Sometime near the close of April, as the punishing election campaign in Bengal wound into its last stretch, a joke on WhatsApp made its way around Kolkata. It showed a picture of a woman scouring dishes on the ground, her sari hitched up to her knees, a pair of conspicuously white hawai chappals visible on her feet. The face of the woman was morphed to show Trinamool Congress chairperson and soon-to-be second time chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. The text read, “After 19 May, let us know if you need help" with the dishes.
This alleged joke was forwarded, consumed and shared with glee. It was in response to a comment that Banerjee had made at a rally in Kolkata: “If you think I have done wrong, please give me two slaps. If you say, I am ready to come and wash your dishes too, but it pinches when you call me a thief."
The joke here is that Banerjee was viewed as having admitted to what the upper middle class in Kolkata has been saying about her for some years now: She deserves to be a maid. That is her place, no more. What a shame that she holds an important public office, what a shame that she has a mandate to be there. See what happens when you give everyone the right to vote?
Loaded with layers of classism, racism and misogyny, the joke shows how much the middle class disregards the labour that props up its homes, offices, and the economy itself. Witness the panic in any middle class home the day their domestic staff is absent. The difficulty of finding good help is perhaps the most common conversation topic in affluent homes everywhere in India, not only in Bengal.
Class runs through the discourse on Banerjee like a fever of loathing. Or admiration, if you’re looking from the other side.
The term used often to describe her in Kolkata today is "jhee class" or maid class. This is a reference that can be heard across class categories, whether in drawing room conversations of the elite, or street banter, for instance, among the security guards at the Alimuddin Street office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Interestingly, the term used for Banerjee in the 1990s was paagli, or madwoman. She was the perennial rabble rouser on perpetual dharna outside the Writers’ Building, the West Bengal secretariat. "Now what is she protesting," went the popular discourse.
But there was a mote of affection in this. She was seen as unruly, crazy, and funny even – people shook their heads when they spoke of her. That changed when the Trinamool wrested power from the Left in 2011. The shift reflects the belief that Mamata is unfit to rule. She is tolerable as an Opposition leader, but not as the chief minister.
We want our ministers elegant and refined, crisp in their Bangla pronunciation and grammar, if not in English too, fully able to pronounce a project and a problem as such, not poject and poblem as Banerjee does.
Prejudice in print
Not just in the realm of gossip, this class prejudice is visible in the formal public discourse too. The front page of The Telegraph on April 27 attributed the growing support for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-Congress jote (alliance) to the Trinamool’s lack of culture. “I feel ashamed that Mamata Banerjee is our chief minister,” a CPM supporter was quoted in the piece as saying. “From BC Roy to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, our leaders were of a certain standard. Bengal was known for its culture. Now we have fallen…”
The journalist who wrote the piece reported: “Many people we meet, who invariably insist on remaining anonymous, keep talking of the sharp decline in "values" and "culture" over the past five years – never mind the overdose of Rabindra Sangeet and the visible sparkle in Calcutta streets that outsiders are wont to admire.”
Implicit here is that the Trinamool and its supporters have no civility, no manners. To paraphrase that terrific line from the film Ishqiya: “Hamara culture culture, unka culture servant class.”
This isn’t a new sentiment. Almost a decade ago, a report in The Telegraph described how Trinamool MLAs broke the furniture in the Vidhan Sabha as response to news that Mamata Banerjee had been stopped by the police on her way to Singur. The headline said: “Skin Thicker than Teak Table". The article referred to the value of the teak and mahogany furniture, which dated back to the 1940s.
Brawls and fisticuffs are common not only in the Indian Parliament but across the world. Rarely is the value of the goods broken mentioned like this. Here, the sentiment was that Trinamool legislators don’t understand the value of fine things.
The perfect subaltern
Banerjee isn’t the only leader who faces this manner of class distaste in India. In 2009, when Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, who was then the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, made her interest in the prime minister’s job known, the widespread anxiety in the English-language press was about whether she would be able to speak to international leaders in English.
“She has never been seen conversing in English,” said a piece in Rediff.com. “Her Hindi too has the rough edges of the western jat-land." The Times of India speculated that her appeal was limited “considering that the preference of a sizeable section of the population is likely to be for an urbane PM conversant with the intricacies of the economy and international affairs…”
The interesting thing, of course, is that Banerjee is not from a Dalit background like Mayawati, or even a non-upper-caste background like Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. She is, in fact, a Brahmin, a Banerjee at that – a Brahmin at the top of the Brahmin hierarchy. But despite her dressing in white handloom saris (as ethnic chic as it gets) and her promotion of Rabindrasangeet, her identity and appeal remain distinctly subaltern.
She is the politician mocked for lying about her doctorate degree, her inability to speak refined English or Bangla, her tacky fondness for Bollywood and Tollywood actors. Her distasteful comments on victims of sexual violence – she described the rape of the late Suzette Jordan on Kolkata’s Park Street as sajano ghatona (staged incident) – add to her uncouth reputation. Here is a woman leader who openly expresses misogynistic views.
In that sense then, Banerjee’s rise reflects the perfect realisation of the Communists’ determinedly caste-blind class politics. She is the embodiment of the subaltern – the proletariat that the comrades wanted to raise.
When she speaks, she speaks the aspirations of not only the Dalit or the non-upper-caste but of every marginalised, under-confident subaltern voice. And she reveals too, the perfect dread of the Communists’ politics coming to fruition.