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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Friday, March 26, 2021

Bengal is no Tamil Nadu: With BJP making rapid strides, are we approaching the end of Bengali exceptionalism? (TOI)

Sagarika Ghose

A rollicking slogan of Bengal assembly elections 2021 is TMC’s “Khela Hobe,” or the game will be played. In response BJP has raised the chant “Vikas Hobe,” or development will take place. Yet more than these, two other slogans more accurately encapsulate the Bengal contest: TMC’s “Jai Bangla” versus BJP’s “Jai Shri Ram.”

Will Bengal vote according to Bengali identity, Bengali culture, Bengali language and resist majoritarian Hindutva whose locus is in north India? Tamil Nadu is known to vote for the Dravida-Tamil identity premised on a fierce opposition to north Indian brahminical Hinduism and Hindi language. Yet the attachment to Bengali identity isn’t as emotionally charged. In Bengal the Hindi language doesn’t evoke anger or hostility.

Moreover, the Dravida movement started as an atheist one, Bengal’s regional identity, as reflected in figures like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, is rooted in religiosity, centred around Vaishnava cults and the mother goddess of Durga and Kali. However a Ram-focussed Hindutva hasn’t traditionally existed in Bengal.

Jai Shri Ram is the Sangh’s electorally rewarding rallying cry designed to cement a religious identity. Jai Bangla invokes Bengali pride. In these elections CM Mamata Banerjee has urged people to say Jai Bangla instead of “hello” on the phone and repeatedly pointed to BJP as the party of the “bohiragato” or outsiders.

BJP for its part has sought to cast TMC and Mamata as “Ram drohi,” has tried to draw political capital from the CM’s annoyance at Jai Shri Ram sloganeering, made a bid for Bengali icons and emphasised its ancestral ties to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and the Hindu Mahasabha. Hindu-Muslim competitiveness has been a dominant feature of Bengal since 1945-46. From 1970s, until its demise in 2011, the Left Front forcibly suppressed religious identities.

The Left, particularly former CM Jyoti Basu, leveraged a strong Bengali distinctiveness, positing Bengal as a bastion against Delhi’s imperialism. But today Bengali sentiments (as distinct from TMC’s anti-BJP pitch) hardly see Delhi as the enemy. Bengal’s admired distinctive culture defined by figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray, the so-called ‘bhadralok’ culture steeped in both Bengali and English heritage, was in any case always confined to a thin, mostly upper caste Kolkata-centred patina of society.

The 19th century ‘Bengal renaissance’ in which a Michael Madhusudan Dutt could write Meghnad Badh Kavya, a poem critical of Ram, never became a mass movement. Bengal has the second highest Dalit percentage after UP. Castes such as Rajbonshis, Namasudras, Matuas and others have never been part of the ‘culture’ universe, dominated by Brahmins, Baidyas and Kulin Kayasthas.

BJP, acutely tuned to the politics of social engineering and intent on marrying mandir politics with Mandal mobilisation to widen its base, has spurred what research scholar Sajjan Kumar calls Bengal’s “subaltern Hindutva,” a transactional alliance by underprivileged groups with Hindu forces for material and social upward mobility. It has grown on fertile soil. Bengal has always had a long tradition of Hindu parochialism. It has been divided twice on religious lines, fierce communal passions always under the surface. BJP’s stunning 18-seat win (just 4 short of TMC’s 22) in Lok Sabha elections of 2019, when the saffron party gained dramatically in lower caste and tribal dominated seats, shows the success of this subaltern Hindutva mobilisation.

Of course, Mamata has also reached out to Dalit-Bahujan communities and also asserted her Hindu credentials. When “Boroma” or Binapani Devi, head of the Matuas, died Mamata declared a state holiday. In these elections TMC has fielded as many as 79 SC and 17 ST candidates and Mamata has recited Chandi Path to emphasise her Hindu-ness. But will these moves be enough to checkmate BJP and stave off significant anti-incumbency? Bengal is no Tamil Nadu, where the hold of the Dravida giants is so powerful that even in 2019 BJP could not win a single seat.

2021 Bengal elections are then a defining moment for Bengal. Is it a state defined by its Bangla identity centred around its own deities like Ma Durga, Bengali language and a sense of separateness from Hindi-speaking north India? Or is it now part of the broad Hindutva swathe of the Gangetic belt, falling in line with UP and Bihar?

In any case, with the evaporation of Left and Congress, BJP is now a principal pole of Bengal politics. As seen in Bihar, Odisha, UP, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in whichever state a regional party displaces Congress and Congress then vacates the opposition space, the vacuum is invariably filled by BJP. The trend of rising communal politics in Bengal seems unstoppable whatever the election outcome.

At the heart of the Bengal battle is the charismatic personality of Mamata Banerjee whose own subaltern image keeps her popular. Itinerant BJP leaders from Delhi, journeying to Bengal to address rallies in Hindi, are facing meagre crowds in contrast to her packed meetings. She is an opposition stalwart, and if she manages to defeat BJP’s mighty machine, resist anti-incumbency and neutralise the criminalised ‘don’ image of local TMC chiefs, it’ll be her single-handed achievement. If, however, she’s defeated BJP will come closer to its aim of an opposition-mukt Bharat.

The question is, is Bengal anymore in the mood to retain its once-famed Bengali exceptionalism, vote for the Bengali identity and shout Jai Bangla? Or is Bengal happy to join the gathering chant of Jai Shri Ram?

Courtesy - TOI


Help Sampadkiya Team in maintaining this website

इस वेबसाइट को जारी रखने में यथायोग्य मदद करें -

-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief,


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