Battleground Bengal: Caste to be a deciding factor

Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

In the backdrop of the ongoing farmers’ protest at various points bordering Delhi, Nandigram and Singur flash across the mind. India being an agrarian country, agricultural issues can make or break governments as Bengal witnessed all those years ago when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rode to power in 2011 ending 34 years of Left rule.

That was an epic battle and Banerjee’s masterstroke. It certainly worked in her favour as much as the Rizwanur Rahman case. After Banerjee’s victory, a few of my father’s friends organised parties where attendees cheered the Trinamool Congress over plates of food and wished for real poriborton (change), the signature war cry coined by her. After all, the Bengali mind is turned on by two things amidst many: food and politics.

Ten years on, Bengal is readying itself for another intense battle, this time between the Trinamool and the BJP. The outcome is difficult to predict yet but Deep Halder’s book, Bengal 2021: An Election Diary, captures the myriad moods of the state ahead of the crucial assembly elections through a series of captivating interviews with people from all walks of life. From grassroots political leaders belonging to both parties to Tollywood cine stars, everyone has a ready opinion to offer. There is never a dull moment in this fast-paced narrative enlivened by colourful anecdotes and several trips to and fro, one even to a sleepy hamlet called Thakurnagar near the Indo-Bangladesh border.

In the chapter Corona as Paash Balish, there is a sense of dark humour too when the author questions how many coronavirus patients have died in road accidents after Debangshu Bhattachariya, Trinamool Congress’ young spokesperson, blamed the Centre for the Covid fiasco amid allegations of fudged death figures in a fully rehearsed attacking-mode political speech. To top it all, the Centre was “heartless”, according to Bhattachariya, which sent packed unfed migrants to Bengal in the Corona Express, thus absolving his party of all blame in failing to control the pandemic.

But the BJP is not willing to let this chance slip by. The Party’s Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta has pointed out the Bengal government’s gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 fight under five points described in the book, the chief being underreporting of deaths as well as secret cremations and burials of those who lost their lives. The horror of Covid patients forced to share space with the dead is enough to make give you goose bumps. After all healthcare has always been in a pathetic state in Bengal.

The so-called north Indian party has another weapon to trounce Banerjee with: the goof-up over Amphan and allegations of stealing relief distribution for the poor in the Sundarbans. As actor Parno Mitra sums up, “The twin blows of Covid and Amphan will dislodge Mamata Banerjee from power.”

In the blame game over Covid-19 and Amphan in the run up to the polls, what comes as a mild surprise is the caste issue, which may be the deciding factor this time. Bengal is surely no UP or Bihar, but as the author points out in the book, caste has always been there in Bengal, perhaps not so obviously as one thinks, till newspaper matrimonial advertisements show up the true colour.

Coming back to Thakurnagar in the chapter BJP versus BJP in Matua Den, Elsewhere, this otherwise sleepy place had been once visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019. The Matuas migrated to India from East Pakistan (at present Bangladesh) during the 1971 war. Now, spread over eight districts from north to south Bengal, this scheduled caste or Namasudra group comprises 18 percent of the state’s population with almost 30 million voters. As the book points out, the Matua community became disillusioned with the Left as “land rights eluded many”. This time, the Matuas are in a quandary whether to vote for Didi or the BJP. The latter’s hope of capturing Bengal lies with this community after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 promising them permanent citizenship.

As BJP’s Bongaon MP Shantanu Thakur points out wherever the Matuas are present, the BJP got votes and that is the secret behind the party’s winning 18 Lok Sabha seats out of 42 in 2019. But the BJP’s chink in the armour is its internal strife, prompting the writer to throw the question to Thakur, “How united is the BJP in Bengal?” to which he gets the reply: “We are united. We need to be more united.” But the real issue is that the Bengal BJP’s old guard has not been able to digest the “influx of Trinamool leaders”.

A source not named in the book decodes the dilemma in Thakurnagar by commenting that Mamata will not give up that easily as the Matuas have voted for the TMC before. The citizenship is not the only factor, as this person points out, behind the BJP’s success. Hindu organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been working among the masses here since 2018. But sadly many have joined the BJP as it is expected to take over the state and have no faith in the party’s Hindutva ideology, he offers.

The one deciding factor which may go against the BJP is its lack of a strong chief ministerial candidate to take on Banerjee. The Bengali elite class or the bhadralok does not like the somewhat coarse Dilip Ghosh and is more in favour of Sourav Ganguly as the CM candidate even as the latter is yet to enter politics. Tathagata Roy may solve the dilemma though.

Talking about the Kolkata elite, it likes someone like TMC MP from Basirhat Nusrat Jahan, who projects a secular face even though there is a sharp polarisation in Bengal over allegations of minority appeasement by the Trinamool, which has become the BJP’s poll plank, amidst chants of Jai Shri Ram. As a priest points out in the chapter, Nusrat Jahan and the Muslim Question, “disregard of religion” won’t be tolerated after 2021.

So, what has led to the resurgence of the Right in Bengal? Unchecked cross-border infiltration, demolition of temples and the forced marriage of Hindu girls are some of them. Curiously, in 2017 when I met a friend at a coffee shop in South Kolkata, I could sense from the conversation that Bengal was turning right. And while the Brahmins will vote for the BJP due to the predominance of Manuvadi politics, the Dalit sentiment lies with Mamata, as Dalit writer and activist Manoranjan Byapari points out in the chapter Chotolok versus Bhadralok.

The book ends with a chapter dedicated to Singur which had catapulted Banerjee to power after Tata withdrew its Nano factory in the height of the farmers’ agitation. In the 2019 parliamentary polls, surprisingly TMC lost the seat to the BJP. The book points out that Trinamool’s factionalism has been the BJP’s gain in Singur. After all, land evokes emotions. In neighbouring Jharkhand, which had never witnessed a stable government till the BJP came to power with Raghubar Das as the chief minister in 2014, the government’s land bank policy badly backfired. Now, Hemant Soren is back once again.

Right now, Bengal is crying for another change. It is not very hard to understand which way the writer’s sentiments lie. I suddenly remember my visit to my maternal uncle’s home in March 2019. Over steaming cups of tea and evening snacks, the conversation turned heated. Some of my relatives were crying hoarse against Mamata. As my friend told me in the cafe and the book also underlines, BJP has captured the intellectual elite Bengali mind like never before. For the rest, read and draw your own conclusions.

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