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Dhaka Tribune

SUBCONTINENTAL DRIFT

Bengal, India, and the ‘mastanocracy’ doctrine

Hooliganism in politics is as old as politics itself

Update : 24 Jul 2023, 02:02 PM

As the silly season of electoral politics in India cranks up in preparation of parliamentary elections to be held by May 2024, collateral outcomes will be felt across South Asia. No country will feel it more acutely than Bangladesh, with which India shares more than 4,000km of borders, the lengthiest in the region.

The lynchpins of this electoral distress will be West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, the three states of India with which Bangladesh shares significant borders. Two more states, Meghalaya and Mizoram too share significant borders with Bangladesh but here, electoral collateral will be relatively limited.

West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura remain firmly in the sights of India's Hindu majoritarian politics, the face of which is the BJP, and the ideological spine the RSS. Assam is an established laboratory of such politics. West Bengal is an active work-in-regress laboratory. Tripura remains a halfway house, pandering to the Bengali Hindu majority and, yet, maintaining practical relations with Bangladesh with an eye to alleviate its remote location.

These states are integral parts of the BJP's approach of an anything-goes “total politics” which uses religion, rhetoric, misinformation, and disinformation and, when possible, institutionalized repression, as tools to effect a re-engineered democracy. This approach will likely persist despite the BJP's staggering loss in state elections this past May in Karnataka -- a state that predates Assam as a BJP-RSS laboratory. And, despite the ongoing horrific mess in Manipur, another BJP-RSS bastion, where its policies are now amply demonstrated, from the perspective of both governance and security, as a shambles.

The key focus, as far as Bangladesh is concerned, will remain West Bengal, India's largest Bengali-desh -- with Tripura and Assam following. In West Bengal there is an additional factor: Structured “mastanocracy.”

The war for political supremacy in West Bengal has for long utilised violence as a way of life and livelihood. It was most recently observed during panchayat elections in West Bengal earlier this month, in which BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress Party literally went head-to-head, and in which Trinamool emerged as runaway winners. Violence, bloodletting, even killings, remains the guiding script of this mastanocracy.

By most accounts, mastanocracy became set in stone during the second United Front government, a coalition of major and minor left-wing parties between February 1969 and July 1970. Political masters began to use goons (mastans) as a means towards an end. From then till 1972, which included a short-lived Congress government and President's rule, it was as if the bhadralok had finally come of age as the Borgias.

Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, leader Jyoti Basu cut his leadership teeth during that period, which also included as a violent sideshow the burgeoning “Naxalbari” movement. The Congress took on left and ultra-left forces in a similar fashion. Mastans matured as political factors during the Congress rule of 1972-77.

The chronicler Sajal Basu wrote colourfully of it in one of his studies on the violence of those years: “Political dependence on these rowdy cadres has precipitated a situation of Mastanocracy.

The mastan moved steadily from pawn to power broker in what he termed the chessboard of politics.

Some say mastanocracy truly evolved during the reign of Jyoti Basu that began in June 1977 at the head of a CPM-led Left Front coalition. He demitted office in November 2000, leaving behind a de-industrialized, economically chaotic wasteland that pushed several generations of West Bengal's vast professional talent pool to seek work and life elsewhere in India and overseas (equally, he oversaw a massive land reform exercise, an act that earned his party -- and his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee -- a political base that altogether lasted more than three decades).

That creaky applecart was upset by Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool. A year before her party stormed to power by winning assembly elections in 2011, I had written that Trinamool would be as brutal in maintaining a hold as the Communists had been since 1977. Alongside leveraging incumbency, Trinamool diligently hijacked the CPM's processes and grassroots base.

In 2016, Trinamool won West Bengal's assembly elections by a landslide, with the Left-opposition in disarray. The BJP's play was still mild. The rhetoric and aggressive displays by radicalized Hindu grassroots organizations that typically prepare the ground for political upsurge was only just visible.

These activities became more visible in 2017. The BJP began to merge its peculiar hate-and-hubris playbook with Bengal's mastanocracy playbook. Local BJP-RSS leaders in West Bengal began to spew extremist talk.

In March 2018, I was present during a Hindu ultra-right rally in Chandannagar, a former French colony upriver from Kolkata. A large and boisterous Ram Navami procession -- then rare in West Bengal -- was choreographed with religious and ultra-nationalist slogans in Hindi (also rare in West Bengal) with several hundred sword- and machete-wielding Bengali youngsters.

The approach quickly moved centre stage.

BJP's president at the time, Amit Shah, in a speech in Malda in January 2019 presaged a continuation of mastanocracy as a part of ratcheting up rhetoric for parliamentary elections that summer for a Trinamool vs BJP shoot out.

In his speech Shah flagged emotional touchpoints among the state's Hindu population, alluding to how cows wouldn't be smuggled into Bangladesh from West Bengal were the BJP to come to power. How Hindu refugees would receive citizenship. Cross-border infiltration of Bangladeshis would stop. Payoffs to political-business syndicates would end. And so on.

Riding national rhetoric on local polemics, the BJP blitzed 18 of the state's 42 parliamentary seats when results were declared in May 2019, a gain from the mere 2 seats it had won in 2014. Trinamool was just ahead with 22, down 12 seats from the previous elections.

BJP pinned this momentum to its next mission, the state assembly elections.

In October 2019, Shah, now India's home minister, addressed a showy gathering in Kolkata's Netaji Indoor Stadium. He highlighted a new rabble-rousing angle: a promise to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, designed to permit non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan the opportunity for naturalization by reducing residency requirements.

The BJP-RSS target? Raise its tally in West Bengal's assembly from three seats in 2016 to give Trinamool, which won 211 of the 295 seats, a run for its mastanocracy.

The BJP won 77 seats in the assembly elections of 2021, almost entirely at the cost of the Communists and Congress, who were decimated. Trinamool slightly increased its tally.

Now, with a Trinamool energized by its massive win in panchayat elections this month, and the BJP with a recent run of terrible optics, are ever more ranged against each other in West Bengal. The BJP-RSS rhetoric has already begun to escalate with the parliamentary elections of May 2024 in mind.

So too in Assam, where religious binaries have for long played a part and won for the BJP supremacy in two consecutive state and parliamentary elections. That state's often vicious BJP chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, earlier this month gained further notoriety -- credibility in BJP-RSS eyes -- by claiming that vegetable prices in Guwahati had risen on account of the vendors largely being “Miya.”

Thus far majoritarian leaders in Tripura have been less strident but, in any case, triumphalism married to mastanocracy is a dangerous, easily exportable commodity.

Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Center for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He has authored several books on history, ethnography, conflict resolution, and Eastern South Asia. His most recent book is ‘The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India's Far East' (Simon and Schuster).

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