West Bengal’s political swing from Left to Right can be tracked through the slogans heard on its streets. A state that in the 1960s used to chant “Tomar naam aamar naam Vietnam” (your name and my name is Vietnam) in solidarity with communist guerillas in the South-East Asian nation fighting American aggression has now embraced the religious slogan that expresses support for the Bharatiya Janata Party, “Jai Shri Ram”.
In between, from the mid-2000s, Mamata Banerjee, head of the Trinamool Congress Party, popularised the slogan “Tomar naam aamar naam Nandigram” (Your name and my name is Nandigram) as she led a movement against the ruling Left government to oppose the acquisition of farmland for a special economic zone.
In the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal, a surprising new set of slogans are echoing through the state.
On the weekend, the Communist Part of India (Marxist) released a parody of the popular Bengal song Tumpa Sona, a musical invitation to voters to attend a Left election campaign rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground on February 28. It went viral immediately.
The street-smart vocabulary used in the song to criticise Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress sparked a debate among Left supporters. Some asked why the Left had mimicked the Trinamool Congress in an attempt to attract popular support, deviating from the cultural high ground that has inspired socialist movements across the world.
CPI(M) legislature party leader Sujan Chakraborty was among those who supported the video. “I don’t know who is criticising it,” he said. “Cartoons, graffiti, rhymes, slogans are part of Bengal’s political culture. Parody is also part of our culture. I will congratulate those who created this video.”
Ironically, while the Left has employed subaltern language to reconnect with its lost support base, the BJP has appropriated a 19th-century Italian protest song for its campaign. It has recently released a parody video that plays off Bella Ciao or Goodbye, Beautiful. As it turns out, a Punjabi version of the anthem has gained popularity in recent weeks with those on Delhi’s borders protesting the new farm laws introduced by the BJP government at the Centre.
In Bengal, the BJP tune refers to Mamata Banerjee as “pishi” (aunt) and, rhyming with the words “bella ciao”, declares, “pishi jao” (Aunty, you go).
The BJP has pushed hard to accuse Mamata Banerjee of corruption, nepotism and playing dynasty politics. Through its lyrics and visuals, the song tries to create a sense of Mamata Banerjee’s alleged misrule in Bengal. The “pishi” or aunt reference attempts to berate Mamata Banerjee for purportedly favouring her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee.
Zaad Mahmood, an assistant professor of political science at Presidency University in Kolkata, said that the BJP might have picked up Bella Ciao because the tune has gained new popularity after being featured in the Netflix show Money Heist.
“Still, they probably overlooked the fact that Bella Ciao has been a popular song of the anti-fascist movement as well,” Mahmood said. “The BJP picking up an anti-fascist song as a parody on Mamata Banerjee is indeed an irony.”
This is the only element of Left culture that the BJP has picked up in Bengal. A recent study by a group at the National University of Singapore noted that the party has been using Left imagery in its social media campaign for the state elections – with a Hindutva touch.
This strategy, the authors of the study said in an article in The Print, is an attempt by the BJP to establish a connection with a population that revered Left politics for decades and to prove its Bengaliness. The BJP is also trying hard to counter Mamata Banerjee’s charge that it is a party of outsiders,
The BJP is not projecting a chief ministerial candidate for the Bengal elections since it does not have anyone who can match Mamata Banerjee’s stature as a mass leader. On her part, the Bengal chief minister has refrained from projecting herself as an able administrator lest the BJP turns this into a battle between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi, whose administrative talents are much touted.
Instead, Banerjee is trying to project an Everywoman image. It started with the “Didike bolo” (Tell it to Elder Sister) effort soon after the Trinamool’s Lok Sabha elections debacle in 2019. This campaign encouraged residents to pick up the phone and call a designated number to lodge complaints about their problems. The latest slogan, “Bangla nijer meyekei chay” (Bengal wants its own daughter to be elected as the chief minister) adds another dimension to Mamata Banerjee’s image.
She is no more the “satotar protik” (symbol of honesty) or symbol of Ma-Mati-Manush (Mother-Earth-the People). She is now the insider who will protect Bengal from “outsiders”.
This is how Trinamool Congress MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar put it when the new campaign was launched: “Mamata Banerjee is the pride of Bengal. She enjoys popular support. The state wants her own daughter [to be the chief minister] to protect Bengal from the evil forces.”
In addition to the Tumpa Sona and Bella Ciao parodies, a new chant, Khela Hobe (There will be a game), has also become immensely popular after a youth Trinamool leader Debangshu Bhattacharyya released a rap-like video with that title.
Bhattacharyya said that the phrase is from the writing of Rabindranath Tagore. The BJP, however, claimed it was used by a Bangladeshi minister.
“The Khela Hobe slogan was coined by Narayanganj MP Shamim Osman four years ago,” BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari told ANI. “TMC wants to turn West Bengal into Bangladesh,”
Though the slogan could refer to the “game of elections”, it is also used as a metaphor for political violence. A Trinamool Congress leader from Bhangar in the South 24 Parganas district asserted at a meeting, “Here we have 14,000 voters this time. We want all 14,000 votes…birodhishunyo khela hobe.” There will be an opposition-free game.
Innovative slogans have long been part of Bengal’s political vocabulary, said poet Anirban Mukhopadhyay. He pointed to the Left’s Amader “Bhitti shilpo amader bhabishyot” (Agriculture is our foundation, industry is our future) in 2006, Mamata Banerjee’s “Badla noy bodol chai” (Not revenge, but change) and “Hoy ebar noy never” (this time or never) in 2011 to the the BJP’s “Chup chap fule chhap” (Vote silently for flower symbol) in 2019.
“Political slogans are good fun and have entertainment value,” he said.
Despite this, he noted that political slogans are not a key element in determining voting choices. “They make decisions based on other factors,” Mukhopadhyay said. “It is just that every political party is trying to use the popular culture and popular medium to reach out to the people.”
Media educator Sambit Pal is the author of Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC (Bloomsbury India).