For the First Time, an Election Is Leaving Bengali Families Divided


For the First Time, an Election Is Leaving Bengali Families Divided

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In Bengal, the writing is always on the wall. Especially during election season when witty political graffiti gives a fair idea of which way the wind is blowing. For the longest time, the breeze either blew this way or that way. You either voted for the Left Front government, or stayed at home, enjoying another day off to savour kosha mangsho with luchi followed by the mandatory siesta.   

For most of the last three decades, Bengal has been in a somewhat complicated relationship with the Centre. Furious debates over Dilli’s step-motherly treatment to the State, whether Comrade Jyoti Basu had committed a historic blunder in 1999 by turning down United Front’s invitation to become the PM, or if the Congress could ever match the strength of the cadre network that the Left Front once enjoyed are the order of the day. Today, the conversations remain more or less the same, but decision-making for Bengalis, who hate the idea of change, has become like a matha byatha (headache).

Consider this. Mamata Banerjee, who strode to power on the back of an intense land grab agitation and the promise of poriborton, and has so far enjoyed the support of the voters who worked the soils of the most fertile region in the world, has been battling some unsavoury battles on her own. Though she had cast herself as a leader of the masses and the grassroots, she has also been accused of appeasing the religious minority in Bengal, at the cost of alienating some of her own. It is widely believed that the goons that once worked for the Red bastion, are now running riot as the muscular face of her party. Buzz is, when it comes to violent elections, Bengal is the new Bihar. Reason why an assertive BJP made sure that four senior IPS officers, including the commissioner, were replaced just 38 hours before Bengal went to the booth. Under orders from the Election Commission.

The average voter, who may not be as vocal at the chai shop as he is on social media perhaps, is caught between the devil and the deep sea. Banerjee’s own brand of politics of identity, invoking Bengali pride to counter the BJP’s Hindutva push, may have been successful to some extent. But the wall could well be breached if the voters continue to stay divided and disenchanted. Urban pockets in Bengal, especially Kolkata and North Bengal, is not all about Bengali pride. It is also home to a significant number of Marwari entrepreneurs and industrialists, who feel a certain kinship – something they’ve never experienced before – with all the cow-worshipping and temple-building espoused by the North Indian political parties. The PM’s rally in Kolkata was quite a hit, even BJP party chief Amit Shah received a warm welcome. He may not have enjoyed a spontaneous outpouring of mass emotional support yet, but he has his fans. The business community, that was the economic backbone of the city, has never been at ease with the cultural snobbery of the meat-loving Bengalis. If they felt stifled during the Left rule, they feel threatened in Didi’s regime.

There have been vivid splashes of saffron in various parts of the state, not just in North Bengal.

Gone are the days when the voter in Bengal could simply vote for the Left Front or against it.

Persistent efforts by the BJP to break into Didi’s bastion, stoking the old flames of communalism that had been dormant for a while, are showing some results. In order to shed its “North Indian” and “outsider” party tag, the BJP has been appealing to Bengali sentimentality. Their attempts at muscling their way into popular consciousness on the edge of a sword brandished during a forced Ram Navami or Dussehra celebration backfired, but they have regrouped and tweaked their strategy. Besides paying public tributes to Bengali icons such as Swami Vivekananda, the party leadership is planning a door-to-door campaign during Bengali New Year, distributing sweets and saffron-coloured laddoos. They are also encouraging people to talk politics and their version of “poriborton” over cha. Not chai, mind you.

Meanwhile, Banerjee remains the canny politician, and has wasted no time in reaching out to the disgruntled. If she handed out doles and made the Biharis in Kolkata feel “at home” during Chhath Puja, she also celebrated Holi with the Marwaris last month. And now that she is eyeing the top job in Delhi, she is conducting press briefings in Hindi in the capital, getting graffiti – which until a few years ago were only in Bangla – written in Hindi, Chinese, Tamil, and Telugu, and has plastered the city with giant billboards where she is projected as the panacea to all evils allegedly unleashed by Modi & Co.

All of this means that the Bengali voter is in an unenviable position for the first time. Those of a certain vintage are regretting the fact that they voted out the dhoti-clad communist leaders and paved the way for the Dhaniakhali-clad Banerjee. The Left in Bengal has been floundering for want of charismatic leadership. With the grassroots workers having sold their loyalty to the grass-phool symbol, and their national relevance reduced to Kerala, their existence is at stake. To complicate matters, the Congress and the Left front failed to arrive at an understanding in Bengal, making way for a hair-splitting vote. Banerjee, who had earlier cosied up to the Congress, urged her people at a rally in Raiganj, to not vote for the Congress or the Left Front. “Don’t waste your vote, vote for us,” she said.

What used to be a simple exercise in saying yay or nay, now presents moral, ethical, social, and ideological challenge for Bengalis. Gone are the days when the voter in Bengal could simply vote for the Left Front or against it. Now families are split over votes. The wife might still want to see Didi in Dilli. The husband might no longer be enamoured with the Blue-wash. The young son in IT sector desperately wants to see if the famed Gujarat model can be replicated in Kolkata. And the daughter just wants to move to Bangalore or Bombay.

The peace-loving, change-resisting Bengali would perhaps love the world to go back to its pre-Modi and pre-Mamata days of equilibrium. Of debating political ideology over a cha at the neighbourhood adda and not worrying about who’s read your Facebook post about a certain top cop being grilled by the CBI.