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A Different Mindset?

Bengalis as a community, especially the ones living in the eastern Indian Province of West Bengal, are quite tolerant in nature. History has witnessed that Bengalis do not change their Government in Power, until and unless they get thoroughly exasperated by the state of affairs. The same is also applicable for Bengalis living in neighbouring Bangladesh, to some extent. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina‘s Bangladesh Awami League has been in power in the South Asian nation, since January 2009. Having previously served as Prime Minister for five years (from June 23, 1996 to July 15, 2001), Sheikh Hasina is the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of Bangladesh.

In West Bengal, the then Opposition Trinamool Congress Party had spoken of Change on the eve of the 2011 Provincial Assembly Elections. A decade later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that it would bring the Real Change in West Bengal, ahead of the eight-phase Assembly Elections held from March 27 to April 29, 2021. However, the Trinamool Congress has managed to win the 2021 Assembly Polls by a huge margin, in spite of its failure to ensure development in the province in the truest sense of the term.

It may be recalled that whenever some major events had taken place in the province, there was a major political change in West Bengal. When the Indian National Congress Party lost power for the first time there in 1967, the province was experiencing a severe food crisis, which prompted the Left Parties to trigger the 1966 Food Movement and the fall of the Congress Government, as well. Prafulla Chandra Sen, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal (1962-67), made some unreasonable changes in his Government’s Food Policy, advising the Bengalis to consume wheat and green banana, instead of fish, rice and sweets, considered as favourite Bengali dishes! The common people in West Bengal started disliking CM Sen because of this. Even supporters of the Congress Party reportedly burst with joy when the results of the 1966 Polls were declared, as they thought that they would enjoy rice and fish twice a day!

Prafulla Chandra Sen

The joy did not last long, as the first United Front Government survived for only two years (1967-69). The second United Front Government, led by Ajoy Mukherjee, ruled the province for 13 months (1969-70), with West Bengal going through a political turmoil at that period of time. The shaky State Power and the Naxalite Movement (a Peasant Revolt that took place from May 1967 to July 1971) destabilised the province. Bengalis witnessed the killing of innocent people, including landlords, journalists, school teachers, traffic police, opposition leaders and anyone else who was considered as an Enemy of the Revolution by the militant political organisation that claimed the legacy of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in the name of revolution during this period. The common people got frustrated due to this anarchy, and the Congress returned to power in 1972.

Ajoy Mukherjee

The Congress Government, led by Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, took charge of West Bengal shortly after the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971, and Ray’s Administration was faced with the massive problem of resettling over a million refugees in various parts of the province. The crackdown on Naxalites also took place during this period. The people of West Bengal were not at all happy with his style of running the Administration. Furthermore, Chief Minister Ray had a major role in the imposition of The Emergency in India from 1975 to 1977. He reportedly proposed to Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, to impose an Internal Emergency, and also drafted a letter for the President to issue the proclamation, showing PM Gandhi how Democratic Freedom could be suspended while remaining within the ambit of the Constitution. In the 1977 Assembly Polls, the people’s mandate went against the Congress’ attempt to murder Democracy. The public sentiment against the Congress allowed the Left Parties, under the leadership of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), to come to power in West Bengal.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray with Indira Gandhi

Then, the Left Front went on to govern West Bengal for 34 long years (from 1977 to 2011). The Left Front had strengthened the Agriculture Sector in those three decades, but weakened the foundations of the Industrial Sector permanently. However, the Left Parties didn’t do anything that could make common people angry. Most importantly, the Left Front had been able to inject the Leftist Ideology in the minds of most of the Bengalis. Perhaps, its seed were sown much earlier… during the Tebhaga Movement (initiated in West Bengal by the Kisan Sabha, the peasant front of the Communist Party of India or CPI) in 1946-47, Food Movement (1966) or the Naxalite Movement (1967-71). The long rule of the Left Front had given it stability in the minds of Bengalis. Hence, majority of the people in West Bengal are still highly influenced by the Leftist Ideology. When the Left Front went against this ideology and tried to take away the land of the peasants for setting up industries in 2009-11, the Government fell. Otherwise, the Left Front could have won the 2011 Provincial Assembly Elections.

Jyoti Basu, the Left Front Chief Minister

In a nutshell, the Food Movement before 1967, the anarchy due to the Naxalite Movement before 1972, the Emergency before 1977 and the Land Movement (in Singur-Nandigram) before 2011 had influenced the Provincial Assembly Elections in the past. It can’t be a mere coincidence. The Bengali voters are quite tolerant… they do not want to change the Government, unless they get frustrated. As we know that majority of the Bengali voters are highly influenced by the Leftist Ideology, they believe in redistribution of wealth and also in secularism. According to the Leftist Ideology, the State will have an important role to play in the functioning of the economy. Trinamool Congress‘ ideology has not much of a conflict with the Leftist Ideology, apparently.

