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Introduction

The growing dismays of bhadroloks[1], losing their space and pride to ‘alien’ political symbols, has found more than adequate attention through the words of many political pundits and scholars in recent times. While the bemoaning for their lost pride in ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ politics continue, Bengal witnesses another cycle of socio-political churning – and in my opinion Hegel or Marx – neither wins this round; in a sense, history is all set to repeat but neither for ‘liberation’ nor as a ‘farce’!

This article refrains from participating in the clamour and paranoia of BJP’s elevation to power in Bengal, as fashioned by the corporate media. BJP’s internal fiascos – from candidate selection to organizing rallies - show its inability to win Bengal immediately, albeit the threat of turning the state into another RSS laboratory indeed remains. In lieu with that, if we observe the public sphere and its ongoing narrative (within and beyond Calcutta!), macho ultra-right parades victorious, for, it could systematically subsume Rabindra Sandhyas (annual shows on Bengal’s cultural icon Rabindranath Tagore) with spectacular right wing symbolisms. If what I claim is taking place on the ground, we must search for new theoretical avenues to explain the phenomenon; because analysis and not justifying any analytical apophthegms should be the telos.

Politics beyond popular mobilization

Almost every political scientist, who commented on the upsurge of BJP and RSS in Bengal, has made the ‘thirty-four years of left rule’ as the vantage point of analysis (Purakayastha, 2018, Samaddar, 2017). It appears as though, the erstwhile ‘Left’ regime marked radical discontinuation in Bengal’s society, notwithstanding the series of political changes the left front had introduced when it came to power in 1977. It sounds unconvincing to me that the BJP, armed with a non-existing ‘Modi wave’ in Bengal as of 2016 assembly elections, could mould the narrative on its side within a few months after that. It should also be remembered that, while in many other states the BJP was still in the mode of 2014 general elections, where it used the veneer of development, in Bengal they began the election spree with an aggressive Hindutva campaign and for the first time reached the provincial assembly in 2014 by-elections. The Basirhat south constituency, from where the BJP had won for the first time, has a significant number of immigrants from Bangladesh and the party relied just on a vile polarisation.

Political theorists, even those without inhibition for progressive politics, have mostly endeavoured to discuss this in the lights of Machiavellian politics or ‘politics as a fortune minus foundation’, against any concrete historical analysis. In such instances, when politics becomes axiomatic to mobilisation, analysis of the ‘social’ becomes extremely myopic. To avoid that, I will make a short detour in the history of the Bengal’s political journey to understand, how the ideology of certain fascistic hues is residues of the social past, which is impossible to explain in terms of electoral pathology. [2]

Populism of the ‘Left’

Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha (Purakayastha, 2018)  in his attempt to understand the ‘communalisation of politics in West Bengal’ against the accepted ‘bhadrolok Tagorean syncretic liberalism’ throws lights on how the left’s failure to address everyday issues of identity has helped the ‘right’ to ‘hegemonise’ the sphere. Enabled by Laclauian conviction, he then suggests that the left must try to ‘hegemonise’ the political clouts, in a Gramscian sense. Or, to put it differently, the ‘left’ must task itself with postcolonial governmentality, against its stated purpose to radically transform the ‘system’, by not alluding to ‘essentialised’ identity such as ‘class’. This notion of ‘populism’, as they believe, would result in moulding the ‘social’ and constitute new subjectivities for good.[3]  At a pure polemical level, by avoiding every theoretical schism, we must confirm if the erstwhile left front has done exactly what Purakayastha suggests.

Soon after coming to power, the left front tried to implement its governmental policies with the help of bureaucracy, cadre base and local clubs. In Bengal, governance reached ‘inside’ every household only by joining together the formal and informal institutions, as anthropologist Arild E. Ruud  has portrayed in his meticulous study (Ruud, 2003). The left front, by creating a conglomeration of the salaried middle class on the one hand and middle peasantry on the other, played the populist demand of demystifying ‘class’ and thus essentially obliterating caste from public scrutiny. ‘Party society’, as Dwaipayan Bhattacharya names it, is no way different from the ‘populism’, championed by Purakaystha (Bhattacharya, 2016).

In no way that the left sought to disturb the caste and class order of Bengal in its thirty-four years rule, now stands as a serious, calculated miscalculation in front of us. In what sense than the ‘left front’ disobey the populist diktat? Its entrenchment with the constitutional mode of public mobilisation and ‘clientalist’ mode of governance delivery did not allow it to stand apart from its predecessor and quite cruelly binds it with its successor – the TMC. Sanjeeb Mukherjee rightly opines that “The Left has subverted the constitution and the state by its colonization of the state machinery and the setting up of party-led countervailing power” in rural Bengal created ‘a parallel judicial system’. (Mukherjee, 2007)

Even in terms of political violence, the ‘left front’ did no better or worse than other political parties – especially when it came to suppressing militant movements by the ‘people’. What was indeed unique in the left front’s mode of governance was that it could masterly make ‘bullets and ballots’ coexist and made impunity socially accepted! (Ranabir Samaddar, 2013).  One remembers the series of brutalities the left front government had unleashed on the workers, during agitations in Victoria jute mill, Kanuria mill etc. The CPM led unions were used vis-à-vis the state machinery against the organized workforce and deprived them of their ‘constitutionally given rights’ to protest. In the case of Lumtex jute mill, Titagarh, when the workers were fighting for gratuity and post-retirement funds since 2007, the local leaders of the ruling party and the owner of the mill plotted heinous conspiracies to book workers under non-bailable charges like murder and armed acts. Even after High Court granted bails, the workers were denied their job.

