Politics has always been a muddy terrain of smoke and mirrors. The closely contested Battle of Bengal 2021 is a classic example of this. Led by two strong personalities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it turned into a kind of guerrilla war where everything seemed free and fair. For both sides, BJP and Trinamool, mudslinging, ridicule and ad-hominem attacks emerged as indispensable elements of the political campaign. Along with top party leaders, even political managers, analysts and journalists came under nasty attacks and name-calling for predicting victory one way or the other. Such has been the emotional investment of all the stakeholders, from political parties to civil society, from personnel in academia to the media, that anyone who made a case for dispassionate and non-partisan analysis was declared persona non grata.
These high-pitched passionate interventions seem perfectly understandable in view of the high stakes involved in this electoral battle. For the BJP winning Bengal was a now or never moment. If it fails to win Bengal now, it will be a long haul before the saffron party’s cherished aim of saffronising the biggest eastern frontier materialises. Hence, unlike Bihar 2015, the political price of a loss is too high.
For the Trinamool, this is an existential fight. Lacking both a cadre-based party machinery, a coherent ideological glue, and no charismatic leader besides Mamata Banerjee, it is highly probable that the party will disintegrate if it loses this election. No wonder, the Trinamool used all the resources under its command: hiring Prashant Kishore, giving a call for the unity of all non-BJP parties, initiating massive welfare outreach, pitting Bengali exceptionalism against the BJP’s Hindutva discourse, asserting her Hindu credentials and fielding more Dalit candidates. She showed many shades —–anger, compassion, sympathy, anxiety, confidence and even mockery. She was the lone warrior of a party that has become quite unpopular with a vast section of subalterns who have been at the receiving end of the mechanism of unparalleled corruption and political repression. A win for her and the Trinamool Congress is a must if the party is to survive in the future as a potent political force in the state.
For the Left, this election has not been about winning or losing. Rather, it was an arena to decide as to what would be their course of action in future. While the party has lost its support base, which by 2019 Lok Sabha election had decisively shifted to the BJP, there is a silver lining for them amidst the electoral irrelevancy. In the backdrop of emergence of local Trinamool structure and leadership as the prime villain, the villainous image of the Left that had taken roots in the popular psyche and in the backdrop of incidents like Singur and Nandigram, is fading fast.
In fact, a majority of the people who clamored for regime change and identified with the BJP also asserted that things were less bad during the Left rule. The layered sentiment throws a tough challenge for both the Left and the BJP in future as they may have to compete for the same electoral constituencies despite their apparent ideological incommensurability.
Finally, the process and the outcome of the battle of Bengal is largely linked to the possibility of whether there will be an anchor to the opposition forces against the BJP. This question assumed disproportionate importance in the backdrop of the perception that the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress was consistently failing to strike a popular chord with the masses. Expectedly, Mamata Banerjee, given her image as a spirited politician and giant killer, emerged as the most suited replacement for Rahul Gandhi. If she wins Bengal again, a possibility I doubt seriously, she will be the fulcrum of anti-BJP-ism in 2024. Hence, Bengal has become the democratic spectacle that people across India are keenly interested in.
However, looking beyond these aims and expectations, Bengal also revealed the extreme malleability of ideology. The Left aligned with a rabble rouser Muslim cleric without any sense of guilt. The BJP embraced the rank and file of the Left and the top leaders of the Trinamool with enthusiasm. The Trinamool didn’t hesitate in invoking regional parochialism as well as competing with the BJP on the Hindutva pitch.
Similarly, a significant section of the regional intellectual cultural elite of Bengal abandoned its love for the Left and shifted either to the Trinamool or the BJP. In so doing, they peddled the outlooks of these two parties quite enthusiastically —– a phenomenon that clearly reveals the subservience of lofty ideology to sectional interests.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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