BJP in Bengal

How the Trinamool’s identity politics ended up (inadvertently) creating space for Hindutva

Mamata Banerjee’s emphasis on subaltern identity made caste and religion a legitimate part of West Bengal's political discourse.

West Bengal is seeing a surge in the politics of religious identity that has caught many Bengalis off guard. The past few years have seen a series of low-intensity communal riots and religion acquire a new salience in politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party has conducted armed marches during Hindu festivals and the ruling Trinamool Congress, in turn, has reached out to religious leaders in order to woo Muslims.

So sharp is the rise of identity that it is being spoken of as something unprecedented in a state dominated for decades by the Communist credo of class. Yet, the politics of identity in West Bengal is not a phenomenon that arose in 2017. And the pioneer here is not the BJP – it was, in fact, the Trinamool that used identity politics to dislodge the Left from power in 2011. Even while there are significant differences between the use of identity by the Trinamool and the BJP, the rise of Hindutva has been – inadvertently – facilitated by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brand of subaltern identity politics.

The rise and fall of identity

Historically, Bengal is no stranger to identity politics. Both Hindu and Muslim nationalisms began here. Born in Kolkata in 1863, Vivekanada has been called the father of political Hinduism. Half a century later, in 1906, the Muslim League would be founded in Dhaka city. In 1947, Bengal was divided along religious lines: Muslim East Bengal going to Pakistan and Hindu West Bengal entering the Indian Union. Even Dalit politics was well developed in pre-1947 Bengal – unlike BR Ambedkar, who never saw much electoral success, Dalit leader Jogendranath Mondal fought electorally against the Congress (which he saw as an upper caste formation) during the British Raj. In the end, Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly not from his native Bombay state but from Bengal, with Mondal’s help.

Identity politics continued after 1947, with a series of riots bloodying West Bengal in the first two decades of its existence. The 1960s, however, saw the rise of the Communists. Caste and communal matters were pushed to the background and the mono-doctrine of class would dominate Bengali politics for the next four decades.

This development had two sides. It gave poor Muslims security and many Dalits land thanks to the reforms undertaken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet, it also meant that the upper caste domination of politics continued – the Left Front’s first cabinet did not include a single Dalit and its MLAs came mostly from the three bhadralok castes of Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas. In fact, there has not been a single Dalit in the CPI(M)’s politburo since its formation in 1964.

Enter Mamata Banerjee

The CPI(M)’s aversion to identity was driven by ignorance – given that its leadership was completely savarna (upper caste), it made them blind to the lived reality of lower caste groups in West Bengal. But there was another factor: it did not need identity to win elections. The Communists had their own cadre that ensured the formation of a “party-society” that broke old forms of hierarchy in the village (often based on caste) and replaced it with dominance by the party (which was itself completely controlled by an upper caste leadership in Kolkata).

Around 2007-08, this party-society would break down over the contentious issue of land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. In stepped Banerjee to oppose the Communists using this plank. However, without any functioning party machine, her new outfit, the Trinamool, turned to identity.

As reported previously in Scroll.in, Banerjee would openly reach out to the Matuas, a religious order populated almost exclusively by Dalit immigrants from Bangladesh. This was a significant change from earlier governments. Like the Congress before it, the CPI(M)’s bhadralok control had meant that Dalit immigrants had got a bad deal under the Left. Although the CPI(M) came to power on a plank of refugee welfare, once it took office it more or less reverted to the Congress position of seeing Bangladeshi refugees as a burden on West Bengal’s resources. This reached a peak in 1979, when the Left Front government ordered the police to open fire on Bangladeshi refugees staying on a Sundarbans island called Marichjhapi.

Banerjee also reached out to Muslims, giving them unprecedented visibility in a state where the community is severely disadvantaged economically. In Darjeeling, the same strategy resulted in development boards for every caste and community, in order to weaken the overall Gorkha identity.

Making caste and community politically salient helped the Trinamool break the CPI(M)’s hold over rural West Bengal and allowed Banerjee to win two Assembly elections, in 2011 and 2016. Yet, it also helped to make space, even if involuntarily, for Hindutva and, thereby, the BJP.

