Some political commentators have wondered why the BJP made the Bengal elections such a big deal. Former minister Yashwant Sinha puts forth the opinion on the NDTV site that it was done to nip Mamata Banerji’s national ambitions in the bud. Others felt that it was a crucial event for Amit Shah to “cement his position as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political successor …”
I acknowledge I invoke a crude image in the title of this piece. But I resort to it in earnest to show the vanity in BJP’s thinking and in its claims to sweep away Mamata Banerji.
In addition to the guesses about the BJP’s reasons for making Bengal such a prestigious khela (game), it is equally likely that the obscenely grandiose efforts were driven by the one certain character trait that drives Modi-Shah, and much of the BJP – hubris.
Call it by any other name – overconfidence, greed, arrogance, vanity, chappan-inch (“56 inches”), megalomania – it remains an issue of a bloated ego. It was a mental game, self-justifying and feeding on its own empty logic, fueled by a demoniac pompousness.
In its hubris, the BJP thought that it could make a total conquest of Bengal by means of largely an outsider-led campaign anchored in cultural markers not rooted in Bengal. Instead, it came a cropper in its stated aim though it is trying hard to sweeten the fallout by all manner of justifications.
One should know that the Bengalis had marked out the Hindi-speaking population in Bengal as “Hindustanis” long ago. All things Hindustani – especially the culture – have been suspect. Not without genuine worry, Bengalis have viewed the deleterious effects of Bollywood on their own culture, especially their language. (Fundamentalist Bengali groups, like Amra Bangali, have run rampage from time to time by defacing signs in Hindi, etc).
In a joke, popular several years ago, a Bengali father asks his son why the latter’s bath-soaps run out so much faster than his own. The son retorts by saying that the father sings dolorous Bengali songs in the shower while applying soap – he, on the other hand, lathers himself to the perkier rhythms of the Bollywood hit “Mehbooba Mehbooba.”
Irrational diktats and messaging like vegetarianism too have been fiercely opposed by the meat-and-fish-loving Bengalis.
It is said that for the longest time in Indian history, the North Indian Brahmanical cultures in the Sarasvati-Kurukshetra and Kuru-Panchala regions were hesitant to inhabit lands to the east of them, especially the one which came to be known as Magadha. Areas still farther east, like ancient Bengal, were considered even more uncouth and uncultured for the sacred Brahmanical fires. It was not till the later Vedic texts and epics that one finds areas in what is modern Bengal referred to by names such as Vanga, Gauda and Pundra.
Though Bengal underwent a Brahmanization and an Aryanization, to use two problematic terms, it retained many peculiarities of its own indigenous culture and also vestiges of its religious affiliations. Its affinity for the Shakti cult and even claims of several Tantric Siddhas (gurus, adepts) having their origins in Bengal imparted a unique flavor to the religious environment and culture of Bengal.
To think that a campaign anchored in a North Indian version of religiosity in general and Rama worship in particular would fly in Bengal was utterly foolish thinking.
Besides the reasons of barging in with an alien culture, there was another crucial factor in Bengal that repulsed the BJP onslaught – the contribution of Bengal’s Muslims who voted solidly behind the TMC. Often less in the limelight, say, compared to the northern Muslims, whom the BJP has tried to marginalize further, the Bengali Muslims are nevertheless firm in their anti-BJP sentiment. They have been bearing the brunt of the campaign by the right wing forces to malign every Bengali-speaking Muslim as Bangladeshi and they know what is at stake.
None of this is to undermine the role of Mamata Banerjee as the leader of Bengal, the perception people have of the effect she’s had in their lives, and the sheer grit with which she fought the BJP election circus. The Bengal CM has come a long way even from 2011 when she first wrested power from the CPI(M). In the early days, she was ridiculed on every front, including for her educational qualifications, a favorite sport of Indians.
It is a little hard to agree to arguments that Banerjee’s victory is entirely propped up by the bhadralok, as the case has been made elsewhere on this site. Certainly, the Bengali bhadralok vote matters and is significant. But in the 10 years of her rule, one should at least give the Muslims and the disadvantaged castes the credit for deciding who their best bet is.
Despite the BJP-wolf huffing and puffing, trying to take down her house, she managed to chase it away and has emerged stronger than ever.
The BJP has no choice but to tom-tom the so-called gains in seats it has made. But that it lost the greater battle comprehensively and humiliatingly, it cannot acknowledge.
In its attempts to malign Mamata, to ride roughshod over the culture of Bengal, to polarise the population, and to indulge in some target practice out of an outsized, inflated whim, the BJP tried to spit at the sky. Now they are trying to save face.
Aviral Anand is a writer based in Delhi NCR