West Bengal polls: How religio-cultural matrix, shrinking party identity mark return of organisation-based politics in state

Suman Nath
·5-min read

As West Bengal is undergoing a decisive election that will set the future of the secular-democratic fabric of the state, scholars, and journalists across the spectrum are attempting to make sense of the rise of the Hindutva-BJP brigade. Some of the buzzwords that keep on repeating throughout the content are party society, Hindutva, Jamaat, etc.

In the public sphere, the buzzwords are rather derogatory and even personal at times. References to Mumtaz Begum, Philip Mosh, plastered foot, Bermuda pant, Khela Hobe and Rogre debo defy decorum in their usage which is essentially an attempt to sully the image of the opponent in public. As the electoral battle gradually heads towards the end, the rhetoric has only become far more uncivilized reflecting a disjunction between the highbrow elite cultural and lowbrow everyday connotations.

The political discourse has hit extreme ends with one set of vocabulary being completely elitist as found in political journals and op-eds while in contrast, the language used during political debates on television and campaign rallies has become thoroughly derogatory. Such strong bi-polar narratives perhaps make us forget the issue of organisation building as an important factor that underlies much of the political performance of the parties contesting this year.

BJP's rise and the Left's attempt to popularise their social services during the pandemic show that organisation-based politics is once again back in the practices of the political parties jostling for space in the state.

After 2011 when the CPM-led Left Front was defeated, Trinamool Congress (TMC) ensured that the massive party organisation of the Left gets dismantled. Much of what was termed as party society by Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya in 2009 in the Economic and Political Weekly article entitled Of Control and Faction: The Changing Party Society in Rural West Bengal depended on the three-tier party organisation of the Left.

It started with the booth committee, went on through local committee to branch committee. Each of the decisions at the grassroots was supposed to be channelised through this party organisation. Scholars have theorised this mechanism with concepts such as deepening democracy or even direct democracy.

My ethnographic experiences on the last decade of Left rule showed that the multi-tier organisation mechanism was (or at least became) an effective mechanism of exercising control over the people, panchayats and municipalities. TMC dismantled such organisations in two ways a) by using the logistics of the Left Front like by capturing their party offices, and b) by giving decision-making power to a handful of local people with networks and party affiliations.

In many places of rural Bengal, they were the former Congress workers having economic resources. TMC needed an alternative to the party organisation to legitimise their decisions. In my 2018 EPW article entitled Cultural Misrecognition and Sustenance of Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, I theorised 'cultural misrecognition'.

The use of festivals, fairs, both religious and non-religious ones, bringing popular celebrities from the sliver-screen to the politics was TMC's masterstrokes if one sees the extent to which it could penetrate in their second term in 2016. This also created a breeding ground of identity politics. Initially, it was a slow process, but it sped up with the rise of the BJP at the Centre in 2014.

It took only a couple of years that primordial identity-based organisations replaced the party identity issue. This is a tectonic shift if one compares the three and half decade of Left rule with a decade-long TMC rule. Now what Bengal has is the proliferation of organisations, all are identity-based and working in harmony with their political allies, most conspicuously the BJP.

At places like Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur RSS allied organisations like Vanbasi Kalyan Ashram, Vanbandhu Parishad, Akal Vidyala are successfully tapping a wide range of people crosscutting ethnic and political boundaries to attend evening prayers in the nearby Bajrangbali temples or take up the saffron flag for religious-cultural festivals like Janmasthami or a politico-cultural rally like Ram Navami.

Similarly, in the riot-affected jute-industrial belt one can easily mark the pro-Hindutva regions with the conspicuous presence of saffron flags installed by the Bajrang dal or Durga Shakti, both RSS affiliated organisations. These flags during the election get easily replaced by the BJP's lotuses.

The organisational vacuum which was compensated by using local strongmen and traditional cultural apparatuses by the TMC had at least two major consequences a) it helped BJP to make inroads both by tapping the communal and cultural apparatuses b) it gave rise to party-affiliated middlemen who worked as the mediator between government-sponsored benefits and the beneficiaries through a corrupt form of exchange.

It is observed that over the years as TMC put more emphasis on the administrative wing of the local governance institutions, and relied on a handful of powerful local elites for continuing the political control, corruption at the grassroots became manifold.

In an article titled Everyday Politics and Corruption in West Bengal in Economic and Political Weekly in 2017, I argued that such petty corruptions were 'disciplined' and accepted among the people who saw it as a necessary evil to get things done.

In fact, I met many who happily paid the 'cut money' -€" the bribe to get things done, as earlier during the LF regime things used to take a lot of time to get sanctioned by the party machinery. This particular feature became uncontrolled in TMC's second term and allegedly infiltrated even in the recruitments of school teachers or the like. Fearing the detrimental impact of the new class of middlemen on the rural public sphere TMC's approach towards the 2018 panchayat election was of the panic-stricken release of indiscriminate violence.

It only furthered the people's alienation as the panchayat organisations, especially the gram panchayat is never a high-profile government office but an office where both government bureaucracy and local socio-cultural spectrum interface. Clearly, there is a possibility of explaining West Bengal politics as a tectonic shift from party-organisation to identity organisation hyphenated by TMC.

The author teaches anthropology at Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Government College, New Town, and the author of People, Party, Policy Interplay in India: Microdynamics of Everyday Politics in West Bengal, c. 2008-2016 (2020, Routledge)

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