Battleground Bengal: The Eclipse Of Harmony And Rise Of Identity Politics

As Bengal goes to the polls, identity politics shaped by undemocratic mobilization have transformed the electoral venture into an unhealthy battleground. When the Congress was marginalized in the aftermath of the turbulent 70’s, the Left Front dominated West Bengal’s political ambience until the Trinamool Congress (T.M.C.) emerged in 2011, ending nearly 34 years of political monopoly. (The party was also known as the All-India Trinamool Congress in 2016.) Since then, Bengal has largely remained a bi-party system, with other players only enjoying a meagre share of votes. The potential crisis of a multi-party system dominated by two arch-rivals is evident in the run-up to the 2021 elections. Between an anguished T.M.C. and a grasping Left, the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.; presently the ruling party at the Centre) is storming Bengal in an endeavor to strengthen its vote bank.

Unlike many other states, Bengal’s communal relationships have been comparatively peaceful. Bengal’s culture has been shaped by both Hindu and Muslim poets, songwriters, authors, and thinkers. Additionally, daily life in Bengal has remained heterogenous and unblemished by religious extremism. The Ghoti-Bangal debate (people who trace their origins to the western zone of Bengal before Partition versus those who migrated from the eastern side afterwards) has been a well-utilized source of petty jokes and amusement, but never became a source of hostility. Even Bengal’s cities and suburbs have distinctive features, each leading to a composite culture, conducive only to a harmonious co-existence of multiple communities. This secular culture Bengal takes pride in faces large-scale erosion.

Bengal has recently reported an increase in communal disharmony. The T.M.C. replaced the class politics of the Left. But its own political agenda, often branded as “appeasement politics,” the B.J.P. momentum to bolster support for themselves by conjuring the idea of the Muslim menace, largely triggering the advent of identity politics. The effort to initiate a national register to define citizenship set in motion a process of polarization, with certain Muslim and migrant voters lending support to the T.M.C. and many Hindu voters backing the B.J.P.

Hitherto in the backseat, the T.M.C.’s political moves (including reducing the stipulated immersion time for Durga Puja on account of its conflation with the Muslim festival of Muharram and the introduction of special pay for imams) stirred up Bengal’s communal identities. Correspondingly, the much-overshadowed Ram Navami regional festival suddenly saw an eruption of supporters, marching in the frenzy of religious bifurcation. It would be easy to scapegoat the T.M.C. for fueling communal disharmony or the B.J.P. for its radical religious overtones, but as Monobina Gupta notes, it is hardly tenable to overlook the Left’s contributions towards the soft Hinduization of Bengal’s politics.

However, religion is not the only contributor to Bengal’s spiral into identity politics. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Shikha Mukherjee have traced the caste card’s influence in Bengal’s 2021 elections. The caste-class-religion interface has escalated the complexities of Bengal’s politics. The nature of mobilization has brought the clash for political power to perilous heights. Instead of a constructive agenda of economic growth or social improvement, notwithstanding their fomenting ideological divisiveness on recent economic policies, the parties have largely attempted to motivate the electorate by capitalizing on social identities to convince citizens to vote.

To the T.M.C., the battle in Bengal is a struggle for political survival. To the B.J.P., which has grown strong enough to challenge the incumbent, Bengal could become an eastern base, enabling it to flex its muscles beyond its traditional strongholds. Despite hurling criticism at the B.J.P. for catapulting a Hindu-Muslim divide, the T.M.C. has also adhered to the political geographies. The party fielded far fewer Muslim candidates in 2021 than in 2016. It is unclear, but the move may have been driven by the B.J.P.’s sweeping win in many Muslim-dominated districts in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. That win may show that Muslims did not take the B.J.P.’s pro-Hindu stance too seriously. The T.M.C.’s pattern of fielding candidates clearly reflects its desperate attempt to counter the B.J.P. strategy along religious lines.

Although the B.J.P. was unable to strike at the T.M.C.’s vote bank in the 2019 polls, it did reduce that bank significantly, following its slogan unishe half, ekushe saaf (“reduced to half in 2019, completely removed in 2021”). The effaced Congress kept campaigning in three other states, going to polls in tandem with Bengal, but neglected Bengal to a noticeable extent. Perhaps it was in no mood to antagonize the T.M.C., who could be a potential ally in the subsequent Lok Sabha elections. On the other hand, the B.J.P. has diverted all of its reserve forces to Bengal. Various leading opposition and T.M.C. leaders have defected to the B.J.P., though it is unclear if the B.J.P.’s luring of the Enforcement Directorate behind politicians has anything to contribute to the defections.

Bengal’s civil society, which has always exercised its right to freedom of expression, attempts to counter both the central and state governments’ autocratic tendencies. Many of the government’s authoritarian policies, particularly its attack on eminent academics, have propelled the civil society into command. In a recent article, India’s leading political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta observes that the 2021 elections have exposed all the trends Bengal had successfully shadowed behind a progressive self-image, bringing out the four C’s of politics – caste, communalism, corruption, and coercion. No matter what the election results are, the dominance of identity politics and the eclipse of social and economic concerns are grim indicators of the un-democratization and de-secularization of the world’s largest democracy.

Sucharita Sen

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