The Battle for Bengal – What’s Really at Stake?

Although the ongoing West Bengal Assembly election is half way through, it may not be too late to look at the “game” played so far, and ponder on the true implications of its likely result. 

The fourth phase of polling was marked by unprecedented violence leading to the loss of five lives, four of them in firing by the personnel of the Central forces under as yet unclear circumstances. Even these deaths have failed to rein in the two main rivals in the poll – the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) – whose high-pitched propaganda, allegations and counter allegations continue unabated. 

Having seen many elections in the state over the years I can safely say that the way both these parties have been electioneering on communal lines has been unheard of in Bengal. The voters seem to be completely divided on communal lines.

It is futile to discuss who started it, whose action led to reaction from the other side, etc.  The fact is that there is a very clear division between majority and minority voters. Even within the majority Hindus divisions are being emphasized between higher and lower castes.  Whether the electorate will fall for this divisive electoral politics, and to what extent, will only be known once the results are out on 2nd May. 

The all-powerful Election Commission has taken some belated steps apparently to restrain the warring parties from blatant communal propaganda, but even with thousands of para-military and police forces at its disposal and all the pre-poll brouhaha about appointment of so many observers, etc., it has miserably failed to ensure a violence-free polling.

A narrative has been consciously created, especially in the so-called mainstream media that among the educated upper caste Bengali Hindus anti-Muslim and anti-lower caste feelings were always present under a façade of fake liberalism. As one who was born and brought up in a “bhadralok” Hindu family of Calcutta I find this narrative to be only partially true. 

Undeniably, these feelings did exist among a section of Bengali Hindus, but in my youth, in an average educated middle class Bengali Hindu household of Calcutta casteism and communalism were always referred to as social evils we should shun, rather than encourage.  An educated Bengali Hindu did not give up his religion, but his entire life and thought did not revolve around that one thing.  Neither did he distinguish between human beings on the basis of his or her religious faith.

Such a liberal outlook to life was clearly due to the influence of the thoughts propagated by intellectual giants like Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Tagore in the literary, educational, religious and cultural fields.

The same held true in Bengal’s political arena.  The legacy of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and other liberal Congress and leftist leaders ensured that even after such huge inflows of Hindu refugees, first from East Pakistan and then from Bangladesh, and despite the occurrence of several communal riots, political battles in Bengal used to be fought on ideological lines and economic issues – not on religious matters.  Nor were they based on one’s position in the caste hierarchy. 

Dr. Shyamaprasad Mukherjee was a respected academician and politician of Bengal.  However, his party, the Jansangh – now BJP – had very little support among Bengali Hindus till even a decade ago.  Even those who were affected by the partition, and had experienced untold sufferings when uprooted from their native places, viewed it more as a failure – even betrayal – of some leaders of the Congress in their eagerness to rule the truncated country.  They did not blame the Muslims in general for their plight, and this section of Bengal’s population overwhelmingly supported the leftist parties.   

The leftists highlighted the bread-and-butter issues, and organised the people to fight against what in their view was unjust distribution of wealth and exploitation of the poor by the rich.  Some would say that the mass movements that followed the increasing influence of the leftists drove industries – and wealth – away from Bengal. That is a separate, debatable issue.

However, what is undeniably true is that religion and casteism were not dominant factors in Bengal’s politics as long as the left movement was strong.  With the leftists marginalised, the BJP slowly made inroads into the Bengali’s thought process as the TMC had neither the wherewithal nor the desire to stop it.   

For the BJP, however, electioneering on communal lines coupled with relentless attack on the opponents through the social media and every available forum through a mixture of falsehood and half-truths is nothing new.  What is unique, and is worthy of our attention, is that this time the party has pulled out all stops to win what appears to be a “do or die battle” for West Bengal.

The entire nation is witness to how the ruling party at the centre has concentrated all its might to “capture” the state.  The Prime Minister and the Home Minister of India are visiting the state almost every alternate day, attending road shows and addressing rallies in the remotest corners of the state.

Their forays are interspersed with visits by various other Ministers. Even the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, till he was forced into isolation due to Corona, was busy explaining to the Bengalis as to how he had established “Sonar (Golden) Uttar Pradesh”, to be replicated in Bengal.   Besides, the entire top leadership of the BJP is also virtually camping in Bengal.

Apart from these visible generals of the BJP, one must not forget that away from the glare of the omnipresent paparazzi the RSS has been active in almost every corner of West Bengal, quietly preparing the ground for the Sangh Parivar’s ideology to take root in the Bengali psyche.  These elections are practical tests of how far it has succeeded.   

Along with Bengal there have been elections in many other states.  In none of them, however, the BJP employed so much of its arsenal in the form of ‘men’ and material. Anyone watching the television in India these days knows that besides the COVID-related stories it is the Bengal election that holds the centre stage on most channels.  It should, therefore, be worth our while to look into what makes Bengal a special case. 

In the Parivar’s assessment Bengal is not a part of what it perceives as the “mainstream” India.  Historically, Bengal has always rebelled against entrenched, outdated traditions, be it in the field of education, religion, society or politics.  Accepting any idea without subjecting it to arguments and reasoning was unthinkable among Bengal’s intellectuals. In a way, Bengal has been the epicentre of liberal thoughts and ideas in India.     

The challenge for the BJP is to change that, and to establish the Parivar’s ideology of Hindutva and “nationalism” in the birthplace of Shyamaprasad Mukherjee replacing the progressive, liberal and humanistic outlook that has so far dominated the intellectual sphere of Bengal.  

That is the importance of this Battle Royal. It is for this reason that the BJP has staked almost everything to break through this last frontier.  The TMC is the immediate target as it is in power. The actual objective of the Parivar, however, is to dislodge the TMC, capture power, and then strike at the very root of the ‘culture’ that promotes liberal thoughts. 

If it succeeds, it will not only be a giant step for the Parivar, but is also likely to have a strong impact on liberalism itself in India.

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