April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T S Eliot; The Waste Land (1922)
This April, things could change for Bengal, and this is unnerving its people.
In many ways, The Waste Land would aptly describe West Bengal. Industry hollowed out in the 1970’s in the face of populist and retrograde Marxist action. Intellectual ostentation has died out over the last decade and a half, as poets and directors of sullen dark art films have moved over to yield spotlight to a rude, earthy and unsavoury brashness.
Bengal is in a strange bubble of despair, a vacuum shorn of thoughts and material. Outsiders have seen the political leadership as a strange collection of rag-tag extortionists operating around the redoubtable “Didi”. They would have been surprised by the seemingly secure bond that her gifts of cycles and rubber sandals have created with her people.
Of late, however, a strange wind of change has begun to assail Bengalis. With the RSS and the BJP mounting a seemingly sudden challenge to the vacuum in political thought, seeking to replace it with their cocktail of Hindu religious fervour and nationalist passion, it is as though all of Bengal, including its ruling dispensation, is in a thrall, unable to react.
BJP’s Foray Among Bhadralok
This month of April is going to be a decisive month in this respect. Three right-wing leaders will lend their presence and intervention to the absolute cacophony unleashed by the rank and file of the Sangh Parivar in Bengal.
President of BJP Amit Shah, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani are set to storm this bastion of secularism, which has traditionally been guided by a middle class that steadfastly believed in renaissance and enlightenment principles.
In the recent past, BJP State President Dilip Ghosh has attacked Amartya Sen as a scholar for sale. Others have attacked Rabindranath Tagore as feku, and intriguingly, they have chosen to attack Bengal’s fish-eating habit, of all things. Clearly, the tactic is to discredit the “Bhadralok”, whose essential decency has been the hallmark of leadership in Bengal.
The effort is to change the paradigm of language, iconography, and even the dietary affiliation of the masses. There is a greater use of Hindi in slogans and flex banners that celebrated Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.
A professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute commented on a Facebook post that he was intrigued by flex banners carrying the BJP insignia wishing everyone a Happy Bengali New Year in chaste Hindi.
The idea is to push the boundaries forcibly, re-conceptualising politics in the state into a north Indian framework that never existed in this state before: of communal polarisation and strident distaste for academic and intellectual attainments.
The Sangh’s strategy has begun to visibly bloom over the past two weeks through two tactics.
First, this involved loud, aggressive celebrations of hitherto hardly-heard of Hindu festivals (Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, never celebrated by Bengalis in the past), with taunting marchers carrying swords and other weapons through Muslim areas.
Second, this has involved constant use of WhatsApp and other social media platforms to inform people about the low intensity clashes between Hindus and Muslims, in each case, calling these clashes “riots”, lighting constant flames of doubt within the masses and the middle classes on the crucial question of immigration to this border state from neighbouring Bangladesh.
BJP Stalwarts to Throng Bengal
The rising din is reflected in the results of the by-election at Kanthi (Dakshin) constituency, results for which were declared on Thursday. TMC’s Chandrima Bhattacharya has won the seat with a comfortable majority, but the surprise is that by an overwhelming margin, the second place has gone to the BJP’s Sourindra Mohan Jana. The CPI(M)’s Uttam Pradhan is a distant third, with just 10.97 percent of the votes. The BJP is starting to cement itself as the second-placed political force in West Bengal, leaving the once-mighty left way behind in their recently red bastion.
Into this fertile ground created by the shenanigans of the last few weeks come the three BJP stalwarts, Shah, Singh and Irani.
Rajnath Singh, the senior BJP leader and Home Minister, will invade Bhowanipur, the hardcore Bengali middle class constituency that swears by none other than Mamata Banerjee. He will hold rallies, speak to workers and voters at booth level, and interact with local people. This is a direct assault on Chief Minister Banerjee’s support base, and politics watchers in the state will keenly watch the three days as being of bellwether status.
Amit Shah will bring his powerful frame to bear on the state’s politics. He holds a number of levers over the ruling Trinamool Congress, not the least important of which is that some of the senior-most TMC leaders are under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation in multiple cases of financial corruption.
Already, one of the senior-most TMC parliamentarians and strategists, Sudeep Bandopadhyay, is under detention in Orissa. Officially, of course, there is no link between the CBI and the central government, but that the local populace perhaps quite legitimately believes, is not entirely the case.
Smriti Irani, textiles minister, will address mill workers. In Bengal, a majority of mill workers hail from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and they anyway form a firm BJP constituency since the Modi wave of 2014.
Will Polarisation Attempt Succeed?
The BJP surge, between state president Dilip Ghosh’s high decibel polarisation, and the three-pronged heavyweight incursion from Delhi, is perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the post-Communist political balance in Bengal, where the TMC has held supreme, despite numerous scandals, and the Congress and Left have shared (quite literally) a distant second spot. But despite that, it challenges a few other things as well.
After an April of this nature, the middle class in Bengal will no longer be able to pussyfoot with communalism. It will either have to reject such overtures in favour of traditional renaissance-cum-enlightenment principles (customised for Bengali consumption by a procession of intellectual giants through the last few centuries), or embrace wholeheartedly strange concepts of Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan.
The Hindu “masses” will have to decide whether their emotive bond with “Didi”, Chief Minister Banerjee, is as strong as ever, or whether polarisation drives them apart from the 26 percent Muslim electorate, who under any circumstances will remain unwaveringly with Banerjee and TMC.
Role of Non-Bengali Trading Class
There is one other tinderbox issue that could get settled through this month’s Sangh surge, or in the near future. This is the role of the non-Bengali Marwari/Gujarati trading class that dominates Bengal financially, but culturally has always chosen to be discreet.
If the BJP surge gathers decibel, this group will come into greater limelight than ever, and their integration into local society at that point will be tested. They did not come to the forefront during previous flash points – during the early nineties Babri-destruction-led disturbances, for example.
This time, they could be pitched headlong into open and glaring support for the Central regime.
Impact on the Left
Finally, Bengal is watching with some suspense two traditional powerhouses. The TMC, of course, is expected to react in some shape or form, because its citadel is under direct threat. The CPI(M)-led left are ideological opposite extreme of the BJP and the Sangh.
So far, over the last five years, they have preferred to focus all their opposition entirely on the TMC in state politics. This is where they may have to shrug off their lethargy on the polarisation issue, and finally return to their roots, after years in ideological wilderness. The BJP surge may just provide the post-perestroika bereft Left with something they have sorely lacked: a cause célèbre.
(The writer is a Kolkata based entrepreneur who prefers to write under a pseudonym. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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