West Bengali politics is surely at a critical juncture
An analytical framework aided by the “elite theory” is a good way to understand the political developments of the post-colonial states or even the big internal units of such states. Many of the elite theory political scientists tend to divide the political eras of such state or unit with the help of the concept called “elite consensus.”
It essentially means that the leaders of powerful socio-political groups of a given time period for a given political domain have some implicit understanding about the principles and nature of the stage of political contesting. Such consensus marks the beginning of a reasonably distinct era, long or short, and the era comes to an end when the existing consensus is fundamentally or substantially changed. There were, of course, troubled transition phases between these eras.
West Bengal had such eras, with each differing from the other in terms of the variable components that defined these periods. The first one of such periods consisted of the initial post-partition and post-independence decades of Indian nationalism.
The social democratic era under the left rule was marked by land reform and long anti-capitalism and rhetoric of fervent opposition to western neo-imperialism. From the latter part of the first decade of the new millennium, started the period of populism and provincialism invoked by Mamata Banerjee.
Now, after the substantial success of the Saffron in the recent Lok Sabha election in West Bengal, the big question being frequently asked is whether the new era of communal politics has arrived in West Bengal.
Bengali Hindu is the biggest identity group in the state, consisting roughly 65% of the population. Unlike many other parts of India, caste division among the Hindus was never too serious an issue for many decades. Bengali Muslims are around 30% of the electorate.
In many occasions in India the core of the provincial parties lie in the biggest identity group or groups. In case of many other provinces, these groups are Hindu caste groups. In some cases provincials, Muslims allied with one or more such provincial Hindu caste groups under secular banners.
While the core of a provincial party like Trinamool Congress (TMC) is generally expected to be in the biggest and most powerful identity group of the province -- the Bengali Hindus, BJP’s stride for Hindu votes only has pushed Mamata to a position of doing a balancing act aimed at getting the lion’s share from both the groups, given the fact that the Congress and CPM are also claimants of Muslim votes like the TMC.
However, the Hindutva wave of 2019 election gave the BJP almost double the share of Bengali Hindu votes at 57% vis-a-vis 32% of TMC and an overall percentage of 40% which was almost a four-fold increase from the 2016 state election.
However, Mamata was just able to offset the deficiency and grab a slightly better overall share at 45% with overwhelming support from Muslims for her party. Muslim support for TMC was more than 70%. TMC also edged past BJP in seat counts. But the big news was the Saffron surge and TMC’s decline in seat numbers.
Besides the changes and puzzles in numbers and percentages, two more constants of West Bengali politics that hitherto survived all these political periods of elite consensuses have been threatened with recent trends in the political culture of the state. One such constant has been the implicit understanding on the hegemony of “Bengali Hindu” in politics and the other is the dominance of gentry or bhadrolok of politics.
Bengali Hindus have a long history of gradually losing their colonial privileges and undergoing of other sufferings due to political developments in undivided and divided Bengal. They always considered West Bengal as their own leftover domain in the subcontinent the way a big number of Bangladeshi Bengali Muslims consider Bangladesh.
Many of the West Bengali Hindus have started to believe TMC as largely the party of West Bengali Muslims despite the fact that no fundamental change has been brought in the socio-economic condition of the vast poor Muslims of the state during the TMC rule spanning a decade. Moreover, constant political violence and deterioration of political culture have resulted in both the decline and departure of educated, civilized, and cultured politicians from the arena of politics.
At this stage, two possibilities can be thought of with regards to West Bengal politics.
One is the bouncing back of Mamata, based on provincialism ie West Bengal’s interest in an all India setting. All depends on this probability -- on how tactfully the otherwise impulsive Mamata handles things in the time between now and 2021 which the year for next state election.
The other is, of course, the CPM-like decline of TMC and the Saffron conquest of West Bengal -- followed by the advent of a new Hindutva political era in West Bengal. In case of the latter coming true, the further departure of “gentry” from West Bengali politics is guaranteed, given the raw quality of BJP politics and political leadership in West Bengal.
Whatever may be the case, West Bengali politics is surely at a critical juncture. The next turn could be significant for the long-term fate of the state.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.