The 'federal' future
Disapproval of stereotyped polarization politics in West Bengal keeps the prospect of a strong federalist spirit intact
In an already deeply divided 'party society' like Bengal, the best thing to happen is that communal polarization did not work. This is the single most important factor that jolted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from its construction of a Hindu-Muslim binary in Bengal. The limited sphere where polarization otherwise works is in conflicts and riots, which have rarely happened in Bengal during Mamata's 10 years and Left Front's 34 years. It is rather the case that there is a strong anti-riot sentiment as part of Bengal's enlightened, inclusive, liberal and accommodative society, which ironically works as a safety valve for a party based society. The latest example is Maulana Imdadul Rashidi, who despite losing his son in the Ram Navami riots of 2018 in Asansol strongly pleaded for peace and harmony. Repeated campaigns by the Hindu right that no immersion was allowed after Durga Pujo, or that Saraswati Pujo is suspended in Didi's appeasement regime found no takers. The reality is that Pujo is one occasion where Hindus and Muslim partake together. Didi's much-loved statement, "religion is for a specific group of believers, while festivals are for all religious groups to partake" has broken the boundary. Eid and Pujo are celebrated with a spirit of embracing the other. This phenomenal feat of unity between religions could be achieved in a party society by Mamata. Only ideological conflicts on shibboleths of Left and Right, fascism and liberalism, religious fundamentalism and universal humanism polarizes Bengal's party society, in which the BJP had very little to contribute at the hustings.
Indeed, the politics of NRC and CAA for BJP proved to be an intimation to the danger of statelessness for Bengal and Bengalis, which was glibly mouthed by too many leaders, whom Didi termed as 'outsiders'. This trap of entering into an Assam-like situation where 19 lakh people are excluded from the register and many being sent to detention camps gave a bad name to the saffron party. Its rhetoric on Bangladeshi infiltrators and terrorists was watched with caution, as Bengalis could never agree with the subtle adversary jibe directed at a minority religious group. A creepier rhetoric in the name of law and order breakdown in Didi's regime, endangerment of women's safety and victimization of Bengali Hindus met the firewall of Bengal's strong cultural bond between religions. It simply heightened Bengali apprehension that the outside campaigners are hell-bent on turning Bengal into Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP further brought in huge paramilitary forces who could not speak in the local language, further alienating the party with a possible picture of bringing trigger happy culture in Bengal. After the Sitalkuchi killings, 'state-sponsored violence' became a household theme among the Bengal electorate.
In other words, BJP's politics of setting the narrative by bringing in a borrowed lexicon of North Indian mythologies, symbols and style of stereotyping Muslims just didn't appeal to Bengal's political aesthetic.
Not that the BJP did not respond to this aesthetic with all their limited knowledge. They pledged to introduce a prize in the name of Satyajit Ray and Tagore with an award value equal to the Nobel Prize. Aesthetic and cultural politics of this kind got a huge spoiler from superstar Mithun Chakrabarty as he mouthed his once-popular film dialogue of being 'a cobra who can kill in one bite' in the rally at Brigade. This was a moment of anxiety as Bengalis gasped for fresh air out of this toxic discourse of power, masculinity and inappropriate use of names of Tagore and Satyajit Ray.
Mamata drifted away from BJP's narrative of polarization by drawing attention to concrete socio-economic benefits that her welfare schemes like Kanyashree (package for young adult women), Sobujsatthi (bicycles for girls for classes 10th standard to 12th standard) or Swasthysathi (state govt. sponsored medical treatment on credit card) have delivered cutting across all segments, women, young adults, middle-aged, old and infirm, peasantry, low-income groups and all others. This is an all-encompassing social security net sufficiently strong enough to socially neutralize any group conflict or identity politics. Literally, Mamata thronged every Bengali household with such amelioration programmes. For linguistic and ethnic minorities in Jangalmahal and North Bengal, the Mamata government recognized Koch Rajbangshi, Santhal, Gorkhali and other languages along with development boards for smaller communities. It is not the case that everywhere her programmes brought political support, but on the whole created more goodwill and enhanced fraternity among social groups. Mamata's art of social engineering engaged her detractors into decoding her enigmatic skill of supporting the marginal people, women, minorities, tribes and other segments not just as beneficiaries but also as stakeholders in development. This is another significant socio-economic programme that had hollowed out BJP's promises of development.
It is particularly disconcerting to note the play of victim card by blaming the minority religious group, which, in the context of Bengal, assumes a narrative background of nearly forgotten partition violence to make it look like one-sided violence planned by a certain community under the sponsorship of the ruling TMC. During electioneering too, a narrative of infiltration and bomb-making was broadcast by some media houses, looked upon as a plan-A of the capture of power in Bengal by blaming a community. If that fails, a plan-B centering post-poll violence by using article 356 to defeat TMC was mooted. Currently, the campaigns in various peripheries of North Bengal and also in some places adjoining Bangladesh borders that spread toxic messages of hatred against neighbours' belonging to other religion is closely monitored by the West Bengal Government. This diabolical post-poll game is politically contrived in a vitriolic manner to divide the party society of Bengal into communal lines and pave way for the possible rise of the Hindu right in Bengal.
Mamata's return to power, however, acts as a safety valve against communal politics. It creates a new prospect of a reinvigorated opposition at the national level with a possible grand alliance of regionally powerful parties like TMC and DMK supported by other national opposition parties. The new dimension of such an alliance shall be the configuration of federal blocs and parties representing regional interests. This shall mark the decline of Centrist political forces.
The writer is an independent political analyst based in Shillong. Views expressed are personal