Figure 1 Vote percentage share of different political parties in West Bengal since 2006 (Source: indiavotes.com and news paper reports)
While, the three decades of left rule was successful to install an interesting form of public transaction through ‘party society’ that undermined every other competing channel, it changed drastically in post left Bengal. There has been a surge of state sponsored festivals (both secular and religious) that permanently altered the political landscape of West Bengal once and for all. West Bengal is one of the soft targets for identity polarisation given the partition history and repeated riots and state's failure since independence to 1970s when Left Front took up the office. In my fieldwork sessions since 2006, I have been to places where Riot like situation was created during the Left’s tenure because of a) misunderstanding between the communities (e.g. a cow's leg was found in some temple, but it was carried by a bunch of jackles not by the Muslims), b) purposive attempt (to polarise) and, c) a mix of the two. These were managed effectively by the party society. Usually, a school teacher, or a govt employee would have informed the local party cadres to mitigate the tension even before it was formed. Whenever an inter-caste or inter-religious marriage took place, or for that matter any familial crisis arose, it took little time to become partisan. Booth Committee – Branch Committee – Local Committee has been champions of quick and easy fixing of a wide range of conflicts which could potentially spread and instigate further violence and counter violence. Such a mechanism of public transaction was completely wiped out by the TMC since 2011. After their landslide victory first, they assumed control over several Left Front’s party offices and then as an obvious political mechanism they sidelined the ‘party line’ of control. As an alternative to the organisation based system TMC depended on a handful of locally powerful elites. In several villages these elites are often the persons who had to give away land during the Land Reform movement and had considered the left to be their class enemy. This section had money and assumed control over a significant section of the rural youth. TMC used this mechanism and exercised control through a new form of party machinery which was unknown to the people of West Bengal. Over time, the individual dependent organisation structure started to show crippling chain of command, role confusion, area confusion and ultimately dreadful factions. When the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee depended on a significant number of film and like personalities instead of her dedicated party workers for giving tickets to the Parliamentary Elections in 2014, TMC’s inability to manage faction was clear.
As Political Society and Party Society got weathered away (as theorised by Partha Chatterjee 2004 and Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya 2009, 2016), TMC tended to depend more on the ‘cultural’ and ‘representational’ issues which Suman Nath theorised as ‘Cultural Misrecognition’. Nath (2018: 99) in Economic and Political Weekly shows that TMC “Instead of bypassing or substituting existing channels of public transactions, the TMC is inviting existing channels of public transactions to take place but within the templates provided by them.” Hence, while TMC undermined and dismantled the party society invited traditional Identity based mobilisations ranging from Shalishi Sabha to the rise of Religious festivals and religiousity. Although, with most of the TMC state level leaders’ association with Durgotsav, it is not surprising to see such an inclination towards identity-festival-TMC nexus after they assumed political control in the State Assembly.
As the party began to focus more on the festivals (one instance is the allocation of funds to the Ministry of Information and Culture from Rs. 61 Crores in 2010-2011 to Rs. 300 Crores in 206-2017), politico-identity issues began to surface from 2013 onwards. If one sees the number of riot like violence of the state it shows a steep rise from 2012 onwards (see figure 2).
Figure 2 Number of riot like conflicts in West Bengal, Source State data provided to the Parliament
2012-2013 onwards two major policy linked events happened, a) provision of a monthly allowance to the Imams and Muezzins which was considered as an instance of Muslim appeasement by the state and b) Not allowing Durgotsav procession to go during the Muharram to avoid communal clashes. Moreover, organising Durgapuja Carnival has often been seen as a balancing act from the TMC. Ram Navami rallies started to spread rapidly since 2015-2016 and became aggressive over the years. AAMRA Ek Sachetan Prayas Forum, an organisation doing serious conflict studies in West Bengal had documented and Published several reports on the detailed nature of such conflicts and how these are connected to a) religious festivals including Ram Navami, Muharram and Durgotsav, and b) hoax faceboook posts in different parts of the state.
Once, the identity faultline was opened up, BJP capitalised on it by consolidating the Majority vote including that of erstwhile Left Cadres.
