Kolkata’s bhadralok (in simple English: The genteel folk) had long concluded that Mamata Banerjee was not a gentleman.
This judgment is not surprising; they were not used to her kind. Even after decades of bhadralok domination, Bengal lacked a woman leader. And then came Mamata. At any rate, the bhadralok verdict made no difference with the voters of Bengal. In the past this intellectual, starched-dhoti-class weighed heavily in all matters, from taste to politics. But this is 2016.
The bhadralok ran a series of campaigns against the TMC and accused it, especially its leader, of murdering democracy. The south Kolkata elite were particularly incensed by Mamata, both for her disdain for intellectuals as well as for her crushed sari look. The bhadraloks as a class, however, were not uniformly upset when other bhadraloks behaved badly.
There was Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who as chief minister was ruthless with college rebels, seeking to settle political scores in the name of fighting Maoism. Or, take the case of Jyoti Basu who, as chief minister again, allowed his men to drag Mamata by her hair. Party differences aside, bhadraloks will be bhadraloks and, if the rumour mill is to be believed, Ray and Basu tossed back gins together in the Tolly Club.
This is not to overlook a brief phase when Mamata was accepted by a section of the bhadralok as their favorite anti-Left rabble-rouser. She was the right person for that kind of job, but then she turned out to have a will of her own. Now, no matter which way they looked at her, she was bad for the brain and for the arts.
The bhadralok felt they had enough ammunition against her. The TMC rule, over the past five years, was blemish-full, what with scandals around Saradha chit fund, Narada cheat fund, a fallen bridge and university interference. Little did they realise that all of these were not equally damaging to Mamata. Only the Saradha chit funds had the turbo to hurt her, but not any of the others. Corruption in high places does not worry the everyday voter, and as long as universities hand out employable degrees, who cares if they are autonomous or not.
For Mamata, the Narada video exposé was a minor affair and events proved her right. Those TMC heavies, caught bagging bribes, later won their seats handsomely. In fact, while journalists and the bhadraloks were in a froth over Narada, Mamata calmly announced that no camera zoom would affect her ticket distribution. As far as she was concerned, that matter was done and dusted.
While she let Narada lapse, she acted promptly, and decisively, in the case of Saradha chit fund. This was a theft that stole directly from the poor and many had lost their life’s savings as a consequence. Without attending to bureaucratic niceties and fiscal correctness, Mamata, as chief minister, compensated the victims straight away. There was something very charismatic and endearing in the way she did this.
Above all this gave her a direct connect to the electorate; it was Mamata alone, and up high, with no intermediaries attached. Sentiment beat red tape, and now “Ma, mati, manush” was in its purest form. As the beneficiaries in this case were largely the poor, the immediate, transparent relief that Mamata delivered was more than a god-send, it was a “Didi-send”. The bhadralok, whether from the Left or from the Congress, disdained such acts of earthiness, and now they are paying for it.
Times are a changing and what India thought a few decades back, West Bengal is thinking today. The combined impact of Vivekanand, Bankim, Tagore, and, more recently, Satyajit Ray, gave the Bengali bhadralok a longer lease of life than their counterparts elsewhere. It took years for Mamata to rise, but in that period an un-intellectual, if not anti-intellectual, political class had already triumphed in other regions of the country.
Lalu Prasad may be a copy book example of this trend, but there are so many more like him. They are not just established, but have now become establishment. It was Bengal’s cultural heroes who held back the Bengalis from seeing the graffiti on the wall and wising up accordingly. While history can be delayed, it cannot be denied, not even to Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is proof of this and she is about to start her second term as chief minister.
Paradoxically, it is during bad times that one can truly make one’s political number. It is easy to be forgotten when the going is good, but bring on a misfortune and a true leader emerges. What counts is the ability to engine up and deliver at short notice, and this is what Mamata did. By setting right what Saradha had done wrong, she won hands down in Bengal.
The Tamil Nadu story is quite similar, at least in one respect. Help people in times of need and a quick fix goes a long way. If the Tamil Nadu election foxed the most assiduous and earnest poll casters, it is because intellectuals are always looking for big messages. The toss-up, as they saw it, was between a dynastic DMK and a lumbering incumbent government, between freebies against policy, and so on.
In the end, J Jayalalithaa beat the odds because voters rewarded her for the swift efficiency with which she handled the Chennai flood aftermath. She came through as “Amma” incarnate, reaching out to save her children and most relief packages bore her stamp. No headline message here, just connect. By the same token, when Omar Abdullah was handed a serious flood in Kashmir, he dealt with it horribly and lost everything in an instant.
It is the age of the small message and connecting with the immediate. Big messages and manifestos about futures have lost their bhadralokus standi.
Dipankar Gupta is an eminent sociologist and taught at JNU for nearly three decades. The views expressed are personal.