Mamata Banerjee has ended the tyranny of the bhadralok in West Bengal. That there’s no equivalent term for women, ‘bhadramahila’, suggesting the usual cache of cultured goodness spread on a base of genteel honesty, tells its own side story.
Considering that the communists have been the traditional patron saints of the unwashed masses, it is rather surprising that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his predecessor Jyoti Basu, never mind the upper strata of the Bengal CPI(M), have always come from a different ‘class background’ than of the parish they attended to.
But the trend that the Trinamool chief has bucked isn’t restricted to the roster of Left leadership. Right from the first chief minister Prafulla Ghosh to BC Roy, Ajoy Mukherjee and Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Bengal has never strayed from choosing its CMs from a cupboard full of bhadraloks that chose the starched dhoti over the crumpled sari. Ray and Basu were part of the downright English-speaking elite, while others came from various shades of the bien pensant — which, in case you’re not a bien pensant yourself, means ‘right thinking’ orthodoxy.
Mamata will be the first subaltern chief minister of a post-bhadralok Bengal. Before Friday the 13th, a friend of mine in Kolkata was horrified at the prospect of the Trinamool coming to power. Not because he is a die-hard Left supporter or that he thought that Mamata’s policies will be disastrous for a state that is already a disaster. He was terrified because “she’s a jhee”.
The word ‘jhee’ in Bengali is brimming with class scorn that goes beyond its literal meaning of a female domestic servant. It is in the same class terms that the word ‘chhotolok’ (literally, small person) is used as the opposite of ‘bhadralok’. The rank and file of the CPI(M), its traditional voters that included the rural peasantry, the Muslims, the adivasis (all three of which switched ships to support the Trinamool during this elections) and the urban underclass, are all ‘chhotolok’, in the lexicon of Bengal’s social and cultural orthodoxy. Just by taking a look at the audience of any reality programme and song and dance show on Bengali television channels will give you a quick snapshot of what the bulk of Bengal’s electorate looks like. It isn’t the Satyajit Ray-appreciating lot or the Tagore-quoting brigade outside Kolkata’s cultural Disneyland of the Nandan cinema complex.
The Bengali bhadralok blanching at the thought of Mamata being his CM because she isn’t ‘people like us’ is actually the odd one out. For the majority of Bengal’s (till now Left-supporting) population, the bhadraloks are ‘people like them’ and Mamata someone they’d have no qualms inviting for dinner.
Class affiliation alone, of course, isn’t all. That wouldn’t have made Jyoti Basu the darling of the mob. Lalu Prasad, even as he overplayed his ‘I’m a rustic man’, was ultimately of no good in Bihar. But if there has always been a case of an elite leadership being able to reach out to the masses despite their class
disconnect, there is no reason why Mamata can’t reach out to the all-too- vocal, all-too-visible bhadraloks. How she manages to balance the Becharam Mannas with the Amit Mitras of the Trinamool and deliver will mark her tenure as a CM.
Both the anti-Left and the Left have brought Mamata to power. Martin Luther was as serious a Christian as the Pope in Rome. But it was the latter, bloated and ossified and corrupt that he protested against. Mamata Banerjee, in a similar sense, wants to protect the Left and its abandoned flock. Her war was always against the church of the CPI(M).