rise in Bengal, with Neelanjan Sircar and Sajjan KumarWest Bengal is perhaps the most highly contested state this poll season. The results of this election could change the fate of the two main parties involved - TMC and BJP. But what’s really at stake in these polls? Why is the BJP rolling out the big guns for one state election? And will Mamata Banerjee's slew of welfare schemes help her beat back anti-incumbency? While most polls say that Banerjee will pull it off, Sajjan Kumar who surveyed all the constituencies in Bengal for People's Pulse, thinks very differently. In this episode, Sandip is joined by Kumar and Neelajan Sircar, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, to talk about the West Bengal state polls 2021. Transcript: Sandip Roy Hello and welcome to the Sandip Roy Show on Express Audio. The year is 2021 AD. North and East India is almost entirely occupied by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Well, not entirely. One small state of indomitable Bengal still holds out against them. The elections in West Bengal have a bit of the flavour of the old Asterix comics. Asterix of course is Mamata Banerjee, a shrewd cunning little warrior. Old perilous missions are immediately entrusted to her. And yes, there is a druid – Getafix, in charge of brewing the magic potion. Prashant Kishore roped in to help Mamata Banerjee beat back anti-incumbency. But has the magic potion run out?  And who is her Obelix? Asterix's inseparable friend, always ready to drop everything and go off on a new adventure. Well this time around her old Obelixs seem to be abandoning her to join the BJP.  The BJP has no chief minister face in the elections, but there's always Julias Caesar, aka, the Prime Minister himself who is turning this into a Dada vs Didi contest and promising pax romana or sonar Bangla, a golden Bengal. And the BJP is singing, 'Pishi Jao' (Aunty Go) to the tune of Bella Ciao.  Mamata Banerjee campaigning from her wheelchair with her bandaged leg says bring it on. Trinamool's campaign song is Khela Hobe (Let the games begin) and it has gone viral with all the parties taking it on.   But it's hardly all fun and games. Beyond the sound and colour, what's really at stake in this bitterly fought month-long election season? Why is the BJP rolling out the big guns for one state election? Why are so many of its own politicians deserting Trinamool? Will Mamata Banerjee's slew of welfare schemes help her beat back anti-incumbency? Will the BJP manage to pull off a victory with the help of a slew of Trinamool turncoats? And will the local BJP chief's sneering comment asking Mamata Banerjee to wear bermudas, if she wants to show off her injured leg, turn off voters, especially women?  While most polls say that didi will pull it off, though the BJP will do very well, Sajjan Kumar who surveyed all the constituencies in Bengal for People's Pulse, a Hyderabad based political research organization, thinks very differently. And joining him on the show is Neelajan Sircar, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Sajjan Kumar, Neelanjan Sircar, welcome to the show. Neelanjan Sircar Thank you for having us. Sajjan Kumar Thank you. Sandip Roy Sajjan, while most polls out there say the BJP, which currently has three seats in the Bengal assembly, will do very well. But the Trinamool Congress is coming back to power but with a much slimmer majority. Your projections from the People Pulse poll are dramatically different. Could you give us a quick snapshot of what you are projecting? Sajjan Kumar Yeah, I mean, there are a couple of core projections. First, this election is primarily about a negative vote against TMC because there is an extreme and intense anti- incumbency against the TMC rather than a positive vote to BJP. One.  Two, the reason for this intense sense of anti-incumbency, which is different from other states, is because the level of corruption on the ground has been quite dramatically risen. Coupled with that is the cause of repression, political repression, physically kind of battering the political rivals. So there is another tectonic shift in terms of how you target the political opponents. So compared to the left, not only the leaders, but common men are also there.  And third is the kind of arrogance which is exhibited by the local leadership. So therefore, still Mamata Banerjee is relatively less unpopular. She still is unpopular, but relatively less unpopular compared to the rank and file on the ground. So therefore people have made up their mind, as per my finding to vote TMC out and BJP is the credible alternative. Sandip Roy So basically and basically you are projecting that in at least about 160 seats, BJP would be the winner. Sajjan Kumar Yes, certainly. That is the bottom line. Sandip Roy What do you think about those predictions, Neelanjan? They are going against a lot of other polls that are out there. Neelanjan Sircar Let me give some sense of how I think about projections and then sort of respond to that question. So the first thing that I would say is that several of the things that Sajjan has talked about in his findings, I think