Mamata’s pro-poor policies alone may not be enough to stop BJP in Bengal
To think that Bengalis are syncretic and tolerant by birth is a myth that the liberal educated Bengalis love to hold as true. The upper caste educated Bengalis are mostly anti-Dalit and think that reservation is the root cause of decline of education in Bengal
With the rise of a power determined to expand its control throughout India, other powers based on local apparatuses of rule now face the Shakespearean dilemma: To resist or not to resist. With this will be linked an important question: How to survive and live on?
This dilemma is not new. Consider the trajectory of imperial power from the middle ages. The empire ruled from Delhi or Agra, and demanded submission from the rulers of the fur-flung regions. Either these kingdoms would be eaten up by the empire, or they would survive only by becoming fiefs. At times these kingdoms would form alliances and set up new emperors, who they thought would be obedient to them. But the pattern would return. During the colonial age the pattern continued. Either the country would be ruled from Kolkata and later Delhi, or some of its parts would become what was known as the native princely states. This pattern supposedly ended with the introduction of constitutional rule in India.
However during Indira Gandhi’s rule this pattern re-emerged, and now has revived with a vengeance. Once again, states such as West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Karnataka, and Kerala, are worried: How to face this aggressive power? How to form once more an alliance earlier known as the Janata party, Janata Dal, etc. and confront the new empire? Is the way out one of playing with this new power, avoiding, evading, humouring, coaxing, cajoling, or even lying low, hoping that the storm would pass sooner or later, or one of mustering strength, resisting, and mobilising others – in short, to resist or not to resist?
The trouble is that the choice does not appear clear. Most prefer to bypass or lie low, only at times resisting when they think that the core interests are being hurt. Yet even that line is not defined. As the negotiations over GST showed, states are now confused as to how to face the aggrandisement.
One reason for this vacillation is that the social basis on which local power rests is now weak. Aggression has unsettled the hitherto settled caste, class, and other alliances on which the local power rested. Globalisation has produced new middle classes. There is an urban turn in political mobilisations. And these two factors now find reflections in new Hindu mobilisations. New capital, religious bigotry, conservatism, a State bent upon coming down on any protest forgetting that compassion is an essential part of governing, now happily co-exist. Market liberalism in economy and orthodoxy in politics and administration can now operate together. This had happened in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, South Korea, and the Gulf region. There is no reason to think that it cannot happen in India.
Soft communalism is on the rise here, particularly in parts where we still do not witness the depredations of the vigilante squads. New money is its basis. Rent and extraction of resources are the roots of this new wealth. States do not want to tackle the so-called soft menace firmly lest it should antagonise Delhi, the centre of empire. In West Bengal, the old syncretic culture is under attack and all that made a region based on the interface of particular languages, religions, castes, and other communities are now asked to be standardised into a Hindi-Hindu polity where regions will lose their specificities. To create a riot and polarise the populace along a single divide it will require only a deliberately engineered breakdown of administrative power supported by a determined push by the bigots.
The Muzaffarnagar riot is a model for the aggressive general power today. The clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Muzaffarnagar in UP in August–September 2013 resulted in at least 62 deaths that included deaths of 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus and 100 injured, and left more than 50,000 displaced. The riot was described as the worst violence in Uttar Pradesh in post-Babri Masjid demolition history, with the Army, as a result, being deployed in the state for the first time in last 20 years. The Supreme Court held the Samajwadi Party-led government guilty of negligence in preventing the violence and blamed the Centre for its failure to provide intelligence inputs to the state in time to alert the latter. In this case soft communalism and passivity of the state government took only days to develop into a riot there and riot like situation elsewhere.
Such riot-like situations have recurred in West Bengal in the last few years. While the TMC-led government has reacted with alacrity in several of these cases, these incidents show that the powder is being readied dry for the eventual occasion. Kolkata had seen one of the worst communal massacres in the country in the 20th century. The middle classes had witnessed silently the Great Calcutta Riots of 1946 that eventually led to the Partition. Then there was the riot of 1964. They also tolerated the large scale killings of youth on the streets in early 1970s. Hence to think that Bengalis are syncretic and tolerant by birth is a myth that the liberal educated Bengalis love to hold as true. The upper caste educated Bengalis are mostly anti-Dalit and think that reservation is the root cause of decline of education in Bengal, and that the disorderly conduct of the lower classes is the cause of the nemesis of the state. Many TMC followers joined the recent Ram Navami processions and Hanuman Jayanti with gusto. Even one or two ministers joined the celebrations on the ground that people in their respective constituencies wanted the festivities and that by organising these events they were taking the wind out of the sail of the religious Right. On the other hand those brandishing weapons in festivals have got scot free and are now emboldened.
The Congress also used to justify such conduct as a means to stem the tide of communalism. But they could not protect secularism. The Congress rule over India in 1992 in this way facilitated the demolition of the Babri Masjid. There is no reason to think that such fate will not overtake the regional parties.
The writing is on the wall is clear: Whatever tactics the local powers may adopt, they have their tasks clearly cut out. The administration must be geared up to prevent any attack on secularism and the syncretic or tolerant culture of the state/s they rule, and mobilise the masses for this political task.
For both these tasks the popular governments in the states have the required legitimacy. They have to pull their acts together. Otherwise they will be swamped by the juggernaut of a conservative Right. Their pro-people policies will be of no avail. The vacillating elements as in Goa and Manipur will veer towards the Right for both existence and profit.
Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair, Calcutta Research Group
The views expressed are personal