In 1984, Mamata Banerjee had delivered her political career’s first big blow to the CPM by defeating the high-profile and seasoned Somnath Chatterjee. It wouldn’t be her last. She would go on to become the first real symbol of anti-CPMism in the state, and after founding a political party, the Trinamool Congress, render the Congress virtually irrelevant in the state.
Others before her had had the opportunity. Whether Pranab Mukherjee or P R Dasmunsi, it had been in their hands to grab the mantle of unyielding opposition to the Left. But it was Mamata who finally did so. At the height of the Singur movement, noted economist at the London School of Economics Maitreesh Ghatak said Mamata’s core strength was her ability to emerge as “a successful entrepreneur of the present discontent of Bengal” — that the content, of her discontent, in her politics had allowed her to become the CM of Bengal.
That was in 2011. Now, in her second term, is there a change?
One thing is crystal clear: that in Bengal, the BJP is growing rapidly. This isn’t a sudden growth, but the result of a change in the Bengali DNA in terms of the BJP’s acceptance. This isn’t limited to 2019, but also future elections, where a large section of Bengalis will soften their stance towards the BJP. Most poll surveys are predicting anything between 10 and 12 seats for the party. I am not getting into that, but the political dynamics of Bengal makes it clear that the Left radical space is shifting to the Right. The anti-Delhi politics of the past is being replaced by preference for a larger nationalistic framework.
After over three decades of Left rule, voters in Bengal remain tired of the Left Front. Although the CPM’s Pramod Dasgupta had handpicked and created a new generation of leaders —Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Biman Bose, Anil Biswas — they, in turn, failed to do so. So, instead of a young party rescuing the party’s political philosophy from the doldrums of the past and bringing it into the realm of the present, the CPM remains geriatric.
Many Left-liberal intellectuals are not willing to accept this silent change towards the BJP. It has been argued that the CPM didn’t preach atheism. But the ideological position of a Communist can’t be anything but that of an atheist.
Even those who find my earlier analysis simplistic can’t deny that this isn’t a change limited to the Kolkata bhadralok but one reflected in the larger Bengali society, including the subaltern classes. They continue to be attracted to the ideologies of the BJP and RSS. The question remains, why?
One key reason is the demography of the state. The 30% Muslim minority ‘vote bank’ — a phrase coined by the Aristotle of Indian sociology, M N Srinivas — continues to drive politics here.
This communal history isn’t new. The first election of 1937 had seen the Muslim League first taste success not in Punjab or Sindh but Bengal. But in spite of the communal cleavage, the state’s economy was satisfactory. The first PM of Bengal during the last days of the British rule, Fazlul Haq, called Bengal a ‘premier province’, that the land was extremely fertile and 80% of the British capital was invested in the area.
But the rise of an intellectual, anti-imperialist bhadralok community had not sat well with the British, and Bengal was divided in 1905. Although it was reunited in 1911, the transfer of power of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi was a setback for the state, as was the separation of Odisha and Bihar. From 1912 to 1947, there were many periods of communal tension, often leading to riots.
Moreover, the three decades of the Left rule didn’t result in prosperity for the state. The CPM tried to milk this as anger against the Centre, its rhetoric that of an anti-Delhi movement. But what did Bengal gain?
Banerjee did bring poriborton, but eventually her party is an extension of the extremism of CPM-ism in Kolkata. She captured the Left radical space of Bengal, along with the vote bank. She wooed rural masses, with the addition of caste-based identity politics ranging from the Matuas to the OBCs to Dalits to tribals, and fashioned herself as the messiah of the 30% Urdu- and Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The jobless and unemployed youth, who had earlier been with the Left, also drifted towards the Trinamool. If there is a deep economic malaise, then the anti-thesis will also come true.
Today, the BJP in Bengal doesn’t have proper leadership, and lacks a credible face it can project. So they have been using the brand equity of Modi.
A senior CPM leader said a few months back that, in their party, “We need a Mamata. In the Opposition movement, there is no Mamata.”
And herein lies the importance of being Mamata. She knows the art of war, specifically in her home terrain of Bengal. She is far more clever as a politician than Congress president Rahul Gandhi or even Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. She knows how to keep her vote bank intact, she knows how to manage public sentiments, she knows how to manage the media. And above all else, she knows how to manage elections.
Earlier, in Bengal, caste factor was not that important. Time marches. There is a change in the voting behaviour. It is visible in the last few elections. Now OBC + SC/ST + Matua community + tribals, all are working in a cut-and-paste methodology under Didi’s leadership.
In Bengal, through the Gourio Vaishnava movement, the lower caste mass of Bengal had found inclusion in Bengal society. But that caste assimilation done by Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement is now again under serious threat. The BJP is trying to break that cut-and-paste consolidation like in UP, Bihar and other states through the Hindu majority card and strong nationalist philosophy.
It is not the issue of governance, Mamata’s excellence lies in knowing how to win elections, how to remain in the media narrative. In spite of the CBI-ED investigation, in spite of the recent probe into her nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s wife, the Saradha -Narada cases, the Supreme Court action against her police chief in Kolkata, the frequent transfers of her police officers, infighting within her ranks, and the presence of the CRPF in the state, Mamata continues to fight, and her party is likely to remain in the number one spot in Bengal.
The writer is a senior journalist