It’s very difficult to sow the seeds of a communal divide in Bengal: Surajit Mukhopadhyay

The right wing will have to rethink its strategy to get a grip on Bengal politics, says the sociologist.

Published : Jun 09, 2024 13:41 IST - 6 MINS READ

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, addresses the media in Kolkata on June 4.

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, addresses the media in Kolkata on June 4. | Photo Credit: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR

Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, an eminent sociologist, author and a veteran political observer, speaks to Frontline about the results of the Lok Sabha elections 2024. Mukhopadhyay, the Dean of social sciences at Sister Nivedita University, West Bengal, weighs in on the communal rhetoric that failed in Bengal, on Mamata’s rising strength and the underperformance of the Left and the Congress. Excerpts:

This election, we saw something similar to what happened in 2021. The exit polls predicted one thing and political observers another. But once again, Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress (TMC) defied all odds and came back stronger. How do you account for that?

This result is both unexpected and expected. Unexpected because of the hype created by BJP through Amit Shah’s regular visits to Bengal. On the other hand, the campaign divided the populace. And the more polarised the voters became, the more they sought Trinamool. Minorities believed they could rescue themselves and the Constitution by siding with Mamata. Second, corruption did not become a big issue, though we anticipated that it would play a significant role in Bengal politics. But so many corruption scams have come to light in India, and when it comes to voting, people normalise this corruption. Third, Narendra Modi overplayed his hands in Bengal, hectoring, sermonising, threatening, trying to make a kind of a case for more rigorous administration if he comes to power. That backfired. Bengal is a composite culture, it is very, very difficult to divide people along Hindu and Muslim lines. Because both the communities have shared spaces and cultural heritage, food being one of them. But I am surprised by the fact that the Left and the Congress did not perform.

The right wing will have to rethink its strategy to get a grip on West Bengal politics, says sociologist Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay. | Video Credit: Interview by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhya; Camera by Jayanta Shaw; Editing by Samson Ronald K., Supervising Producer: Jinoy Jose P.

But the BJP has managed to bring about a kind of polarisation on religious lines and that is something that the present West Bengal government, Mamata Banerjee has not particularly discouraged because we have seen a kind of competitive communalism thriving in West Bengal. During the Ram Navami celebration, the BJP and the TMC chanted Jai Sri Ram to a point that they were indistinguishable.

On the question of competitive communalism, this is not something new that the TMC has brought in. I think the Congress has played this game for long. For instance, the way they supported the anti-alimony lobby for a Muslim woman in the divorce case. Mamata is matching one kind of communalism with another kind of communal attitude. And I think that most of it is performative. Yes, the Ram Navami celebrations tended to be very violent. But they were contained. It’s very difficult to sow the seeds of a communal divide in Bengal. And I have a reason to say this. Bengal, like Punjab, is a State that was divided by the British. And people who were booted out of East Bengal or then East Pakistan should have been carrying with them a lot of animosity, and they did. But I don’t think that that kind of animosity ever played a very significant role in Bengal politics. Bengal actually hosted refugees who were booted out of their homes, but did not allow divisive politics to play out in the public arena. It’s an absurdity when Modi and Shah try to instigate a kind of 1947 or 1971 scenario. I would say that the right wing will have to rethink its strategy to get a grip on Bengal politics.

Also Read | After an intense, polarising campaign, West Bengal’s multi-cornered election battle headed for a nail-biting finish

Why do you think the Left and the Congress aren’t being able to find their way back from the political wilderness?

I think the expectation was that the Left would come back in this election, not with a great majority, but win some seats, raise its vote share. You have now a workforce that is completely de-unionised. You can see how little role the CITU plays in Bengal politics. Big factories producing primary goods are non-existence. So your ability to create a worker’s unity is also very limited. You have practically transferred the economy onto the gig economy. So people are living at the edge of their livelihood, what we call a precarious situation and therefore the idea of precariat has come in place of the proletariat. The Left has to also rethink its strategy of reading Marx, reading Lenin, re-evaluating Stalin, bring in a lot more indigenous ideas, a lot more interventions that would actually appeal to people. In the last 10 years, the Left has been left without stalwarts.

Also Read | In a first, corruption becomes a key election issue in West Bengal 

This has left the field open for the BJP, which has been the second biggest power in the State since 2019. But there is not so much acceptability of the BJP ideology among the people.

Even from 2019, despite the many visits that Modi and Amit Shah have made, they have not been able to gel with the people culturally. They have trampled on the State’s intrinsic culture. Look at the time of the reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to Vidyasagar’s initiatives to Kazi Nazrul Islam’s syncretic acts of writing ‘Shyama Sangeet’, to the ballads that transcend the boundaries of the Hindu and the Muslim. I think that all of this plays a very very important part in making a difference which a right-wing party does not have the political and cultural wherewithal to understand.

Do you buy the theory that there is a secret understanding between the BJP and TMC, between Mamata and Modi?

Mamata is the best bet for the RSS, and the RSS requires that the Left be kept out. So, I think that the RSS, which is the kind of spirit behind the BJP politics, would much prefer to have Mamata get some seats, rather than seeing a resurgent Left, which is anti-thetical to their ideology. Mamata’s is an kind of ambivalent attitude towards the RSS: she was heard saying that the RSS is good, the BJP is bad. Whether they have a formal pact or not, is something that we will never know. We can only speculate, but it makes sense for the RSS to back the TMC.

Mamata Banerjee has got about 29 to 30 seats so far. And she has said that she’s going to be a part of the INDIA alliance. What happens now at the Centre?

Well, if the INDIA bloc is in the opposition and Mamata will definitely play a big role in opposition politics. And since the margin between the opposition and the government will be very thin, she will be able to leverage much more political space, much more of the funds, much more elbow room than before. If INDIA bloc forms the government, by having other parties joining it, and talks are underway as we hear, then Mamata is going to be even more important. But where do we go from here? I think one of the tasks that the opposition can do for themselves and for the INDIA bloc, is to detoxify the polity. And that’s a major, major task. This kind of poison that has been injected into the Indian polity, this society, cultural spaces over the last 10 years and more, has spoiled inter-community relations, people’s lives and aspirations. People feel afraid to express themselves. The opposition has to raise these issues in the Parliament so that you move the political template from Hindu vs Muslim, Maulana Maulvi, Pakistan, Muslim bashing, to a more realistic politics, which will take India forward, and which will give hope to young people who need jobs, security, the right to dream.

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