Bengal elections and the future of Bengali regionalism

The future of regional politics in India depends on not just exploiting local tradition and pride for elections, but in beefing up governance, economy, public delivery of benefits and taking on Delhi when the interest of the state is at stake, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor

Subir Bhaumik Apr 30, 2021
Mamata Banerjee vs Narendra Modi (File)

Mamata Banerjee was not the first Congress party leader from Bengal to have revolted against the "High Command" and broken off from India's Grand Old Party to form her own regional party. Chittaranjan Das (Swarajya party) and Netaji Subhas Bose (Forward Bloc), Ajoy Mukherjee (Biplobi Bangla Congress ) and even Pranab Mukherjee ( Rastriya Samajwadi Congress) did what Banerjee did much after them.

But while these stalwarts could not get their party anywhere in their lifetime and Mukherjee had to return to Congress fold, Banerjee not only eclipsed the Congress to first emerge as West Bengal's principal opposition party, and then ultimately overthrew the three-decades-in-power Communist-led Left Front in a stunning victory in 2011. She then held off against a countrywide upsurge by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and has already enjoyed a decade in power -- like Sheikh Hasina in neighboring Bangladesh.

Larger-than-life persona

As she fought a the two-front war against  a fiercely aggressive BJP and a Left-Congress combine joined by a new Muslim breakaway party ISF, braving inevitable anti-incumbency, endemic inner-party factionalism and a Covid surge depleting her administrative resources, Banerjee has acquired almost a larger-than-life persona.

She has achieved what Sushma Swaraj could not within the BJP or Sonia Gandhi could not at the Congress. No woman -- or man -- before Banerjee has taken the fight to the male patriarchy of the Sangh Parivar, led by two ruthless tacticians backed by the money power of a strong section of the Indian corporate world in the last seven years and the administrative heft of the federal government.

Former home minister P Chidambaram has publicly admitted the future of the country (read opposition) rests on the Bengal voter (read Banerjee). Many opposition patriarchs admit that in private -- the battle for Bengal is to the Indian opposition now what the battle below the gates of Vienna was for Europe in 1683 - a battle for existence. Even if Banerjee's Trinamool Congress does not win an absolute majority and has to form a government with Congress and ISF support (not sure if Left will support her), it will be a moral victory, though a pyrrhic one. 

A slim majority can be undone by a BJP salami-slicing operation a la Madhya Pradesh some months ago.

Mamata’s mistakes

Banerjee's lack of ideological moorings (her alternate alliance with both BJP and Congress) and failure to replicate a Left (or RSS-BJP) style organization has been seen by many as her major weakness. Some say her decline began the day she promoted nephew Abhishek Banerjee as her anointed successor. Neither (Trinamool deserter) Suvendu Adhikari nor Union home minister Amit Shah have the moral basis to blame the Trinamool supremo for nepotism -- and it is the BJP and the media, not so much the Trinamool, which has projected her nephew as her successor. In the Trinamool chain of command, the likes of Firhad Hakim and Partha Chatterjee even now figure higher than Abhishek Banerjee.

Banerjee's real failure -- for which she might well pay dearly in her bruising battle with BJP -- is her failure to chart out a clear persona for Trinamool Congress. After she parted company with the Congress and intensified her battle against BJP, her only chance of success lay in promoting a fiercely assertive brand of Bengali regionalism. She stuck on with the "All India" tag as a prefix to Trinamool Congress, perhaps to project herself as a future prime minister. At the grassroots, her party choir singers sing a tune  'Banglar Trinamool' that evokes much passion. But that is drowned in speeches by her party leaders who emphasize on 'Sorbo Bharatiyo (All India) Trinamool Congress, perhaps to wistfully project a pan-India following for the party.

The only way to confront BJP's Hindutva was by a passionate brand of Bengali regionalism, but Banerjee only paid lip service to it. Only after the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle, she started raising 'Joi Bangla' (Victory to Bengal) slogans and rake up Bengali pride. 'Biswa Bangla' has not quite worked as a commercial brand, which Mamata did to promote the Made in Bengal handicraft and cultural products. 

The Shiv Sena brand of exceptionalism may not work in Bengal, but she could have taken a cue from Sheikh Hasina’s 'Resurgent Bangladesh' thrust that puts economy and infrastructure, culture and technology at the heart of a turnaround of Bengali fortunes. This could have promoted a brand of cultural resurgence drawing on Bengal's syncretic folk traditions to checkmate the BJP’s Ram-driven religiously divisive politics. 

She should have played down the Singur-Nandigram legacy, not drummed it up, because the two locations are living witness to Bengal's failed industrial revival. Hasina has promoted special economic zones to lure foreign investments, but Banerjee's visits abroad failed to garner a single big-ticket investment, perhaps because of her anti-industry image which she is still finding hard to live down. 

Failure to counter BJP

This is despite having one of the best finance ministers in the country, Amit Mitra, a man very well connected to Indian industry. He was asked to 'learn politics' when he resented large-scale financial outgo in popular social support schemes that did not create any wealth.

Bengalis fought the British Empire within the parameters of inclusive Indian nationalism but the language and expression of protest was rooted in Bengal's very distinct cultural mores that grew out of its 19th century social and cultural renaissance. Banerjee started playing the Bangali card only after the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle but that was more tactical and did not exude her conviction about Bengal's distinct place in the Indian universe. She even failed to raise a loud enough concerted protest over the exclusion of lakhs of Bengali Hindus and Muslims from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.

If the BJP is superficially raking up demography to attack Trinamool's "Muslim appeasement", Banerjee should have pointed out  that Bengal's Muslim majority districts today were Muslim majority even in 1947. And that Muslims of Nandigram are locals, like their hero in 1942 Quit India, Sheikh Alladin, and not East Bengali migrants. 

Such ripostes can come from politically experienced leaders, not from corporate style political consultants. That she became Bengal's first top leader to appoint someone like Prashant Kishore points to her failure to develop both a Bengali identity-driven politics and a bottoms-up Trinamool (grassroots) organization to build on her early success.  Imagine CPI-M's legendary ideologue Promode Dasgupta having to hire a political consultant! 

Future of regional politics

The future of regional politics in India depends on not just exploiting local tradition and pride for elections, but in beefing up governance, economy, public delivery of benefits and taking on Delhi when the interest of the state is at stake.

The intensity of competition in the eight-phase West Bengal elections proves Banerjee's Trinamool is no pushover. But it is her defeat, if that happens, that may actually trigger the emergence of a more assertive Bengali regionalism. 

(The author is a veteran BBC and Reuters correspondent in East and Northeast India and author of four books on the region. Views are personal)

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