I would accept as empirical fact. I think there is strong anti-incumbency on the ground against the TMC due to the way that the local cadre has functioned. And I think he hasn't mentioned here, but the BJP has taken a strategy of what Sajjan calls 'Subaltern Hindutva'. And he is the person who has coined this phrase. Sort of think about theoretically, the BJP coming through the support of lower caste groups and scheduled tribe communities in West Bengal. So one way to think about this purely from a stats perspective, is that if you wanted to predict any party's vote share within a margin of error, the calculation would typically use is plus or minus one over square root of the sample size. Now, what that means is that you would need to take about 400 people randomly selected in a constituency, all telling you exactly the truth, right? For you to be able to do that. Now, that would project to 1.2 lakh people across West Bengal.  Now, that's obviously very very difficult to do. So what all of us do, including Sajjan, is we have existing theories that make sense to us. We find overwhelming waves like anti- incumbency, so and so forth, and we make inferences based on our theory. So what I would say, just looking at those numbers, is that in some sense, the canvas upon which all of this is being calculated, obviously, is Hindu Muslim polarization. A simple rule of thumb is that 30 percent of the voters are from the Muslim community, 70 percent of them Hindu the community.  According to the CSDS data in 2019, 57 per cent of Hindus voted for the BJP, and the TMC got about 30 per cent of Hindus and 70 per cent of the Muslim community.  And by that metric, the question is very simple. If the BJP can get up to around 65 per cent of the Hindu community to vote for it, then it's going to sweep the election. If that drops to 55 per cent or below, then the BJP will get swept, right? Now I'm not sure that I have the data to know whether we're in a world of 55 percent or 65 percent. Sandip Roy We'll know the final results in May, but I thought for the purposes of our discussion, maybe I would have you guys weigh in on some things that appear to be paradoxes or conundrums in the Bengal elections. So the first one, Sajjan you mentioned that Mamata Banerjee remains personally less unpopular, sort of a double negative, but it goes without saying that she is still the only leader here with enormous mass appeal. Which is apparent from the fact that the BJP does not even have a CM face in the elections. Why is she still struggling even while fighting someone who doesn't have a face? Sajjan Kumar One thing was clear, when we were asking the people and fascination for the BJP was there because there was a fear and hatred against the TMC local leadership. One question that personally I asked in most of the constituency to people is that can they come up with the name of a BJP aspirant. And if aspirant would be the criteria, I don't think BJP would be in a position to win more than 20, 25 seats. But the people themselves came up with a very persuasive, and I think the logic holds the ground, they said, 'Look, in Bengal, whenever change happens, it is the same symbol that is voted, not the face'. This is one. Second, already it is the BJP symbol that has kind of captured the imagination. The symbol is automatically linked to Modi and Amit Shah, not to the BJP state leadership. This is second. So therefore, from the perspective of the people, as far as my inference is concerned, it is already a Mamata versus Modi election or, as I say, Didi vs Dada election . Sandip Roy But Mamata Banerjee in 2016 faced party leaders accused of being involved in Saradha chit fund scam and Narada bribe taking sting operations. She still won and won big against the Left Congress combine. Sajjan Kumar People qualified also that look because in 2016 when Left and Congress had combined together and then the corruption issues like Sarada, Narada scams were there, Mamata I had made one appeal that I am the candidate in all the 294 constituencies. And then people say that that really had a popular resonance with the electorate. This time when we posed this question, the emphatic answer was no.  Certainly she doesn't carry that charisma, so that she can supersede the weight of intense anti-incumbency at the local level. So to me, the election is already Modi vs Mamta Didi, Didi vs Dada and BJP's lack of organizational strength, lack of local leadership and candidate problem, as far as my experience from the field is concerned, would not be a significant problem. Sandip Roy Neelanjan, in that sense, do you not think that it would be an issue where if this is  indeed an election that is posited around the issue of anti-incumbency, the fact that I read somewhere, 150 out of the 283candidates BJP fielded are from TMC or Congress who have recently switched sides, would that not be a factor? Because in fact, the CPM and Congress have issued ads there saying that a thief will always steal whether they were in TMC or now have gone from TMC to BJP. Neelanjan Sircar So yeah, I think this is something we're going to have to see how