By Swapan Dasgupta
There are obvious limitations to banking on anecdotal evidence to detect larger trends. That may well be so but a rent visit to Kolkata drove home something very interesting. A large number of friends, acquaintances and, indeed, nearly all my relatives who lead a comfortable but cocooned existence in Kolkata openly admitted to having done something unique: almost all of them had voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha election.
These, mind you, are people who in an earlier age had unfailingly voted for the Congress and, subsequently, after Mamata Banerjee walked out of the parent body to lead the good fight against the CPI(M), the Trinamool Congress. None of them had even considered voting for the BJP, not during the Ayodhya election of 1991 and not during Atal Behari Vajpayee's prime ministership. Indeed, the thought of being associated with the lotus had never crossed their minds. For the solidly respectable bhadralok classes, the BJP was the party of the Marwaris and those who are quaintly described as the Hindustanis. There was a seemingly unbridgeable cultural gap between Bengali sensibilities and the Hindi-speaking BJP.
People with a sense of history may well contest this as an over-generalisation. After all, they will undoubtedly point out, two of the three Lok Sabha seats won by the Jana Sangh (the precursor of the BJP) in 1951-52 was from West Bengal. This included Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the former Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, a member of Jawaharlal Nehru's first Cabinet after Independence and the founder of the Jana Sangh, who won from Calcutta South constituency.
Yes, the founder of the Jana Sangh was a rooted Bengali notable whose career was cut short by his death in mysterious circumstances in a Srinagar prison in 1953. However, that was a long time ago. Dr Mookerjee's death left the Jana Sangh orphaned and leaderless. The social constituency of refugees from East Pakistan which had backed the Jana Sangh went over to the Communist Party. The Jana Sangh and the BJP was reduced to a rump with a presence among the Hindi-speaking inhabitants in central Kolkata.
Before Independence, the Hindu Mahasabha had a following in Bengal and even included Barrister N.C. Chatterjee (father of Somnath Chatterjee) and Modern Review editor Ramananda Chatterjee. It was the Hindu Mahasabha and Dr Mookerjee who insisted on the Partition of Bengal in 1947 to safeguard the Hindu minority of the undivided state. Without this division--ironically, very much along the lines of Lord Curzon's controversial Partition in 1905--Bengali Hindus would have found themselves a beleaguered minority in a Greater East Pakistan. That West Bengal and Kolkata are in India owes almost entirely to the then leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, many of whom moved subsequently to the Jana Sangh.
This is a facet of Bengal's modern history that has been brushed under the carpet, perhaps wilfully, by both the Congress and the Left. Maybe they feel that an appreciation of the trauma of Partition in the east would offend 'secular' sensitivities. Instead, the expedient theory that Partition in 1947 went against the grain of the Bengal consensus has been allowed to be popularised. But the grim truth is that the Hindus of Bengal insisted on the creation of West Bengal as an alternative to living in a united Bengal that owed allegiance to Pakistan.
Invoking this history is relevant if only to contest the widespread belief that the land which nurtured Swami Vivekananda was traditionally Left-inclined in its politics. On the contrary, I would argue that it was the drift to the Left which began in Kolkata and its adjoining industrial belt in the mid-1950s and then spread to the countryside after the mid-1960s, was a hideous distortion of Bengal's natural instincts. Indeed, there is a remarkable convergence between the rise of the Left (in all its varied shades of red) and the decline of both West Bengal and the Bengali-speaking people.
At one time it was believed that Mamata 'Didi' offered an escape route from this slow journey to irrelevance for Bengal. The poriborton slogan did certainly inspire Bengalis into facilitating her landslide victory over an entrenched CPI(M) in 2011. It is not that the TMC government hasn't notched up some achievements. But many of the gains have been offset by three factors. First, there are the erratic ways of the Chief Minister. Secondly, there has been a discernible (but largely unreported) communal tensions in rural Bengal. The role of the state government has also been said to have been partisan. And finally, the petty tyranny of the Left aimed at the middle classes and small business has been replicated by those who flaunt a TMC flag. In many cases the perpetrators of harassment and extortion are the same people who earlier swore by the local committees of the CPI(M).
The net result is that despite having a lot of things going for it, Didi's rule hasn't been able to arrest the larger economic decline of a state that was just a notch below Maharashtra in the economic league till the mid-1960s.
The 17.6 per cent or so vote for the BJP in 2014 secured only two Lok Sabha seats for the party. Disaggregated data suggests that BJP led in 23 Assembly segments (out of 294) and this included Bhowanipore in South Kolkata, a seat represented by Mamata in the state Assembly.
The outcome may not seem spectacular. But the achievement must be viewed in the context of large-scale intimidation of BJP supporters, some straigh-forward rigging and the inability of the BJP to man more than two-thirds of the polling booths in the state.
For the TMC it has been a nervous victory. The large-scale post-poll recriminations against BJP supporters are a clear pointer that the ruling party doesn't view the BJP surge as a passing show. On the contrary, the buzz is that the BJP may well become the main challenger to the TMC in 2016, overshadowing a very dispirited Left.
Emerging as the main challenger to Mamata will require a lot of organisation, stamina and, above all, courage. Politics in West Bengal is inherently very violent. But the BJP can be reassured that the mood in the state is very conducive to its emergence as a player of consequence. For the BJP, reclaiming a lost inheritance should be a priority.
Sunday Pioneer, June 15, 2014