Failing the shibboleth test
Dipankar Gupta | 07 May, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
SOMETHING AS CLOSE to a slip of the tongue can make all the difference! The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has run through many brick walls to get where it has today, but in the 2021 West Bengal election it made an unforced error that cost them the match.
BJP fluffed the script the moment its leaders, with a non-Bengali inflexion, pronounced key campaign words like “khela hobey”, “khela shesh”, “ashol paribartan” or “poddyo” (for padma, the flower). The way these terms and phrases were said rankled with many Bengalis, some of whom may have been otherwise quite receptive to anti-Mamata rhetoric. This is why a little more attention to detail, a little more homework, a little more practice at the nets and BJP leaders may not have appeared so obviously as ‘outsiders’.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the word ‘shibboleth’ performed a similar function in separating outsiders from insiders, way back in history. Hoping to cross River Jordan to freedom, the fleeing Ephraimites were accosted by the victorious Gileadites and challenged to pronounce ‘shibboleth’. The way they said it easily identified them as Ephraimites allowing the Gileadite to mark them out as aliens and punish them. ‘Khela hobey’ functioned as the new ‘shibboleth’ because the way it was repeatedly pronounced by BJP leaders from the Centre, effectively marked them out as ‘outsiders’ in the recent West Bengal election.
Trinamool Congress (TMC) leveraged this aspect to its advantage because BJP leaders played into it, and gave Mamata a home court advantage. Mispronunciations may not have mattered if BJP had sent out ambassadors of goodwill, for then the very act of trying to speak another language would have appeared gracious. But as BJP came in full strength from Delhi to win votes from Bengalis, claiming to be one of them, their mispronunciations made them appear inauthentic across diverse classes. This sentiment, incidentally, was not limited to the Kolkata elite, as the election results show.
Added to the list of mispronunciations by the central BJP leaders is the frequent use of terms like ‘pracharak’, ‘pramukh’, and ‘chhapan inch chaati’ which are foreign too. These are not terms that Bengalis use, though they are commonly employed among the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the rest of the country. Also, in Bengal, a 56-inch chest does not metaphorically signal a strong willed heart, and, if taken literally, would be confusing to many. If instead BJP had used the phrases ‘buuker pata’ or ‘buuk phulye’ then that would have been more appropriate, more Bengali and sent out the right message.
BJP fluffed the script the moment its leaders, with a non-Bengali inflexion, pronounced key campaign words like ‘Khela Hobey’, ‘Khela Shesh’, ‘Ashol Paribartan’ or ‘Poddyo’. The way these were said rankled with many Bengalis, some of whom may have been otherwise quite receptive to anti-Mamata rhetoric
All of this should also be seen in the context of the emerging concern over the purity of Bengali language that has grown in recent years. Social media is full of discussions on how Bengali needs to be cleansed of the many Hindi intrusions and these discussions often take a satirical turn. This is particularly so among young members of the Bengali middle class, and their numbers are growing, not just limited to Kolkata. For example, the way Bengalis are beginning to use the phrase ‘kano ki’ is mocked by them because it is a literal translation of the Hindi, ‘kyon ki’. Or when they say ‘mainey’ when they mean ‘maaney’, because the former stands for ‘salary’ and the latter for ‘meaning’ in Bengali.
Imagine a Britisher or German winning elections in France and pronouncing the simplest of everyday French words incorrectly. No matter how strongly that person may proclaim his or her partisanship with French culture and people, such an individual would be seen as an alien, worse, a pretender. The term ‘perfidious Albion’ has very French roots and has been around since the 17th Century in the Continent.
In France, again, in recent years, there has been some worry among intellectuals that English words like ‘vacation’, ‘brunch’ and ‘weekend’, for example, were creeping in. The Germans are not equally obsessive about keeping English or French words out. As for the English, it is well known, their language thrives because it borrows promiscuously from everywhere, even from distant India.
Bengalis, in this respect, are more like the French, or, should we say that the French are more like the Bengalis, to get our anti-colonialism right. There are many Bengali ‘bhadraloks’ who are inclined towards Hindu activism but would balk if their language is used incorrectly by other Hindu activists speaking in their name. Also, the general secular trait among ‘bhadraloks’ inhibits the Hindu partisans among them from going full throttle on sectarian activism the way their compatriots outside Bengal can.
This is for fear of being excluded from the adoration meetings of Tagore, Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray, even Soumitra Chatterjee; heroes to whom they are also committed. Remember, Bengal has no medieval hero; no Shivaji, no Rana Pratap, not even an early modern figure like the Rani of Jhansi. No Bengal hero is immortalised astride a horse, wielding a sword. If anything, they have a pen in hand.