the voters respond to it. And I think one way of thinking about the problem is to look at what has been viewed as the highest stakes battle, which is Nandigram. Nandigram, as we know, Mamata Banerjee is contesting from that seat. And she's contesting against a formidable strongman who used to be within the TMC, and to put things even more in perspective, a lot of the vote rigging that is associated with the Panchayat elections in 2018 in that region is attributed to him and his family. The question ultimately is when the charismatic face who may or may not be dimming, as Sajjan suggests, contests against her strongman, what is the electoral outcome in that case? If the claim is that the appeal of the TMC and the electoral viability of the TMC has been built upon the excesses of its local cadre, then you may actually see Mamata in a lot of trouble in Nandigram. If, on the other hand, people have actually been voting for Mamata and the cadre is essentially moving in and out but everything is essentially centered on Mamata, this is a claim that Prashant Kishore for instance has made, then you might still see a reasonable margin of victory. So while people are of course playing up the clash for a number of reasons, I find it very interesting from exactly the perspective of the question that you've asked, which is that ultimately the question is, are these turncoats into the BJP, are they doers? Are they able to bring out the vote for the BJP? Or has it always really been about Mamata and what she represents? And therefore the fact that these people have switched is actually just a net negative. Sandip Roy Yeah, because not many of these leaders who have shifted can be quite held up, as they have shifted for reasons of reaching for a higher moral ground. Because, as you said, many of them are themselves tainted with some of the same excesses that people have been upset with, with the Trinamool on the ground.  Which leads me sort of to what I think of is the second conundrum. Sajjan, you mentioned that people have been fed up with corruption. From what people talked to you about, is the corruption under Trinamool level very different qualitatively and quantitatively from corruption and the say The Left Front?  Sajjan Kumar Yeah, I mean, it certainly is. And this is something that on the ground, people articulate it very creatively. First, compared to the Left regime wherein the corruption had multiple stakeholders, including a thick section of the common man also at gram panchayat level. Certainly the party or the ruling party is also associated with that as a means of employment. What happened with Trinamool, there was a significant and qualitative shift into the nature of corruption. First, there was an intensification, and second, and that really I mean put people against Trinamool leadership, was that there was a monopolization of corruption. For instance, take for example, that in a constituency called Haroa in North 24 Parganas, there in you have around, if I remember correctly, more than 30,000 bighas of wasteland wherein tiger prawn is cultivated. Now traditionally since CPM's time, it has been kind of the practice that whosoever applies for tender, a businessman, usually doesn't approach the government but rather the local party leader or party office. So during CPM's time, CPM, and now with TMC, TMC office. So usually for an acre, 10 to 15 thousand was given (and that was annually charged) and every family annually would receive one thousand annually. That was the kind of mode of distribution. What happened with TMC, initially the price was reduced to five hundred and then the TMC leadership stopped giving tender to the businessmen. They themselves became the businessmen. Similarly on the Bangla side border, if suppose there is a cross-border illegal trade off. Medicines, essential medicines, from India side to the other side, people said that during CPM time anyone could, with the understanding with officials, concerned persons, could go there, make profits, come back, share it. Now they said only the TMC representative of the leadership could do it.   One of the first terms that I learned in Bengal, the Bengali term, was the durniti and cut money.  Particularly if you see the southern Bengal, which in 2019 remained loyal to Mamata Banerjee. You see, if you track the course of Amphan tragedy and this is something I want to emphasise, exactly it is the core bastion of Trinamool that was affected by the super cyclone Amphan. And in more than a century it was one of the worst natural calamities. People literally were on the road. And rather than trying to utilize this time as a golden opportunity by winning back the people through welfare touch, as we have seen in the initial case of Naveen Pattanaik in Odisha, what happened that the money sent to the people, as per the popular articulation on the ground, was plundered by the local Trinamool leadership.  