Have the Bhadrolok finally embraced Hindutva? Or, does the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise in the state reflect the dominance of anti-Bhadrolok sentiments among the rural masses? Is Bengal’s ‘party society’ finally breaking down? What triggered the rise of ‘subaltern Hindutva’?
These are some of the questions dominating the intellectual discourse around the Bengal Assembly elections 2021, which has already been pegged by the national and international media as a watershed election in the history of Bengal – often described as India’s cultural capital. A The Guardian article on March 21 was headlined: 'India's soul at stake': Bengalis vote in the divisive election.’
“At its heart… this is a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting visions of India: Hindutva versus secularism,” journalist Karan Thapar had written in an August 2020 column, titled ‘The centrality of the West Bengal election’
What became evident from the recent intellectual discussion around Bengal at the national level is the general perception of the state as one of the last bastions of secular and liberal socio-religious practices where a rise of the subaltern with the slogans of Hindutva had endangered the secular-liberal atmosphere patronised by the bhadrolok.
The term ‘party society’ was coined by Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. It was used for the first time in his article titled ‘Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal’, published in the Economic and Political Weekly on February 28, 2009. He elaborated on this idea in this 2016 book, titled ‘Government as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India’.
He wrote that since the Left came to power in 1977, rural West Bengal had been subjected to extensive governmental intervention in the form of land reforms and democratic decentralisation, meaning the panchayat system.
“This made West Bengal’s rural political economy – marked by a small-peasant economy and a dense partisan network – distinctly different from the rest of the country,” Bhattacharya wrote, adding that the party-society was the speciï¬Âc form of political society in West Bengal’s countryside.
“Political parties in rural West Bengal largely transcended caste, religion or ethnicity-based organisations, which have greater salience in struggles for social justice in other parts of the country. Consequently, here all types of disputes (familial, social or cultural) took little time to assume partisan forms. This was possible due to the popular acceptance of political parties as moral guardians not only in the public life of the society but also in the private lives of the families. It was not uncommon to solicit a party’s intervention in most intimate and private affairs,” he had written in 2009.
“In party-society…the overriding goal is to protect the constituency of a party’s support base and expand it periodically from election to election, which is ineluctable for the renewal of a party’s inï¬Âuence. So elections are central to party-society,” he explained.
In recent months, the coinage has surfaced in a series of articles. Two of them had it in the headline: Himadri Ghosh’s February 12 article in The Wire was headlined, West Bengal’s Landscape Is Shifting from ‘Party Society’ to ‘Caste Politics’, and Roshan Kishore’s March 17 article in Hindustan Times was headlined ‘West Bengal polls: BJP’s tryst with a party-society.’
Other articles that referred to this term include Shoaib Daniyal’s April 7 article titled ‘Will poor organisation be a roadblock for BJP in its Bengal stronghold of Jungle Mahal?’, Emily Tamkin’s April 2, article in the New Statesman, titled, ‘What’s at stake in the West Bengal elections?’, Sajjan Kumar’s April 4 article in The Times of India, headlined ‘The real poriborton Bengal needs is freeing grassroots politics from party grip’, Devparna Acharya’s April 06 report in Firstpost, headlined, ‘In Junglemahal, endemic violence changes colour over the years, Rajan Pandey’s March 28 report in the Wire, headlined, ‘Why Have TMC Local Level Managers Gone Silent?’ and journalist-author-educator Sambit Pal’s interview with Newslaundry on April 2.
So, why did Bhattacharya’s coinage gain such popularity ahead of the Bengal elections?
It appears from the writings of scholars and journalists that a change at the societal level is being expected in case the BJP manages to form the government.
This journalist’s experience of travels in different parts of the state ahead of the elections, however, indicated that whatever traces of the ‘party society has remained – despite its weakening during the 10-year rule of the Trinamool Congress that has shown less inclination towards involving in private matters – has come to the aid of the BJP in gaining foothold and influence in large swathes of rural Bengal rather quickly since 2017.