This being said, it would still be incorrect to conclude that BJP has been dealt a mortal blow by TMC. Such a verdict would be as premature as claiming there would not be a second Covid wave. We should remember that the term ‘Hindutva’, with all its modern connotations, was first used in 19th century Bengal by Tarinicharan Chattopadhyay.
Or, Rajnarain Bose, who founded Bengal’s Nationalist Promotion Society, again in the 19th century. Then there was Bankim, of course. His ‘Bande Mataram’ and his novel Ananda Math have inspired Hindu activists and nationalist militants for generations. The difference, as should clear by now, is that these aspects of Hindu assertions in Bengal were all made by authentic Bengalis.
THE 2021 ELECTORAL defeat of BJP is a clear example of how to lose a culture war. In this journal, almost three years ago, I had argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had won a culture war in the 2019 General Election. At that time, he pitted the ‘naamdaar’ against the ‘kaamdaar’ and the appeal was instantaneous and widespread. It was a perfect fit because Rahul and family were so obviously ‘naamdaars’ that Modi’s claim to ‘kaamdaar’ status needed no persuasion. Modi practically won that culture war even before it properly started.
That this culture war clicked as well as it did for BJP was primarily because India was no longer a patronage-based feudal society. It was now an aspiring middle-class one, but where many wannabes were routinely falling off the table and failing to achieve. This growing category of people found the ‘naamdaar’ versus ‘kaamdaar’ binary perfect for it spoke to their frustrations. They were not against wealth but against those in the present wealthy set for cornering all the status privileges and opportunities. In their imaginations, Modi had sounded the bugle to storm and ram the gates and they were ready to man that juggernaut.
Mamata, however, was not a ‘naamdaar’, by any stretch of imagination, which is why displacing her required a different strategy. That much was clear. Where BJP went wrong was in underestimating the power of language in a culture war. It should have left local culture-bearers to wave its flag, dig into trenches and fire away in the language of the region. For example, time and again, BJP leaders greeted the crowd with ‘Vandey Mataram’, but they overlooked the fact that in Bengal it is ‘Bandey Mataram’. One must remember that this song was originally composed by a Bengali. In a song, it is not just the tune, but the words which matter as well; perhaps more.
Narendra Modi had won a culture war in the 2019 General Election. He had pitted the ‘naamdaar’ against the ‘kaamdaar’ and the appeal was instantaneous. He did not have to battle the kind of ‘shibboleths’ he and his workers had to face in West Bengal
In Hindi-speaking regions, Hindu consolidation was easy for BJP as it had local spokespeople and Modi’s presence was not, in any way, a cultural affront. Modi’s grasp of the Hindi language is perfect and it is also true that most Hindi savants are not easily offended if some Hindi words are incorrectly pronounced. After all, there is a wide regional variation in classical Hindi texts which makes it more tolerant of deviations. In that sense, Hindi is clearly quite dissimilar to the linguistic uniformity in High Modern Bengali literature.
When BJP toppled the Samajwadi Party in the last Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh (UP), I had argued that Modi had his sociology right. He knew that the calculus of caste is a mathematical game that has outlived its utility because every caste now had its own literati and cultural virtuosos. In feudal times, one had to plea before a Rajput, Bhumihar or Thakur for favours. Later, a poor petitioner went to the leading Jat or Yadav for help in getting children to school or to negotiate with the police thanedar. Now every caste, from Malaha to Musaar to Noniya to Harijan and Valmiki, has its own band of gifted intellectuals and people with connections.
There is greater status and cultural pride embedded in each caste today than was the case even till the early 1980s. The reason west UP was once considered a Jat stronghold was not because of numerical domination but rather because Jats were best endowed in terms of scarce social resources. They had the connections, they were the most literate in the village and they were in politics. Likewise Yadavs in, say, Madhepura, had a similar profile and that is why they were unbeatable for long in several constituencies. This is no longer true, for no single caste, even in UP or Bihar, has that kind of near monopolistic cultural sway.
In my view, and I said as much earlier, Narendra Modi read this situation right. He moved away from pampering a few flower pots nursed by Akhilesh and Mayawati and opted instead to tend to the vast fields outside. In this quest he did not have to battle the kind of ‘shibboleths’ he and his workers had to face in West Bengal. Hindi intellectuals found no fault with Modi, and Hindi intellectuals were, anyway, more forgiving, as we argued earlier. Also, other parts of the country had many ancient heroes on horseback.
Even though this 2021 culture war in West Bengal has not gone BJP’s way, it is not as if BJP is a vanquished power in that state. We know there are strong reserves of Hindu sectarian beliefs in West Bengal. There are many Partition stories, too, in that region and though the real Partition victims are now long gone, their stories linger and have grown to mythical proportions with time.