Sandip Roy But Neelanjan, Mamata Banerjee has indicated that she's aware of this anger. In 2019 they obviously heard the message loud and clear during the Lok Sabha elections, she pulled up party leaders or party activists for taking cuts, asked people, in fact, to return cut money. Cut money being the illegal commissions people have to pay to avail of government benefits. But it looks like from what Sajjan is saying she was not able to enforce that. Does that suggest that for all her, even though she's the supreme leader of the party, she does not have enough control over the party itself? Neelanjan Sircar We know that on the ground, unlike the organized party that the CPM and the left were, the TMC is far less disorganized in party structure terms. And therefore does require a certain complicity of local bureaucrats, police and a revolving door of various cadres and so on and so forth. Now, what I would say about the cut money thing is that it's actually not a criticism that has started recently and when I worked heavily in the 2011 elections, you would hear very similar language against the CPM...So I think that if you talk to even a lot of people who study the Left, they will tell you that the role of business and contractors became endemic within the party by the time that the Left fell.  So in that sense, you know, I think that this is pernicious criticism, right? I mean, I think it really may make the TMC lose but I don't know if it's a new criticism. I heard even in 2016 when the TMC swept, swept completely. I think what has changed and this is something that we sort of hadn't paid attention to, or I should say the Delhi media wasn't paying attention to, is that when we look at 2018 panchayat elections, the story was let's look at the rigging. Nobody ever asked why is the TMC resorting to such large scale rigging in 2018? And the part of the story that is missing is that in 2016, when the CPM and the Congress lost, at that point, it became clear that it wasn't going to put up a fight against the TMC. So a lot of the anti-TMC political forces coalesced around the BJP.  So that's the only sort of correction that I would give to this, right? Which is to say that, yes there's something about the structure of corruption. But I don't think that this is unusual..this criticism is unusual to Bengal or certainly the TMC. It's a criticism that has been around there since 2011. What has changed is the capacity of an opposition force and opposition cadre to really potentially project an alternative. Even if right now, as we said, they look like it might be many of the same people. Sandip Roy Sajjan, isn't that a concern that people voiced when the shift happened from the 34 years of The Left Front to Trinamool? Many people said, ‘Oh the same goons and muscle power that CPM had used just now have switched over to Trinamool'. So did people, were people not worried that if they went for the BJP, the same thing would happen?  Sajjan Kumar See many times we assume as if the first people look around the issues and then they determine their preference or then they choose the alternative. Many times what happens is that people already have an intuitive liking or dislike for the available alternative, and based upon their choice they come up with the issues to justify the choice. And therefore, when I was asking the same question, what about Mukul Roy and even Suvendu Adhikari, who were also accused of the corruption, etc.? I mean, how do you justify that? (Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari being two of the prominent defectors from Mamata Banerjee's party) So the response usually was of dismissal or sometimes of not considering it a significant factor because the perception that TMC is a party that needs to be defeated outweighs all other rational kinds of argument that you can come up with. This is one. Second thing, and here I completely agree with Neelanjan, that the 2018 panchayat election was the watershed moment and a game changer. Because in their perception, what happens that they felt that their basic right was denied and to some extent in Bengali popular psyche rigging and everything, and again here I will say that while rigging is not a new charge against the incumbent regimes in Bengal, the scale is something or the degree is something that matters, while the direction remains the same. So 2018, majority of the Dalits, tribals and many of the kind of peasant castes, they really took it quite seriously that how systematically they were not even allowed to go and cast their vote.  In the majority of the places that are shared by Hindus and Muslims, which is the mixed demographic. It is the Dalits who happen to be the constituents of Hindu community. So certainly at ground, this perception that not only their fundamental rights have been denied by the incumbent party, not only the corruption is making them left out, and also the perception that perhaps Mamata Banerjee and the TMC is soft on Muslims, all these dots were there. What the BJP did, it came there and encashed all these dots together which got connected. So that is why in Bengal you see that pro-BJP sentiment, primarily on account of anti incumbency factor is the strongest among the Dalit, tribals and the peasant caste. And as you move up into the social scale of caste and community, you  find that when you