From the extent of vote share it appears that the reduction in Left vote from 23% to 6% and rise in BJP from 18% to 40% is self explanatory, but it would be a gross generalisation if one makes such a streamline conclusion that Left people simply voted for the BJP. In my ethnographic works, especially in places where active identity mobilisation has taken place since 2013, I have seen the proliferation of Rashtriya Swayamshebak Sangha (RSS) led organisations like Bajrang Dal, Durga Shakti, and Hindu Samhati which has a cross party appeal. In a couple of articles published in 2019 at International Journal of Conflict and Violence (IJCV) and at the Journal of Indian Anthropological Society Suman Nath and Subhoprotim Roy Chowdhury write on the ways in which these organisations are pulling people from across the political spectrum in the name of “saving the Hindus”! There are workers belonging to TMC, Left and Congress who did not hesitate to say that party comes next to the Identity/Community. Such a divide has been percolating and tearing apart the public sphere through a variety of mechanisms that range from circulation of videos and texts via social media to tangible experiences of riots. If one observes the geographical dimension of the riots it appears that once there is a communal tension at one place, its adjacent places are affected within months. Among several instances we can imagine the recent conflicts in Naihati-hajinagar-Chandannagar and Baduria-Basirhat. While in the first instance a mix of population is notable (Nath and Roy Choudhury in IJCV article) which includes people from other north Indian states in the second instance significant minority presence is noted. As one of the TMC worker in Basirhat says “Nusrat has got votes because of her identity only, who knows her to be a party worker?... earlier it was the Didi factor, she could make anyone win, but now its Hindu-Muslim factor!”
While the popular film actress Nusrat won the Basirhat seat allegedly because of her identity, TMC lost with its veteran Dinesh Trivedi to Arjun Singh of BJP who recently left TMC. It has something to do with consolidation of Hindu votes in the region. Similarly, Assembly by-poll at places like Bhatpara is won over by BJP defeating experienced TMC leader, Sarada Scam accused Madan Mitra because of Identity polarisation.
The discursive sphere of West Bengal since 2018 had one issue in common: the disgust of the people who could not volte in the Panchayat election. Three District Panchayats in West Bengal are won over by TMC uncontested. Additionally as the Election Commission of India data shows about 34% of all the seats from different tiers are won over by the TMC uncontested. Panchayat election has been one of the bloodiest elections that the state has witnessed in recent times. West Bengal has always witnessed high poll percentage, especially in Panchayat elections. In fact in a Bengali book entitled Shreni’r Drishtite Gram Panchayat, (Panchayat, seen through the Class) written by CPIM leader Dr. Surya kanta Mishra voting percentage is shown as one of the achievements of politically conscious vibrant public sphere. Indeed, as written by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Bhaskar Chakrabarti and Suman Nath in 2010 in Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, even though there is a falling percentage of attendance to the annual Gram Sabha meetings over the years, Gram Sabha continues to occupy an important position in the Rural West Bengal. With DFID sponsored Strengthening Rural Decentralisation, during the last phase of the Left ruled West Bengal has seen special emphasis on the Gram Sabha led Annual Action Plan preparation. With the advent of TMC’s rule and onslaught of World Bank sponsored Institutional Strengthening of Gram Panchayat Programme (ISGPP) there is a parallel shrinking of space for participation in decentralised governance. Consequently, even though a number of schemes have actually catered the needs of the rural poor along with the improvement of rural connectivity and livelihoods support base, people got alienated from the Gram Panchayat. It is important to note that Gram Panchayats are not only an institution of governance, but it is an institution that entangled itself with the social fabric of rural West Bengal. For instance, a Pradhan (chef of a Gram Panchayat) is not only the office bearer but also a guardian of the region. He is called up to resolve family issues and often given a lot of respect in different ritualistic performances.
While, on the one hand the party society was dismantled, sphere for people’s participation in democratic functioning of Gram Panchayat was also reduced significantly. In a 2017 article published in Critical Asian Studies, Subhasish Ray and Mohan J Dutta show how in Junglemahal (the forested western part of the state) Gram Panchayat decisions are being implemented bypassing the elected wing of the Panchayat. They argued that this form of “hyper development” has alienated people from the development initiatives. Clearly, People’s inability to vote and stopping people from filing nomination in 2018 election have backfired.
In a 2017 Economic and Political Weekly article entitled “Everyday Politics and Corruption in West Bengal” Suman Nath showed how the corruption charges against TMC especially that of Sarada Scam and Narada bribery could not give any electoral dividend to the opposition. He further argued that people are quite habituated to become involved in the corrupt transactions in their everyday life. Starting with empanelment to employment generation schemes to getting houses, everywhere party demands money and people are usually willing to pay a certain amount if that speeds up the process. Such an everydayness of corruption made the corruption charges virtually insignificant. This scenario, however, has changed over the last few years. Allegedly, a large number of people bribed to get employment at variety of positions. News reports of such incidents made headlines every other day. While corruption charges are not new in West Bengal, last few years have seen complete open discussion of such bribery and corruptions in the public sphere. It was well known informally who were asking money for what. The chain of command was open and sometimes there were conflicts regarding the percentage share of the money among the party cadres of different layers. When, BJP came with an alternative form of corruption free governance system, it got immediate appeal to people at large.