Mamata Banerjee leveraged the agitations against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram to break up the Left Front's 'party-society'. Photo credit: AFP
Mamata Banerjee leveraged the agitations against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram to break up the Left Front's 'party-society'. Photo credit: AFP

Unintended consequences

The Trinamool’s courting of Muslims helped the BJP attack Banerjee for appeasing the community. This appeasement included measures such as providing a stipend to Muslim clerics and posters showing the chief minister supplicating in a manner a Muslim would. In another case, the Trinamool government’s scheme to distribute cycles to schoolgirls was misrepresented as a Muslim-only scheme. Last month, the BJP even falsely claimed that Kali puja was disallowed in the state, comparing the situation of Hindu Bengalis to that of Kashmiri Pandits.

The Trinamool’s focus on Dalit politics too has helped the BJP, identified as an upper caste party in North India. The breaking of the CPI(M)’s “party-society” – where your only political identity was as a member of the Left – has meant that Dalits have started to use their numbers and caste status politically. In the case of the Trinamool, this meant the Matuas bartered their votes for development in Matua-majority regions in and around Bongaon in North 24 Parganas district. The Matuas also got the administration to informally ease their road to Indian citizenship. As a result, Dalit immigrants under the Trinamool had far more rights than under the Left.

Seeing that the Matuas are now politically active, the BJP is trying to woo them using Hindutva. Across North 24 Parganas, as reported in a previous story in this series, prominent Matuas have begun to lean towards the BJP. This could benefit the community just as their support to the Trinamool did. The BJP has declared that its policy is to support Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. In 2015, the Narendra Modi government allowed Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants to stay on in India even if they had entered illegally. The Union government has also introduced a Bill in the Parliament that seeks to award Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants automatic citizenship if they have stayed in India for six years.

This focus on Hindu immigrants – most of whom are from lower castes – means that the BJP in West Bengal is more representative of Hindu backward castes than the Trinamool or the Left. In the state’s border areas, one estimate claims “three out of four of the party’s local leaders hail from the backward castes”.

Getting back

The Trinamool has responded to the BJP’s use of identity with even more identity. Unlike the BJP, which is an ideological party wedded to Hindutva, the Trinamool has no defining creed. It was founded in 1998, forged out of a breakaway faction of the Indian National Congress, and exists almost exclusively on the popular appeal of its chief, Banerjee.

In such a situation, to fight the BJP, the Trinamool has adopted a dollop of Hindu identity itself. For example, in response to the BJP’s Ram Navami marches, some local units of the Trinamool organised functions centred around Ram’s lieutenant, Hanuman, in April 2017. Earlier, in 2015, the Trinamool had even paid tributes to SP Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh (the BJP’s forerunner), and one the most prominent supporters of Bengal’s partition.

The strongest mode of attack for the Trinamool, though, is Bengali identity. With the BJP stepping on the gas with Hindutva, Banerjee has designed a state emblem and is composing a state song, apparently to assert Bengali culture and delineate the state as distinct from North India.

Banerjee has described the BJP’s crackdown on food habits as an attempt to “import an alien culture”, given that 99% of West Bengal identifies as meat-eating. She has even tried to theologically separate the Bengali Hindus. “People here have been worshipping Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga and Kali and others for ages. Here is a party that wants us to worship a particular God,” Banerjee said, referring to the BJP’s Ram Navami marches. This while some units of the party organised functions celebrating Hanuman.

Banerjee has also made the study of Bengali compulsory in the state. In Darjeeling, this set off another movement for a separate Gorkhaland, which was also used by the Trinamool to attack the BJP as anti-Bengali. The BJP had supported the demands for Gorkhaland back when it was a non-entity in West Bengal – a stand that has come back to bite it today.

Only identity

In this bitter clash of identities, the Left ­­– still devoted to its old-style politics – continues to decline precipitously. In April, in Contai South, the BJP came in second in an Assembly bye-poll, comfortably beating the Left Front (the Trinamool won the seat). This, in an area which was once a Left stronghold and where the BJP barely has any organisational strength.

West Bengal’s future, it would seem, rests on some sort of identity politics. Either the Trinamool’s multi-polar emphasis on various subaltern identities or the BJP’s razor-like focus on Hindutva, which has done so well for it in North and West India.

This is the last in a three-part series looking at the factors powering the BJP’s rise in West Bengal and the obstacles holding it back. The other parts can be read here.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.