reach Kolkata  among the Bhadralok still you find that there is some kind of attempt to privilege ideology over the everyday experience of the people (Bhadralok being the upper caste well educated elites who have dominated Bengal). Sandip Roy Okay, now that's very interesting Sajjan, because in a way, it is reversed in other parts of India. We often think that the BJP support is strongest in the upper castes, and then going down here. Here you're saying it's going the other way around. But Neelanjan isn't that strange? Because the Dalits, SC and ST and other backward caste communities are actually the primary beneficiaries of the one hundred and one, sort of, schemes that Mamata has from birth to death. Welfare schemes that she has put forward. Neelanjan Sircar So I think you're getting to what is going to end up being the core distinction that drives the way the election swings in West Bengal. So I want to start with some of what Sajjan said. And I absolutely agree that part of what is interesting is just the spatial demography of West Bengal means that the Muslim community, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribe are often living side by side. And where there is a significant proportion of those from the Muslim community, that's where you are most likely to see Hindu- Muslim polarization. But this is actually true in UP as well. So BJP's highest strike rates are consistently in those constituencies with a moderate proportion of Muslims, not too many and not too few, right? So that's a classic empirical fact about polarisation strategies. Now, the question ultimately is that the TMC represents a certain kind of welfarism. We know that there are certain schemes, scholarships, and so forth, that have actually been hugely successful, and the TMC is given credit.   Now, is it enough to outweigh some of the polarisation that we're seeing? That we'll have to see. I think the version of the BJP that you're seeing today, if you just look at what is actually being said at rallies, if look on television, is squarely based on these questions of arithmetic between Hindus and Muslims, and certain questions about benefits to Rajbanshi, Matua, Kurmo. (These are big SC ST Dalit groups, some of them migrants from Bangladesh, the BJP is heavily targeting with promises.) In some sense, the West Bengal version of the BJP is not dramatically differentiated than the UP version BSP, right? Which is sort of a very funny way in which it has evolved, right? And I think it is due to the fact that they have understood that what Sajjan calls 'Subaltern Hindutva' is their dominant strategy, right? It is the canvas upon which the electoral strategy or electoral victory of the BJP can be painted. The TMC, of course, is looking to undercut that with the notion of gender, which I think is very much playing in Mamata's favour. The fact that certain kinds of targeted benefits do get to the poorest is enough to swing. You don't need to win these communities, you just need to make sure that you don't get swept in these communities. Sandip Roy And one of the things we should mention is that while people in Delhi are suddenly amazed at this meteoric rise of BJP so fast in Bengal, it's also a fact, isn't it, that for years the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and have been quietly working in Bengal buildings, temples, in areas like Jangalmahal, which was once the stronghold of Maoists? Neelanjan Sircar I mean, that's absolutely correct, right? And we know that there's a lot of academic literature as well about the connection that the BJP has with Schedule Tribe communities in particular, and the RSS. And this is really an outgrowth of that strategy. Sandip Roy So, Sajjan, in the areas that you went to, how bad was this polarisation that we were talking about? Sajjan Kumar If I use the simile or analogy of a cake, then the base of the cake would be anti-incumbency. And layering on that will be Subaltern Hindutva. But in the case of West Bengal, I think that this classical assumption that first RSS goes there, works for years silently, creates the base and thereafter BJP comes there and you suddenly see the phenomenon BJP. I still think that in the case of Bengal, as far as this election is concerned, into the interior while true, as far as the tribals are concerned, RSS has a long association even in Bengal Jangalmahal. But when it comes to the majority of the Dalits and the majority of the peasant caste, I do not think that RSS has much of a contribution. Because BJP is still organizationally so weak, that people have difficulty in coming up with a name of a potential party aspirant. And that is why you see this crisis of candidates, wherein it is forced to import the majority of its candidates from TMC or other parties.  