“Who are the BJP leaders, especially at the district and panchayat levels? Some have come from the RSS but the majority of them have switched over from the Left parties and some from the TMC. And some of those who came from the TMC had earlier been with the Left. The culture of political dominance in everyday affairs is not going to wither away so easily,” said Biplab Ghosh, a private tutor based in Baruipur town of the South 24-Parganas district.
The bhadrolok versus subaltern Hindutva
The two other terms dominating the Bengal election discussion are ‘Bhadrolok’ and ‘Subaltern Hindutva’. They complement each other, in the sense that the subaltern is the ‘other’ of the Bhadrolok, a term used to describe the cultured and English-educated, mostly upper-caste, and upper-middle-class Hindus who dominated Bengal’s political and socio-cultural sphere for over a century. The rise of the subaltern signified the waning of the influence of the bhadrolok.
It is perhaps the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that revealed a rural-urban and bhadrolok-subaltern divide in political trends. The results revealed the TMC had fared better in the bhadrolok-dominated urban areas, especially in and around Kolkata, while the BJP fared better among the rural masses – the further from Kolkata the higher their popularity – especially in the areas dominated by the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Communities (OBCs).
It has been construed since then that the Bhadrolok made the core of the TMC’s remaining base in the state due to their resistance towards the BJP’s social views.
Interestingly, though, the discussions around the rising influence of subaltern politics in Bengal had gained popularity with the rise of Mamata Banerjee during 2009-2011 itself marked the decline of the bhadrolok hegemony in Bengal politics. Mamata Banerjee, though a Brahmin by caste, well as most of the leaders close to her, was not considered to the presenting the “bhadrolok” community as her profile does not match the educational and cultural, as also economic, criteria to be called a bhadromohila, the female counterpart of bhadrolok. The Bhadrolok is a cultural elite.
The word subaltern is used by post-colonialist historians to refer to people belonging to low ranking in a socio-political, or cultural hierarchy. The term subaltern studies gained popularity since 1982 when the first volume of ‘Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society’ was published by the Oxford University Press. It was edited by Ranajit Guha, a Bengali historian. Since then, several historians of Bengali ethnicity and a background in Kolkata have emerged as pioneers of this school of historians, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Partha Chatterjee.
In an article written before the 2011 Assembly elections, Saroj Nagi had asked, “Is Banerjee’s a case of the rise of a subaltern leader? The debate between Sumanta Bannerjee through his open letter to Mahasweta Devi, D. Bandhopadhyay, Suvaprasanna and others and the response to it by Dipayan Rai Chaudhuri in August-September 2010, reflects the divided opinion on the issue.”
Nagi then said, “Though her origins were humble, but not from the labouring class, Mamata Banerjee did give voice to the rural poor and the urban middle classes who were upset with the corruption under Left Front rule, agitated over land acquisitions and angry over the escalating violence involving the CPM, the Maoists and the harmad(s) despite charges of a Trinamool-Maoist nexus.”
In 2016, after Mamata Banerjee was re-elected, Ranabir Samaddar wrote in an article published in Economic and Political Weekly in June that “results of the assembly elections point to the subalternation of politics in the face of the opposition's hollow campaign to restore democracy” and argued that the Bhadrolok influence on politics was waning.
In a response to Samaddar’s article, Ayan Guha’s October 2016 piece, titled ‘West Bengal Elections: Unchanged amidst Change’ and published in the same publication, said there was a “general perception of a wide gulf between Mamata Banerjee and the common bhadralok Bengali” but “despite the rising influence of the subaltern classes in West Bengal politics, the predominance of the bhadralok culture largely remains intact.”
When Bengal has India’s second-highest Scheduled Caste population, after Uttar Pradesh, with the SC making up 23.5% of the state’s total population in 2011. However, the state has not seen Dalit identity-based politics since Independence.
In 2021, the discussion around an even greater rise of subaltern politics in Bengal with the BJP’s surge in popularity in the rural areas has got the communal angle added to it.