This, in my opinion, stem from the left’s unabashed compromise with semi-feudal and neoliberal model of development at the same time. There are ample studies on the much-acclaimed panchayat system. Indeed a feather in left’s tiara, maintained the caste order in place, by not allowing the ‘chotoloks’ to rise on the top. (Ruud, 2003, Davis, 1983, Roy, 2013) The dubiousness of ‘bhadrolok’ order, unlike the caste system prevalent in most parts of the country, is not a closed congregation and does not unleash brutality on the depressed sections, but maintains other similar traits of casteism to impede upward social mobility.  Moreover, through the panchayat system, the left did an extreme parochialisation of politics against ‘universalism’, the basic tenet of left politics.

On the other hand, land reform, which the left front claims as a success, reached its stagnancy from the mid-1980s, in some cases resulted in counter land reform, with the accumulation of land in the hands of an absentee zamindar. It was evident during the time of Singur agitation in 2007 (Roy, 2007). It was not quite startling that Tarun Ghosh, a CPIM leader and ex-panchayat pradhan lent his acres of land to host a public meeting of BJP head Amit Shah in January this year.

It must be reiterated that the left front had no intention to change any public narrative in the past; neither did it suppress religious expressions to the level that it could burst out as communal disharmony. In an ensconced space, the left front made an army of the middle class to win elections, indeed contrary to the present TMC regime’s dangerous fire-play with religious symbols, which at times appears as competitive communalism with the RSS. But this does not corroborate the conclusion of political commentators in any way – ‘left’s failure to address issues of identity helped the surge of BJP in West Bengal’. To substantiate my point, I shall end my article with two conflicting articles of political theorist Ranabir Samaddar, written within a span of a few months. After Mamata Banerjee swept the assembly election in 2016, Samaddar hailed it as a ‘subaltern upsurge’ against Bhadrolok’s coup to come back to power through a left- congress alliance (Samaddar, 2016). A few months later, when the BJP began its aggressive campaigns such as rallies with a sword on Ram Navami– completely alien to Bengal, Samaddar proclaimed that “development policies and populist measures alone cannot cope with the challenges of contentious politics” (Samaddar, 2017). If the subaltern did make an upsurge and if it was really manifested with TMC’s sweeping of election, how then saffron becomes so visible in Bengal’s public space?

Conclusion

The local clubs of Bengal, which were once the hub of ‘cultural activities’ and tool of disbursing political influence, empowered further by Mamata Banerjee’s patronage, ran the jingoist show in Bengal in the aftermath of Pulwama attack in March. Without turning some pages of history, to see if certain ‘sedimented’ practices existed in the past and if the RSS-BJP ‘reactivated’ them, the pundits have been busy with looking for a probable answer in ‘political’ sphere only.

In this article I have tried to analyse how, against accepted beliefs of some political theorists, the rise of RSS-BJP in Bengal does not owe its roots to the failure of left’s address to popular strategies, rather, it is precisely the left’s turn to the populism that has created a political vacuum. In my next article then, I seek to analyse the competing narratives in history to understand the process of ‘reactivation’ of a communal narrative.

Endnotes: 

 [1] Bengali society is divided into two broad hierarchical groups: ‘Bhadroloks’ and ‘Chotoloks’. The term Bhadralok, as Surajit Sinha and Ranjit Bhattacharya, explain, “came in usage in Bengali society around the beginning of the nineteenth century as a Sanskritised synonym of the English term 'gentleman'.” The inclusion of an individual in this class remains largely on his social rank; anybody who seeks upward mobility by improving their rank was accepted in this not so rigid group. Chotolok or choto jat, on the other hand, has a direct connotation of varna order of Hindu society which refers to people of low origin/ caste. For a detailed discussion, see “Bhadralok and Chotolok in a Rural area of West Bengal” by Sinha and Bhattacharya, https://doi.org/10.1177/0038022919690104.

[2] Abiding by the concept of a public sphere, as enunciated by philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1996, p. 28), “[it] works with the higher level of inter-subjectivity of the communication process that flows through both the parliamentary bodies and the informal networks of a public sphere.” At the onset, this definition of public sphere transcends the institutionalised political sphere and welcomes the voluntary access of civil and market bodies, although some theorists in the past have contended Habermas’s reliance on ‘rational hypothesis’.

[3] Refer to ‘Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory’, 2007  by Jason Glynos and David Howarth for a detailed discussion on the concept of ‘Social’ and ‘Political’, where they explain  how the ‘political’ constitute the ‘social’, first propounded by Laclau and Mouffe.

Bibliography

Bhattacharya, D (2016). Government as practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India. Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, J (1996). Three Normative Models of Democracy, in Seyla Benhabib, Eugene    Meyer (ed.) Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mukherkee, S (2007). The Use and Abuse of Democracy in West Bengal.  Economic and Political Weekly. 42( 44).  

Purakayastha, A.S (2018). Communalisation of Politics in West Bengal: religion and the Public Sphere. Economy and Political Weekly, LIII(16), 12- 15.

Ruud, A.E (2003). Poetics of Village Politics: The Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Samaddar, R. (2013) Passive Revolution in West Bengal. New Delhi: Sage Publications. 

                      (2016, May 20). Poison, nectar and a churning. Indian Express.

                      (2017, July 20). TMC spread thin. Indian Express

Image credit: The Wire

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Written By Sagnik Banerjee

Assistant Editor

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