I still think that predominantly the starting point was a societal change in Bengal, wherein people perceived TMC as a party, which is not catering to the popular aspiration of the majority of the Hindu community. And mind it, this identitarian  turn in Bengal is something that Bengal owes to Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress. So true, there was massive welfare outreach to the various subaltern communities across Bengal, but the paradigm in which they were sold to the constituencies were identitarian. So a soft playing, on the soft sentiment for Kamatapur and Gorkha community. Here, if you see once you give vent to the identitarian aspiration, ultimately this aspiration will go to its logical conclusion and the logical conclusion of caste based mobilisation is always something that has an easy fit with the paradigm of Hindutva. Sandip Roy Let me stop you there once Sajjan, and I want to get Neelanjan's take on this. Do you agree? Mamata Banerjee has often been called more left than The Left in terms of her welfare schemes and all of that. But do you agree with Sajjan that she in a way has actually opened the Pandora's box of identity politics in Bengal and has in a way paved the way for the BJP to run with it? Neelanjan Sircar You know, the way that I would put this is that any time you have this kind of polarisation, it is not the doing of a single political actor, right? The CPM, as we know, we look across India in the 1990s was extraordinary at dampening that rhetoric. I don't know that Mamata had the capacity, given the way the party is structured, to actually resist this level of polarisation. So yes, we can point to certain messages that were made, certain actions that were taken that are seen as pro-Muslim as opposed to pro-Hindu and so on and so forth. But given what we have seen in this country post 2014, I'm not sure that I can see a version of Mamata that could have prevented West Bengal from at least having some level of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. It turns out that this is the most convenient way for an opposition force to rise in modern India.  The fact that a certain kind of polarised rhetoric is being used is both perhaps something that Mamata opened the door to, but also a characteristic of how the BJP has been winning elections across the country, right? With extraordinary support from the media and from the state resources, right? I'm not convinced that any political party in India actually has the capacity to resist that, let alone TMC. Sandip Roy So Sajjan, you said, you used this analogy of a cake, that the base is anti incumbency and the top of it is support for Hindutva, but given that this issue of chanting Jai Shri Ram became such an issue in the state and almost like now a code word to identify people who are supporting the BJP. Do you see the cake flipping? Sajjan Kumar Yeah, I mean that is that that's the shift that is taking place because this cake analogy is that what was the starting point. So initially, you see whether chanting of Jai Shri Ram or there were many kinds of provocative religious kind of markers,  people said that they started using it primarily to tease the TMC. So one of the core characteristics or differentiation or delineation of Subaltern Hindutva, as opposed to the Savarkarite Brahminical Hindutva, is that Subaltern Hindutva is more tactical. It's instrumental. It's not primarily about ideological conviction. As far as a starting point is concerned. So therefore it emerged tactically as a political tool, but in due course of time, this tactical shift is getting internalized very fast. So beyond a point, you don't remember the starting point. Whether you started chanting Jai Shri Ram to tease the TMC out or to create a political delineation, or is it something that you think always kind of belongs to you in terms of ideological conviction? So for example, many of the respondents said that it started as a TMC thing, an anti TMC rhetoric, but it has become I think, and Neelanjan would be able to explain it, but the term was mudradosh. Ki now it has become our mudradosh.  So which roughly, when I asked what it meant, they said ki like a child who learns first how to say good morning and good evening, and in due course of time, it becomes a matter of habit.  Sandip Roy Like a cake, which can also become an upside down cake. It's still a cake. But Neelanjan, the TMC was notoriously known as a party with no real ideology other than they wanted to get the communists defeated in Bengal. And that is how they came up, and Mamata Banerjee was the great fighter who defeated the mighty Left Front. Has the rise of BJP and the opposition vacuum that was created in the state meant that. At least in this election, the TMC also has a certain ideology, which it perhaps didn't have before? Neelanjan Sircar Yeah I mean, so I've written a little bit about this and a lot of people were incensed when I wrote it. But what has become interesting about where politics has gone in West Bengal, even nationally, is that from this party, as you mentioned, it had no clear ideology, was known for political entrepreneurship and opportunism, it has now started to craft an image of itself of large scale welfarism, progressive on gender, a party that at the center is perhaps the only party that has its representatives sort of critiquing and calling out the central government and the BJP and Modi. So it has fashioned itself as a "progressive" alternative to the