The term ‘subaltern Hindutva’ became popular since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The popularity of Jai Shree Ram, the BJP’s most popular ‘war cry’ in Bengal, among the rural masses, especially in areas dominated by the backward communities, had drawn many socio-political observers’ attention towards the BJP’s commendable influence among the backward classes.
In a July 2019 column published in Hindustan Times, Abhinav Prakash Singh wrote, that one of the “underlying trends of the 2019 verdict is the consolidation of Subaltern Hindutva” and predicted that “The subaltern expression of Hindutva will deepen further in the coming years. Let us not miss that in West Bengal, the BJP is the subaltern party now, and Jai Shri Ram is their answer to authoritarianism and Bhadralok smugness.”
One of the persons behind the popularity of the term is political analyst Sajjan Kumar. In a June 2020 article published in The Hindu, Kumar wrote, “Subaltern Hindutva is premised on the claims of cultural and political solidarity among Hindus across the spectrum. Thus, it is the perpetual need and demonstration of solidarity across the Hindu spectrum that is indispensable for the hegemony of subaltern Hindutva.”
Kumar added that ‘unlike Savarkarite Hindutva which signified ideological dogmatism of upper caste Hindus’, subaltern Hindutva ‘weighs more on the instrumental side’. “The latter is an outcome of an active political bargain between the subalterns and traditional proponents of Hindutva. Subalterns carry a thick deal of political legitimacy and hence they are needed,” he wrote. It is him who made the term popular in recent times by repeated use in his articles.
In the recent months, the term has been used in articles such as Vikash Pathak’s March 15 piece in CNBC-TV18 headlined ‘Whatever be the assembly poll result, a Bengal model of Hindutva may be emerging, Saragirka Ghose’s March 15 column in the Times of India headlined ‘Bengal is no Tamil Nadu: With BJP making rapid strides, are we approaching the end of Bengali exceptionalism?’ and Rahul Verma’s March 9 article in India Today headlined “What is driving the Dalit-Muslim divide in West Bengal?”
According to Rupchand Pal, a former seven-time CPI(M) MP from Hooghly Lok Sabha, ‘subaltern Hindutva’ was a “real danger” for the state.
“The influence of Hindutva ideology on the people from the backward classes, a phenomenon that is being described as subaltern Hindutva, poses a great threat to the societal stability because the people from the backward classes often live around the Muslim neighbourhoods. They have lived in peace for so long. But proximity can help intensify anxiety and insecurity among both communities when politics of communal hatred are played out aloud,” Pal said.
There are, of course, other opinions that counter the bhadrolok versus subaltern binary in the TMC versus BJP battle. An article titled ‘What's West Bengal Missing in the 'Bhadralok' Versus Hindutva Narrative?’ written by Moiz Tundawala and Salmoli Choudhuri and published in The Wire on April 6, argued that “the analytical paradigm pitting the elite bhadralok against subaltern Hindutva seems to extend to Bengal an interpretive rubric that is supposed to have already run its course in India. But this reading fails to appreciate that the TMC and its supremo Mamata Banerjee came to power with a groundswell of populist support, precisely by dismantling the bhadralok consensus which had for more than three decades consolidated around the Left.”
Whether the waning of the bhadrolok influence on Bengal’s socio-political sphere during the Mamata Banerjee regime helped the BJP in penetrating rural Bengal remains the subject matter of another debate.
According to journalist Shoaib Danial, who writes for Scroll and covers Bengal, the sudden popularity of these terms generally used in academics has been an outcome of the BJP’s unprecedented push for winning Bengal.
“For the first time in more than four decades, a national party is making a serious bid for power in West Bengal. This has attracted an unprecedented amount of attention from the Delhi-based national media. As a result, these terms and concepts from the academics are being used to explain the politics and society of Bengal to a national audience who are keen to follow elections but are unfamiliar with the state,” Daniyal told Outlook.
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