The Trinamool’s emphatic win and the surging support for the Bharatiya Janata Party during the recently concluded West Bengal elections will be analysed for days to come. Some commentators will highlight the role of welfare transfers. Others will lament the introduction of identity politics. Commentaries have already proliferated on the crisis in the state’s “party society”, the changing contours of bhadralok politics and the emergence of “subaltern Hindutva”.

However, the most important takeaway from the election results is that political commentators should really think hard about one key component of poor people’s politics: the role of political ideas.

Political ideas of the poor

Poor people, like everyone else, harbour political ideas about what kind of society they want to live in and how to get there. In West Bengal, conversations with the poor – in both rural and urban areas – inevitably turn to themes such as shoshan (exploitation), anyay (injustice) and atyachar (oppression). These themes cut across caste, gender and religious divisions.

They identify themselves as gorib manush (poor people) who are poor not because of past karma or kismet but because the boro lok (big people) have cornered resources and refuse to share it with others.

As one Adivasi Santhal woman in Maldah’s Tudtudiya hamlet told me when I interviewed her for my book on the politics of the poor, published in 2018, “Those who have more, get more.”

In postcolonial democracies such as India, political parties have mobilised votes in the name of the poor. As a consequence, the poor themselves have adopted ideas of justice, equality and dignity.

Such adoptions by the poor ­– the majority of whom suffer further discrimination due to their caste, tribal and religious identity – is to be expected in states where political parties have styled themselves as challengers not only to the political status quo but also the social order. These states include West Bengal under the Left but also Bihar under the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Uttar Pradesh under the Bahujan Samaj Party, Maharashtra under the Shiv Sena and Tamil Nadu under the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Demanding dignity

The poor support political parties that take the idea of dignity. The quest for dignity often brings the poor in conflict with the rich. Demanding dignity involves renegotiating status, which is inherently a zero-sum game. However, because poor people depend on elites for employment, goodwill and sheer survival, they cannot afford wholescale class conflict to liquidate their antagonists. Rather, the ensuing conflict is “agonistic” in which the different sides seek to reconfigure power relations rather than annihilate each other. West Bengal today is seeing an intensification of this “agonistic” politics between the poor and the elites.

The land reforms initiated by the Left Front triggered a redistribution of material resources, allowing the poor to renegotiate dignity vis-à-vis those who were better-off. Consequently, it was able to rule the state for an uninterrupted 34 years.

MamaBanerjee’s welfare programmes appear to have performed a similar role among the poor in the just-concluded elections. Welfare transfers aren’t merely goods: they enable recipients to renegotiate relations of power and domination. Such programmes seem to have won her the thumping support of women from poor and lower class backgrounds: 52% of poor women and 55% of lower class women appear to have voted for the Trinamool Congress, outstripping support for the BJP by almost 20% points.

Support for the Trinamool Congress among Adivasi women, arguably among the poorest women in the state, exceeded support for the BJP by almost 10 percentage points. By contrast, support for the BJP among elite women was slightly higher than their support for the Trinamool Congress. Viewed through the prism of the intersection of class and gender, the support for the Trinamool Congress among the poorest people, especially poor women, is overwhelming.

Support for Trinamool Congress among Muslims, among whom poverty levels are higher compared to other communities, is even stronger. Almost 75% Muslims interviewed by the CSDS post-poll survey reported voting for the Trinamool Congress. Such support could be attributed to Banerjee’s consistent opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, which threatens to strip Bengali Muslims of the dignity of citizenship and render them stateless.

An Adivasi women TMC supporter. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Demanding dignity: support to the BJP

Paradoxically the BJP has successfully portrayed itself as the party that offers dignity to the oppressed castes while casting the Trinamool Congress as the party of the elites. If the CSDS post-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is to be believed, support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes – who comprise the bulk of poor people in the state – more than doubled between 2014 and 2019. The 2021 post-poll survey suggests that support for the BJP among Dalits and OBCs is much higher than among elite castes.

How did the BJP achieve this? The idea of a monolithic Hindu Rashtra promises equality, respect and dignity to members of communities who continue to be discriminated against as “low caste” and “untouchable”. Arguably, this has been the party’s strategy elsewhere: research I conducted in Ahmedabad with the Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai illustrates the ways in which Dalits and Adivasis in that city find that the BJP, more than any other party, offered them respect and recognition as equal members of society. They vote for the BJP not because they are brainwashed. Instead, their vote for the party is motivated by their quest for dignity, which they believe the BJP – rather than any other – best placed to confer.

An OBC man who votes BJP. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Ideas and identity politics in Bengal

Although similar, the BJP’s strategy in West Bengal has a twist to it. As several researchers have documented, caste discrimination has been a blind spot for the Left Front, which ruled the state for 34 years. The Trinamool Congress recognised caste as a crucial factor in social life by extending 17% reservations for the state’s OBC communities but refrained from entrenching conflict in political life.

However, conflict is inescapable in democratic life, especially in the context of hierarchical social relations. Filling this void, the BJP successfully displaced the inchoate but simmering conflict between the oppressed castes and elite castes onto other cleavages- namely, Hindu vs Muslim, citizen versus migrant and Indians vs Bangladeshis.

However, it has more than met its match in West Bengal where the Trinamool Congress parried the binaries introduced by the BJP with the simple, yet evocative, cleavage of “insiders versus outsiders”. Banerjee was portrayed as Bengal’s daughter.

To be sure, both parties have elided over the simmering caste inequalities in the state. But they have both attracted significant support from oppressed communities by responding to their demands for dignity. Clearly, the poor take political ideas seriously. It is time that analysts of their politics did so as well.

Indrajit Roy is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York.