BJP. Now, whether it works or not is sort of a separate question, but I think that a lot of people sort of misunderstand this part of politics, right? Which is that, yes, politics is built on mobilisation, it's built on arithmetic, but campaigns that purely work on arithmetic often don't do well, right? You need stories or reasons for voters to vote for you. Anti-incumbency may be one of those, but people, you know, comments like the kind of comments that Babul Supriyo and Dilio Ghosh have made about women, I mean, those do hurt the BJP, right? And that can swing female voters towards TMC. So when we think about the kind of political alternatives that the TMC represents, is it one that is built out of political opportunism and the need for survival? Certainly. But is it also offering a genuine alternative to the BJP's vision? I think that is also true. When we look at, for instance, how the Aam Aadmi party had behaved in Delhi when dealing with this kind of polarisation. In many ways, their inability to speak up earlier means that today, when powers are being taken away from the state government of Delhi, the citizens of Delhi and the backers of the Aam Aadmi party are not willing to hit the streets for them. Sandip Roy In that sense, also, Sajjan, when we when you talked about the fact that perhaps it is the Bhadralok, the so-called Bhadralok in Kolkata, the upper class elite, who still remain suspicious of the BJP as a party of outsiders and not Bengali, something that Mamata Banerjee has been pushing very hard, do you think in a way, this election with the rise of subalterns groups? Has spelled the sort of growing insignificance of the Kolkata Bhadralok, people like me? Sajjan Kumar Sandip certainly, I mean this election in Bengal is as much a kind of the window into the Bhadralok's inner world which was hitherto completely very jealously protected. The Bhadralok's image of Bengal certainly doesn't resonate with the kind of picture that we are witnessing today. However, I would like to make a slightly more provocative statement, and that is about how it may unfold if BJP, and I'm still putting 'if', even though I am confident based on the field work but they are not astrologers, so if BJP manages to win Bengal on May 2, then my hunch is that within a couple of years, it is just a matter of time, that we would see, now also there are, but we would see an immense rise of the Bhadralok's ideologue who would be giving Hindutva a very different intensity. Because this capability to articulate is something that certainly switches to the ruling discourse. So if BJP manages to win Bengal, that I do not think that the Bhadralok would be left out, as is the case today, I think this is going to be a core part of the ideologue constituency of Hindutva with which the very articulation of Hindutva will see a significant change. Sandip Roy Well, I mean, we always have to remember Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the sort of fountainhead of the ideology was a dyed in the wool Bhadralok. But does this election, and I'm putting this out to both of you, in a way...have you seen the impact of what has been much talked about bringing Prashant Kishore in to fix the problems? Because as you rightly pointed out Sajjan, perceptions are hard to change. It's very easy for you to go from good to bad, but to go from bad to good is very hard. Neelanjan Sircar I think on certain fronts, you have seen some impact. So one strength of I-PAC is purported to be that they have an independent team that is working on the ground, separate from the party cadre. And so certainly there were people facing a large amount of anti-incumbency that were either shunted out or not given party tickets. And that has created, as we've seen since, quite a bit of chaos in the electoral system.  I think the branding of delivery Duare Sarkar, and all this stuff that came in later obviously, has a very Prashant Kishore hallmark on it. And I think third, and this is something that's noticeable because we've been following Bengal elections for a while, the media game post 2019 is clearly gotten quite a bit stronger for the TMC. So these are the sort of changes. Now, is it enough to win the election or sweep the tide? I mean, these are very very difficult things to know . Sajjan Kumar I agree with Neelanjan about the kind of PK's hallmark and especially the media game that the TMC got. But my additional factors that I found on the ground, and this is something that I wanted to write my first piece with, the question everywhere I started grappling initially was are you from PK's team? And when I go to the field. Okay, so PK was also a part of everyday gossip, everyday chit chat. And I do not think the majority of the places this was a positive comment. So being a political adviser, political consultant, you have a mandate to do the best homework for your client. But at the same time, one should be careful not to be completely identified with the client itself. Now on the ground, he has a mandate, as Neelanjan pointed out, to restructure the party and try to do away with an intense level of anti incumbency, especially