On the other hand, the ideology of the BJP is completely different from that of the Leftist Ideology. As an Ultra-Right party, the BJP does not believe in redistribution of wealth and secularism. They believe in market-driven competition, and for the same reason, they are in favour of total privatisation of major State-run enterprises. All these are contrary to the traditional Bengali beliefs. That is possibly why the BJP has failed to win the 2021 Provincial Assembly Elections in West Bengal, despite the fact that Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee proved herself as an inefficient administrator even after ruling the province for a decade.

Mamata Banerjee

Analysing the verdict of 2021 Provincial Assembly Polls, The Wire online portal stated on May 4 that the Trinamool Congress’ stunning victory sent a strong message to the BJP, which made an attempt to influence the Indians with its ‘One Nation, One Culture’ view. India is still proud of its Diversity. Bengalis are inordinately proud of their culture, perhaps even chauvinistic. Others are too about their respective regional culture. However, the Bengalis make it a point to emphasise that in non-Bengali environments, for example by speaking in Bangla in the presence of others or invoking local icons in every discussion. Bengalis find it the most natural thing to do, others may find it parochial.

They call those Bengalis, who live outside the motherland as Probashi (Expatriate), and they are judged for not being quite authentic, for having imbibed other cultures and, thus, having diluted their own. In such an environment of exceptionalism, it was ambitious, if not foolhardy for the BJP to try and win the Province by pushing its Hindutva agenda and not appreciating what it is to be a Bengali. The BJP, with its one-size-fits-all strategy, did not fully grasp the essence of Bengaliness, which is an alien from the Hindutva as can possibly be imagined in a country dominated by Hindus.

At the very basic level, Bengalis are not given to worshipping Ram in the manner the BJP likes to prescribe. They do not say “Jai Shri Ram”, they are not vegetarians, and they also have no interest in the tenets of the Manusmriti. Furthermore, Bengalis certainly do not speak Hindi or care to. There is no dearth of memes and jokes about a Bengali trying to speak the language. Indeed, there is a level of disdain for those, who come from the Hindi Belt.

Bengalis, especially the Calcuttans, are proud of being cosmopolitans and their colonial connections – names of roads given by the British still visible, unlike say in Mumbai, and when a new name is given, it is after an international cultural or political figure (thus Shakespeare Sarani or Ho Chi Minh Street in Kolkata). A BJP-led Government will look askance at these. Beef is freely available in Kolkata… there are bars aplenty near Park Street in Kolkata, and the British-era clubs are proud of maintaining old colonial traditions.

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah (Modi’s Home Minister) combine, brimming with confidence, had come into the Province with everything – money, muscle, the power of Central Institutions and the National Media. PM Modi went full Rabindranath Tagore, growing his beard, but unlike the great Indian poet and philosopher, known for his Humanism and his contempt of Nationalism, failed to modify his message, and eventually descended into cheap name, calling with his mocking ‘Didi o Didi’ while referring to Banerjee. It undoubtedly got the backs of the women voters up… Banerjee’s Administration may be corruption ridden, but she is personally loved and her so-called simple lifestyle is much admired, never mind what the snooty Bhadraloks (Gentlemen) think about her.

Modi & Shah

Most of all, PM Modi and Shah were seen as Bohiragoto (Outsiders), who simply did not understand and appreciate Bengal’s unique culture. Their anti-Muslim polarisation strategy, which has proved successful elsewhere in India, did not work in a province that has not seen a major communal riot since 1947. Most of the Hindus, especially Bengalis, are Secular and do not necessarily vote on religious lines.

A Facebook post that went viral after the Polls

It, now, seems more than apparent that Banerjee would have to understand that returning to power means becoming more responsible than ever. Nearly 47% of Bengali people exercised their voting authority in favour of Trinamool Congress this time in order to keep the (intruding) BJP out of power. They have been witnessing the Farmers’ Protest in Delhi for the last one year, they did not welcome the hike in petro-prices by the Modi Government. At the same time, it is uncertain whether the Bengalis do want their Provincial Government to distribute Public Money among the local clubs (to buy votes during polls). In 2021, Banerjee has got another opportunity (the third, and maybe the final one) to test the level of patience of the Bengali community with her political myopia and appeasement of the minority community. Right now, it seems that the Bengali people have no other option, but to see further degeneration of their motherland at a much quicker pace, this time in the absence of a true leader, who could bring back the lost glory of West Bengal…

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