There are many ‘ifs’. the biggest ‘if’ of them all is whether the outcome would have been different if a proper Bengali, with the correct linguistic credentials had led BJP troops into the breach. What ‘if’ Suvendu Adhikari led the march? Why not Babul Supriyo? or even Swapan Dasgupta? or anybody else? if only Sourav Ganguly had joined?
We must not forget that refugees from what was once East Pakistan did not get a coherent response from the government as the refugees from West Punjab did. Many Bengalis nurse this grievance to this day and this is another reason why Delhi has been suspect in the eyes of the Bengali ‘bhadralok’. Years back, Ashok Mitra had even criticised the Centre for favouring the northern regions when it came to sponsoring the Green Revolution reforms and he won points for that.
The feeling that West Bengal has always been uncared for and neglected by the Centre and its representatives is so strong that a battle for this state cannot be won by generals from outside. It has to be led by sons and daughters of the soil. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is the perfect embodiment of such a person. He was denied his rightful place in Delhi by a cabal and if the game was played fairly, many Bengalis believe, Bose should have been at the helm in 1947. That this did not happen is a clear indication of bias against Bengal.
Regardless of this kind of wishful thinking, political leaders of all stripes in West Bengal were careful not to give the impression that they were going to let outsiders rule the state. This is as true of the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) as it is of TMC and even the Bengal wing of the old Congress. West Bengal’s imagery of the ‘perfidious Centre’ acts as the perfect counterpart of the ‘perfidious Albion’ in France.
There are many ‘ifs’ when analysing this election. The biggest ‘if’ of them all is whether the outcome would have been different if a proper Bengali, with the correct linguistic credentials had led BJP troops into the breach. In fact, Dilip Ghosh, West Bengal BJP chief, candidly hinted at that in his post-election comment. What ‘if’ Suvendu Adhikari led the march? Why not Babul Supriyo? Or even Swapan Dasgupta? Or anybody else? If only Sourav Ganguly had joined?
Dilip Ghosh is the BJP high command’s favourite, but in West Bengal his linguistic abilities are somewhat suspect. Also, it is widely perceived, that his Hindi is superior to his spoken Bengali and this is not a comfort factor for many who are sitting on the fence. His political repertoire also draws heavily from BJP’s Hindi armoury than from Bengali Hindu activists.
To frequently exhort people by invoking “Bharat Mata ki jai” when it is West Bengal one is fighting for seems quite misplaced. As it is a stretch to accuse TMC of being anti-India, “Joy Bangla” would probably have been more apposite. Then, there was a gross miscalculation with the plaintive “Didi o Didi” cry which acted like another log in the fire.
IT IS TRUE that the Ganges flows through West Bengal and there are many religious sites, from Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math to ISKCON Chandradoya Temple, in this state. If one includes River Hooghly, which is, after all, a distributary of the Ganges, then one can add two more religious temples, namely, Belur Math and Tarakeshwar Mandir. So, from Krishna worshippers of diverse vintages to Ramakrishna devotees, the Ganges is prominent in Bengali consciousness.
The term ‘Hindutva’ was first used in 19th century Bengal. Then there was Bankim. These Hindu assertions in Bengal were all made by authentic Bengalis. A battle for this state cannot be won by generals from outside. It has to be led by sons and daughters of the soil
Yet, just because the Ganges flows through West Bengal, the problems endemic to the Gangetic Plain do not automatically drift into this state as well. Therefore, to call for “Romeo squads” in West Bengal is a turn-off as are taunts that Mamata wear Bermuda shorts to expose her legs. Bengali women are far more assertive than women in many other Indian states and this aspect is widely represented in Bengali art and literature, from Tagore to Ray.
All said and done, BJP’s loss in West Bengal is a defeat on points but not by a knockout. True, Mamata will be hard to dislodge, just as Jayalalithaa was in Tamil Nadu, for both are closely identified with the successful welfare schemes they launched in their respective states. TMC can chalk up as its wins with programmes like Khadyosathi that provides rice at subsidised rates to over 90 per cent of the state’s population. The other major TMC initiative, Gitanjali, has also been remarkably successful for it has given more than 290,000 families a roof over their heads. Even so, people’s memories are not long forever and it is not as if anti-incumbency and complacency are hard to come by.
As an ideology, Hindutva is not vanquished; it just needs a different vessel for its transmission and delivery. The one chosen in 2021 was not suited for the purpose because it was devised from afar and not from within. This is why BJP failed the ‘shibboleth’ test and came out of this election as a distant second. The longstanding suspicion of Delhi is not one that can be easily dislodged in West Bengal; therefore, to defeat a homegrown formation like Trinamool, BJP will have to call upon a homegrown Hindutva.
BJP at the Centre can present its Bengal wing with a fishing rod but should let the locals catch the fish.