at the local leadership. Now what happened, ironically, that PK did it systematically. In doing so what he did, he changed the old faces, and also very senior faces in the majority of the constituency and district level and replaced them with the new faces. Many of them were taken from left also, ex CPM, etc. Rather than rectifying the structural mosaic of the Trinamool, it ended up adding one more layer of factionalism. This is one. The second, what I mean deduced from many of, the not common respondent, but many of the respondent at the local level party, etc, if I collate the responses...the people say that more than the Mamata that it was Abhishek Banerjee, nephew of Mamata Banerjee. So many people pointed out that perhaps PK's mandate was also to restructure the party under the singular command of first Mamata, and then Abhishek Banerjee. So one thing that I find is that while Prashant Kishore had a mandate, which he did meticulously, but in the end it ended up isolating many stalwarts who had remained with TMC, and who perhaps would have contributed to some extent. Sandip Roy So that leads me to the final thoughts, is that even if Mamata Banerjee is able to win this time around, it still leaves her with the problem of ‘what next’? Because as Sajjan is pointing out, there's a lot of grumbling about the rise of her nephew. But given that, looking ahead Neelanjan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a piece that Bengal does not provide a progressive alternative unless all one means by progressive is non-BJP. So given that, should this election matter to the rest of India? What is at stake do you think? Neelanjan Sircar So I mean Pratap and I obviously disagree on this and we have disagreed even in private on this. So my fundamental, which I sort of mentioned earlier, my fundamental way of thinking about politics is that political alternatives are not always driven by conviction. Sometimes they're driven by opportunists. The BJP has rolled out a huge amount of resources, its senior leaders, a rath yatra, there are concerns that the Central police, the Election Commission are sort of bowing down to the pressures of the BJP. The Prime Minister can go to the other side of the border in Bangladesh and do something that is effectively campaigning, right? We're in a world where one party is genuinely dominant. And we have now Mamata Banerjee, and this is why many of these slogans have been crafted the way they have, who is saying, 'Look, I'm standing up to all of these forces and I'm trying to provide an alternative perspective as to what India should be'. So by all standard metrics, the BJP should win this election going away. If the TMC does win, and let's say the TMC wins somewhat significantly, there is no more important opposition leader in India than Mamata Banerjee. Now in the future, what happens to the TMC, I agree, I mean they're in a position where even if they pull it through this time...five years from now? We don't know.  But let me also put the shoe on the other foot and I'll just end with this, when we think about the larger importance in the system, why is the BJP making this such a central issue? When you have a dominant hegemonic party at the Centre, its goal is to dominate all facets of social life. Why do you care what Rihanna is tweeting? Because it makes you look bad, right? Now, the farmers' protest has done a lot of damage to the BJP because even through non electoral means, it has shown that people can stand up to the party. If the BJP is not able to pull off Bengal or Assam swimmingly, it's going to be a huge dent in its image as a dominant hegemonic party in the country. And I think that that's why this has the kind of national relevance that it does. There really is a sense in which the TMC is trying to change the narrative within Bengal, but the BJP is trying to change the narrative nationally. Sandip Roy Thank you so much, guys, for joining us today and on May 2nd, we'll revisit this conversation and see how it all turned out. Thanks so much for joining us. Neelanjan Sircar Thank you so much. Sajjan Kumar Thank you. Thank you so much. Sandip Roy Neelanjan Sircar is assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Political analyst Sajjan Kumar conducted a survey of Bengal for People’s Pulse, a political research organisation based in Hyderabad But finally as a Citizens United group of celebrities says in a new music video. We know what’s good for us, we will decide for ourselves. I will go nowhere. I will stay in this land itself.  Leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts from.  Find us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram at expresspodcasts.  Thanks for listening. Khela Hobe, This is Sandip Roy on Express Audio You can follow us and leave us feedback on Facebook and Twitter @expresspodcasts, or send us an email at podcasts@indianexpress.com. If you like this show, please subscribe and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, so other people can find us. You can also find us on https://www.indianexpress.com/audio.
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