CONTROVERSIES AND elections are inseparable. This is more so in West Bengal which is witnessing what many in the media see as the mother of all elections—a fierce do-or-die confrontation between the doughty Mamata Banerjee and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) steamroller that has, in the past eight years, flattened formidable opponents.
Most elections are fought on political issues, such as the record of the incumbent and the promises made by the challenger. These are no doubt the paramount issues in this eastern state where, since 1977 at least, there has been no convergence of political affiliations between the Centre and the state. To add to this quirkiness, this election is witnessing a parallel drama—a culture war that is centred on the question of which party is a better Bengali and whether the heritage of West Bengal can be better safeguarded by a regional party or a national force. This parallel battle has given the West Bengal election an added zing.
To believe that the issue of Bengal’s heritage and identity has occupied centrestage because Bengalis are by nature different is only partially true. Like most issues in any election, the culture wars have also been triggered by strong electoral calculations.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) suffered a big jolt when BJP surprised the country by winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. The data suggested that the BJP success owed almost entirely to its success in securing anything between 58 and 60 per cent of the Hindu vote. Mamata was successful in securing nearly 80 per cent support of the Muslim voters who constitute some 27 per cent of the state’s electorate.
In the forthcoming state Assembly election, TMC is attempting a bigger consolidation of Muslim votes while BJP is banking on a bigger consolidation of Hindu votes. However, in a first-past-the-post system, there is also an obvious benefit in dividing the votes of the opponents. BJP is hoping that a chunk of Muslim votes will be eaten away by a local Muslim challenger that is planning to team up with Congress and the Left Front. For her part, Mamata is equally intent on preventing a Hindu consolidation that is bound to make life very difficult for TMC. To prevent a Hindu bloc from emerging, TMC has initiated the culture wars aimed at creating a divide between Bengali Hindus and Hindi-speaking Hindus who make up a significant chunk of the state’s electors. A major division in Hindu votes is bound to scuttle BJP’s chances of taking control of Kolkata.
The electoral calculations behind the culture wars can be understood dispassionately. Unfortunately, its success or failure depends on whether emotion and passion can prevail over rational calculations. How the culture wars translate on the ground is all important.
What I have found interesting is the contrived way in which parties have chosen to attack each other—aided and significantly abetted by a local media in whose vocabulary the terms neutrality and detachment are absent. Mamata has got a head start with nearly all the major Bangla dailies and TV channels backing her enthusiastically. Whether an overdose of state government advertisements has anything to do with this belief that Mamata is the goddess is a matter of conjecture. But certainly, there are grounds for believing that the lip service to the glorious heritage of Bengal and fulminations against the alienness of Jai Sri Ram constitute aspects of the larger advertising package of the state government.
In any event, all is fair in love, war and politics. What is perhaps not acceptable is the dissemination of a claim that not only do non-Bengali speakers have no claim on the heritage of West Bengal, but that only those Bengalis supportive of TMC have an exclusive claim on the glory of Bengali culture.
Two small—and patently ridiculous—controversies highlight the phenomenon. First, there was a storm in a teacup over whether or not Home Minister Amit Shah had desecrated the culture of Bengal and destroyed the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore by sitting on what was claimed to be Gurudev’s chair. It was a nonsensical claim that was quite successfully demolished by Shah in Parliament with photographs to show the absurdity of the claims. Second, a TMC politician, backed by important members of the ‘secularist’ intelligentsia, made the claim that a portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by the artist Paresh Maity hung in Rashtrapati Bhavan, was actually that of the actor Prosenjit who had played the role of Netaji in a movie. This too turned out to be a preposterous claim.