| Chariot of fire
Throughout the past year as events unfolded in Gujarat, one heard a refrain that “Gujarat is not India”. What was meant was that Gujarat is different from other parts of India in ways that make it more susceptible to the monstrous politics that has engulfed it. The defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh, a predominantly Hindu state, despite campaigning by the entire pantheon of national leaders including Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, has bolstered the notion that the Modi-brand of Hindutva politics has run its course and that the nation may now return to the comfort of elections-as-usual focussed around misgovernance and horse-trading.
Perhaps all the arguments about the “specificity of Gujarat” are true. But there is also something very tempting about the idea that Gujarat is somehow entirely different from the rest of India. It lulls us into believing that we need not worry, that the communal hatred and killings, the reaping of Hindu votes by fanning hatred against a constructed “other” in the form of Muslims — all this cannot be duplicated in the electoral politics of other states. The temptation to gratefully accept this balm is so enticing that it is all the more reason why one must consider the question, but what if Gujarat isn’t so specific after all'
During my visits to Gujarat, as I listened to the social and historical reasons put forward as to why Gujarat was supposed to be more vulnerable to the communal hate-politics of the Modi variety, it struck me that all the conditions that supposedly applied to Gujarat were the reverse of those in Bengal. It was said that Gujarat had not experienced a renaissance or social reform movement in the 19th and 20th century. Bengal, of course, was the cradle of the Indian renaissance, and pioneering social reformers of India such as Rammohan Roy or Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar were Bengalis. “Gujarat has never had any reform movement from the left,” pointed out noted human rights lawyer Girishbhai Patel. Bengal, of course, is the bastion of left politics.
Despite its economic and industrial activity, it has been noted that Gujarat does not have much of a trade union movement. Bengal in contrast may be said to suffer from an overdose of trade unionism. Bengal’s politics, however bitter and violent, is seen as a clash of political loyalties rather than caste or religious identities.
Indeed, many people outside Bengal seem to assume that Bengal, perhaps for all of those reasons, would be particularly impervious to the Modi brand of Hindutva. The “specificity of Bengal” would surely provide the stoutest shield against the politics of violence in the name of religion. But there was a problem. Through all the contrasting images of Gujarat and Bengal, I could not rid myself of the nagging possibility that all the differences might ultimately make no difference. Bengal may yet prove to be riper than most people imagine for the politics of Hindu nationalism. Its social and historical differences with Gujarat may not be relevant. Gujarat’s more advanced economy and its people’s celebrated single-minded concentration on making money could have been expected to blur communal identities and reduce the probability of violent conflicts. But this did not happen. The “specificity of Gujarat” may not be the necessary condition for creating a fertile ground for saffron politics — the “specificity of Bengal” might be sufficient.
For one thing, Bengal has already been there. That is, it has experienced longstanding communal hatred, ghastly killings by Hindus and Muslims of each other and political partition on religious lines. It all happened despite the cultural renaissance, the social reform movements and the communist tendency. Partition was the preferred alternative of Bengali Hindus who had an aversion to being ruled by Muslims in an undivided state. Some of the communist vote was also communal, designed to deny the Congress, the yes-men of Partition. Matters have been exacerbated in the decades of independence by what is perceived as vote-bank politics of a communal nature, practised by all parties including “non-believing” communists. The educated, middle-class Bengali Hindu household today seems far more segregated from Muslims of like status than before. In the past, one only had to scratch the surface in leftist, socially reformed, intellectual and cultured West Bengal to reveal a deeply ingrained antipathy against Muslims. Now one doesn’t need to scratch the surface any more — expressing hate for Muslims is no longer taboo; on the contrary, it seems to have become rather fashionable. In the drawing rooms of Calcutta, Muslims are routinely referred to by vulgar slang. Modi’s communally-laced wisecracks may find an appreciative audience here.
The saffron possibility has been obscured so far by the statistics of elections in West Bengal, long frozen in a bipolar fight between the communists and the Congress. In the state assembly elections in 1982, the combined vote-share of the Left Front and the Congress in West Bengal was 86 per cent. Twenty years later in the state elections of 2001, the combined vote-share of the Left Front and the Congress “family” — the Trinamool and the rump Congress — was still 86 per cent. In the parliamentary elections of 1998 and 1999 the combined vote-share of the Left Front and the two Congress parties was — you guessed it — 86 per cent.
However, it is only the Left Front’s vote that has really held. In the Eighties, the Left Front vote stood at 50-51 per cent. In the Nineties, it was reduced to about 47 per cent, but was still several points ahead of the Congress. In contrast, the Congress has undergone an implosion. Since 1998, the “Congress” vote is split, with Trinamool Congress taking the greater share. What is remarkable is that despite the considerable public enthusiasm for the Trinamool Congress in its early years, it failed to increase the non-communist vote-share, resulting in the old Congress vote of about 39 per cent being split between the two Congress parties. The bipolar stranglehold on vote-share, therefore, is already shattered.
The only other political movement available is that of Hindu nationalism. The BJP’s vote in Bengal was virtually zero in the Eighties. In 1991, it surged to 11 per cent, but remained stuck at 5-6 per cent in the 1996 and 2001 state elections. In the parliamentary elections of 1998 and 1999, it registered 10-11 per cent vote, but its real strength is hard to gauge due to electoral alliance. The Congress and the communists both still scoff at the BJP’s “marginal” presence in the state.
However, past electoral statistics may provide no guarantees in the face of a changing reality. The most potent opportunity for Hindutva politics in Bengal lies in the twin phenomena of widespread discontent and a coming political vacuum. While the Left Front’s vote remains “sticky”, communism is history. The Congress is devoid of ideas and programmatic vision. The Trinamool Congress provides no alternative vision while becoming tarred by association with the party of Modi and by its dependence on the benevolence of the BJP government in Delhi. The left’s failure in government and the Congress parties’ failure in opposition create a desperate need and a dangerous void in Bengal’s political future, giving a fertile opportunity to the only other political movement on offer — the sangh parivar and its brand of Hindutva.