Breaking barriers

With the election outcome in Tripura, many stereotypes have been destroyed

  • Published 8.03.18

In 1999, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister and Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress was a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party won a by-election to the West Bengal assembly. It was the first occasion the BJP -founded in 1980 - had secured representation in the state legislature, fighting on its own lotus symbol.

The by-election was by no means a landmark event. It was not seen as indicative of any larger trend. The BJP won as a junior alliance partner of Mamata Banerjee, only to lose all seats it contested in the 2001 assembly election. The only reason why the event lingers in distant memory was a comment by the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu. The veteran communist lamented that things had come to such a pass that in his twilight years he had to even witness the presence of a BJP representative in the assembly.

In many ways, Jyoti Basu's aside was not atypical. Despite the fact that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh - the earlier incarnation of the BJP - had its origins in Syama Prasad Mookerjee's resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet in protest against the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, subsequent political developments had ensured that Hindu nationalism was somehow considered alien to the political traditions of post-Independence Bengali society. Historians may have located the early Hindu-ized nationalism of the late-19th and early-20th century in the writings of Bengali stalwarts such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose and even the early Rabindranath Tagore, but after Independence there was a sharp break with the past. Hindu nationalism, at least in the political sphere, was subsumed by the Bengali intelligentsia's growing fascination with various shades of 'progressive' thought. Even conservative politicians such as Bidhan Chandra Roy who kept their distance from Jawaharlal Nehru's economic philosophy were wary of being identified too closely with 'Hindu' causes.

Among the possible reasons for this abrupt break with the past was the post-Independence identification of Hindu nationalism with Hindi nationalism. In the 1951-52 general election, the Jana Sangh won two out its three Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal (including Syama Prasad's own victory from Calcutta South constituency). However, after Syama Prasad's death in a Srinagar prison in 1953, the Jana Sangh's cultural centre shifted to western and northern India. In particular, the orientation of Hindu politics was shaped by a blend of the Poona-Nagpur inheritance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the ethos of the Arya Samaj in northern India. Moreover, whereas the dispossessed Hindu refugees from West Pakistan provided an activist nucleus for the Jana Sangh in northern India, the refugee camps in West Bengal and elsewhere in eastern India became the recruiting grounds for the communist parties.

It is not that the Hindu nationalist tradition died out altogether. After Syama Prasad, the Jana Sangh still boasted personalities such as Acharya Devaprasad Ghose and the historian, R.C. Majumdar (who contested as a Jana Sangh candidate in 1957), but the intellectual climate grew increasingly hostile for saffron politics. Even Hindu Mahasabha stalwarts such as Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee moved away from their intellectual roots and moved sharply to the Left. Even socio-religious organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission stressed their spiritual and universalist orientation and took care to distance themselves from Hindu activism. In the progressive intellectual milieu of Bengali society, any celebration of Hinduness became synonymous with backwardness. It was regarded as very un-Bengali and symptomatic of the Hindi-speaking cow belt. Even as Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja grew in popularity and opulence, they came to be regarded as social rather than Hindu occasions. Indeed, at some point during the three decades of Left Front rule, Durgotsav quietly became Saradotsav, a process of secularization that was symptomatic of the wider changes in Bengali society.

It is in this backdrop that the outcome of the Tripura assembly election assumes momentous significance. Starting from a near-zero support base (1.6 per cent of the popular vote in 2013 and some five per cent in 2014), the BJP was able to defeat the mighty Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had ruled for the past 25 years quite decisively. The tribal voters may have been swayed by the BJP's expedient alliance with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura but it was the massive support of Tripura's Bengalis that gave the BJP its famous victory.

What has created political convulsions is not the defeat of the CPI(M), a party that has steadily been losing momentum all over the country. It is the fact that the BJP has been able to edge out all non-communist Opposition parties and win the support of the local Bengalis that has defied conventional wisdom. Mamata Banerjee, who was open in her hope that the CPI(M) would somehow prevail, has subsequently blamed the Congress (whose vote totally collapsed) and the Left for their meek "surrender". Likewise other Trinamul Congress leaders have tried to minimize the significance of the verdict by suggesting that Tripura is about the size of Howrah district in West Bengal. But these expressions of buck passing and nonchalance cannot take away the realization that in Tripura, the BJP has broken a psychological barrier. A party that didn't even have a municipal councillor has won with a two-third majority in a Bengali-dominated state.

With the Tripura outcome, many stereotypes have been broken. First, it is grossly inaccurate to attribute the BJP victory to any explicit anti-Muslim propaganda. The Bengalis of Tripura are predominantly from refugee families from erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Tripura, unlike West Bengal and Assam, doesn't have any significant Muslim population. If there was any hate politics at work, it was the accumulated hatred against the local tyranny of the Left - a phenomenon that Mamata Banerjee exploited in West Bengal. Hindu nationalism was not a factor in BJP's Tripura victory, though its existence in the larger BJP ecosystem didn't prove a deterrent either.

Secondly, refashioning the Tripura BJP from a fringe party to an electorally combative outfit involved two things: dedicated work by the RSS and a process of political co-option. The en masse move of erstwhile Congress voters to the BJP and the defection of local Congress (and subsequently Trinamul) leaders to the saffron camp are significant. They show that in politics, aesthetic misgivings can melt away effortlessly, especially when there is the additional attraction of being linked with a prime minister who is reshaping India's politics faster than his opponents can comprehend.