CPIM led Left parties had a powerful trade union among the government employees. For clerks and officials it was Coordination Committee and for other people occupying relatively higher echelons had a variety of associations. Transfer to distant places happened to be the most feared punishment to anyone getting involved in anything which party doesn’t approve. There were competing associations belonging to non-left parties, but they were weak and hardly had any command over how does the government function or make the decisions. Since 2011 these associations were dismantled through a variety of mechanisms and slowly administrative wing took over the welfare issues of the workers. While, it helped bringing back the much needed “work culture” of the offices, a large sections of the employees disheartened to see the rights to protest and participate in strikes were dealt with stringent action. A government employee for last few years is supposed to come not only on the day a strike is called but also the day before and the day after. Additionally, there are grievances related to significant difference in Dearness Allowance and delay in implementation of the Pay Commission benefits. It is said that based on the calculation of postal ballot which is issued mostly to the government employees who were involved in election, BJP wins about 39 out of 42 sits in West Bengal.
In my ethnographic works in different government offices it is found that there is an ambiance of fear among the employees everywhere primarily because of two reasons. First, the stringent action taken against those failed to appear on the days strikes are called. Second, public image of the government employee has been affected by statements made against such employees by several political leaders. In consequence, there is an ambiance of fear of becoming subjected to public and media trial which is anything but a biased and often with heinous consequences. Government employees are not isolated from the society, rather they are important nodes to the web of society. Their disgust had dreadful consequences to TMC’s vote share and perhaps gave confidence to the BJP.
It might sound unreal to people who know the political landscape of West Bengal if I say BJP has its organisation strength in West Bengal. However, throughout my fieldwork in different districts of West Bengal I have encountered BJP’s organisation in a variety of names. It includes pro-Hindu new organisations like Hindu Samhati, Durga Shakti and Bajrang Dal long with several existing temple, sacred grove based local organisations which get funding from Viswa Hindu Parishad and RSS. Apart from these, several places like North and South 24 Parganas, Hoogly, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Purba Medinipur, Paschim Bardhaman BJP in the name of BJP has earned popularity. There were already existing workers who earned confidence with regular visits by central leaderships and state level leaderships. There happens to be a silent movement “Meri booth sabse Majboot” (my booth is the strongest) among the BJP players. In several rural places in addition to identity polarisation and statement like “Hindus are in danger” they also popularised the notions that people need jobs and self reliance. They also campaigned based on the Panchayat level corruption and lack of democratic practices at the Panchayat. I remember before the election in several places there were saffron flags along with BJP flag hoisted in the paddy fields – something symbolically state the extent of political percolation in rural sphere.
With the rise of BJP’s popularity and cadre base, TMC local leaders in many places panicked. They panicked primarily because of the relatively chaotic organisation and confusing chain of command within their party network. Additionally, allegedly there was a huge fund flow along the line of establishing political control. During poll two BJP workers were arrested carrying one crore of rupees in a railway station which is symptomatic to the nature of illegal money flow during the election.
I have encountered several Left Front supporters and cadres in rural West Bengal who took help from the BJP cadres to come back to their villages and to fight against the alleged false cases registered against them by TMC. These are localised and extremely significant findings to actually show the reasons behind the left’s support to BJP. Additionally, a simple calculation of enemy’s enemy is a friend has been playing a background score. In this situation in addition to the identity issue and Hindu vote accumulation, Left’s vote consolidation under BJP’s banner is nothing but natural and instinctive.
TMC has a practice of nominating people with little known political career behind them. These are the popular faces from the silver screen who managed to win in 2014 election but many of them failed to do so in 2019. As already discussed it was a master stroke of TMC supreme to deal with the internal and factional conflicts within the party where it became inevitable that nominating one would make the other angry. Instead, someone fresh, someone having enough “symbolic capital” earned from other field (like film and television, theatre, etc.) got the nomination. This strategy made internal alienation of the workers and leaders who toiled to curve out political space from the Left and now compete with the BJP. Consequently, before the parliamentary election several TMC leaders held open disagreement with TMC’s chain of command. Sabyasachi Dutta exemplifies one of those leaders who held significant difference in terms of TMC’s decisions. It is highly likely that there were internal agreements with the opposition forces in many places in exchange of money and/or promise of ministership etc.
There are several other individual and microscopic reasons for such an astonishing rise of BJP in West Bengal. Those require thorough studies. To conclude that the entire Left vote has changed its camp and got accumulated to BJP would always entail oversimplification to a much complex and detailed story. Each of the districts will reveal a different story of the rise of BJP, however, it is needless to mention whatever issues they have taken up the major axis of BJP’s rise is on identity mobilisation. A dimension which has been fuelled since 2011 and BJP being champion of it excelled and steered the benefit in their favour.
About the author:
Suman Nath, PhD, teaches anthropology in Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Government College, New Town, Kolkata. He is doing research on development governance and politics in West Bengal since 2006. He regularly publishes scholarly and popular articles in journals like EPW and news papers like Anandabazar Patrika. His book People-Party-Policy Interplay in India is due to release from Routledge, New York this year.